BY KATE SANTICH
ORLANDO – The Pulse gunman’s attack on a gay nightclub may have inspired a level of political activism that even the fight for marriage equality did not — potentially spurring Central Florida’s LGBT community to turn out en masse on Election Day.
Given recent polls that show the presidential race to be a virtual tie in the Sunshine State, some say gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender voters could be a deciding factor.
“You cannot deny that (LGBT) issues are a central if not defining difference in many parts of the country, including a state that saw such tragedy in June,” says Jay Brown, communications director for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign. “We are organizing a massive get-out-the-vote effort, and Florida will be a key state for us.”
Considered the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, with more than 1.5 million members and supporters nationwide, the group held a training session in Orlando in August — part of its #turnOUT 2016 campaign to register and mobilize LGBT and pro-equality voters in battleground states.
The group cites exit polls showing nearly 80 percent of LGBT voters backed President Barack Obama in 2012 and that roughly 6 million such voters cast a ballot in an election where Obama won by just under 5 million votes.
Florida had the closest margin of all, with less than a single percentage point between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
“You could have people who ordinarily wouldn’t turn out, but do in this case because of the Pulse shooting — not just among the LGBT community in general, but especially among the younger demographic, 35 and under, who traditionally don’t turn out in great numbers, gay or straight,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at University of Central Florida.
Clinton or Trump?
The June 12 shooting, which left 49 people dead and at least 68 wounded, claimed a disproportionate number of victims in their 20s and early 30s. Many were Hispanic — another group that Jewett said may be more likely to vote as a result.
If so, most analysts agree, they’ll be far more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump.
But Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said that for other voters the shooting’s impact can cut both ways.
“The Orlando massacre has become a symbol of the two components of fear over personal safety that we see as a big part of this election — random shootings and terrorism on American soil,” she said.
Those more concerned about gun violence tend to support Democrats in general and Clinton in particular. Those who most fear terrorism on American soil tend to lean Republican and support Trump, she said.
A landmark 2012 Gallup poll of LGBT Americans, considered the most in-depth of its kind, found that 44 percent of LGBT voters identified as Democratic, 43 percent as independent, and 13 percent as Republican — though 20 percent described themselves as “conservative or very conservative.”
“I am gay, I am a registered Republican — and I will be voting for Hillary Clinton,” said Antony Larry of Orlando. Larry, in his late 20s, said he once was a conservative activist but now considers himself a liberal.
“What I’m seeing is that a lot of my friends who before just weren’t interested in politics are definitely going to vote,” he said. “They especially want to vote against (U.S. Senator) Marco Rubio, not because he is a Republican, but because of what he did and the way he used Pulse for his own agenda.”
On the second-month anniversary of the massacre, Rubio was a featured speaker at the “Rediscovering God in America Renewal Project” in Orlando, where he emphasized his opposition to same-sex marriage but told fellow Christians to “love” and understand LGBT people.
The event also featured Mat Staver, founder of the Maitland-based Liberty Counsel, often labeled an anti-LGBT hate group.
Rubio has defended his views and the speech itself and said both sides have a right to freely express their opinions. “This intolerance in the name of tolerance is hypocrisy,” he said.
Equality Florida — the statewide LGBT civil-rights group — issued a statement condemning Rubio’s actions, though it typically steers clear of endorsing candidates at the federal level.
Michael Farmer, the group’s statewide deputy development director, said membership has soared following the Pulse shootings, to more than 265,000 residents throughout Florida.
As the first organization to establish a fund for Pulse victims, Equality Florida also raised $7.8 million within a few weeks via GoFundMe.com, the most successful campaign in the platform’s history.
Nearly half the group’s members are straight but support LGBT civil rights, Farmer says.