ORLANDO, Fla.—Three months ago, the president of the United States came to a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria here called Lechonera El Barrio, posed for pictures, and left with a $6 plate of pulled pork, rice, and beans. It was a homecoming of sorts for prodigal son Barack Obama, who in 2008 swept the fast-growing Hispanic community in central Florida that is remaking politics in the nation’s largest swing state.
Unlike the Cuban-American Republican stronghold in Miami, the mostly Puerto Rican population in this area leans Democratic but swings to both parties, favoring Republicans such as former President George W. Bush and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Over tables heaped with garlic-heavy Puerto Rican dishes such as mofongo and carne frita, interviews at Lechonera and other hangouts turned up disenchantment with the president but also found widespread suspicion of GOP nominee Mitt Romney because of his hard line against illegal immigration.
Darren Soto, a Puerto Rican Democrat representing this bellwether community in the Florida House, said that polling for his own race shows the president way ahead of Romney but running a point or two behind his 2008 landslide. “[Voters] are not romantic about Obama like they were in 2008, and Romney has committed far more resources than John McCain did, but they definitely favor the president,” Soto said. “The problem for Obama is that he really has to crush it, while Romney only has to hang tough.”
Indeed, Obama’s reelection depends largely on whether he can maximize votes from friendly blocs of Hispanics, African-Americans, college-educated women, and young people—only this time as a graying incumbent weighed down by a dubious economic record instead of buoyed up as a hope-and-change-preaching senator making history.
Demographic trends are moving in Obama’s favor. Four million more Hispanics are eligible to vote in 2012 than were in 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In a recent interview with The Des Moines Register, the president called immigration reform a top priority and said, “A big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.”
Regardless of the outcome, the Hispanic vote will be one of the most important markers of the parties’ futures, pointing the way to newly competitive battlegrounds in traditionally Republican states across the country. Add conservative movement icon Grover Norquist, the antitax crusader, to the growing list of prominent Republicans who are sounding the alarm.
“The Republican Party has got to reintroduce itself to the Hispanic community and seriously address immigration, and it has got to happen for both economic reasons and the political health of the party,” Norquist said. “Too many voices in the Republican Party have come across as shrill and harsh. They thought they were discussing immigration, but what Hispanics were hearing was, ‘I wish you weren’t here.’ ”
The story of the Hispanic vote in 2012 is, in many ways, the story of this presidential campaign.
Seeking a wedge issue that would allow him to outflank his more conservative rivals in the Republican primary, Romney seized on illegal immigration. He hammered Texas Gov. Rick Perry for backing college-tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants, and he bashed Newt Gingrich for supporting “amnesty.” Romney vowed to veto a Democratic version of the Dream Act that would legalize the presence of children brought illegally to the U.S. and advocated “self-deportation” of undocumented workers. His tough rhetoric played well with white conservatives who dominate Republican primaries but sank his ratings with Hispanic voters.
For months, the Romney campaign insisted that the struggling economy would drag down Obama’s appeal among Hispanics and other swing voters. No matter that Obama and his allies were pounding Romney on Spanish media. No need for Romney to make targeted appeals to Hispanics, beyond pointing to the higher unemployment rate in their community. The highest-profile Hispanic elected official in the country and the grassroots favorite to be Romney’s pick for vice president, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, was passed over in favor of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
It wasn’t until the race’s homestretch, when the GOP ticket was still struggling to overtake an economy-defying Obama, that Romney started softening his platform’s sharp edges—not just on immigration but on women’s issues, taxes, the role of the federal government, and national security. Romney started championing a “bipartisan” approach to immigration reform; after avoiding the question for months, he said he would not repeal the temporary visas granted by the Obama administration to children brought to this country illegally. He increasingly voiced support for an alternative Dream Act that would grant citizenship to young people who join the military.
Last week, as part of a more robust Spanish advertising campaign launched after the GOP national convention, Romney began airing an ad that promised “to achieve permanent solutions for undocumented youth.” Starring in Romney’s other Spanish ads are popular Hispanic figures such as Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuno and Rubio, who is Cuban-American.
Whether Romney’s outreach is too little, too late will become clear on Nov. 6. The Hispanic vote could be determinative in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and other toss-up states, and it will shape the outcome in battlegrounds with much smaller but growing Spanish-speaking populations, including North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In Ohio, the state that could turn the entire election, Hispanic voters make up only 2 percent of the electorate. But both campaigns, as well as two pro-Obama groups, have aired Spanish-language ads there.
“President Obama’s first campaign was savvy to the growth of Hispanic voters in states that weren’t on the radar before, and the Romney campaign has also showed an understanding of that this cycle,” said Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a center-right advocacy group.
FEELING LIKE OUTSIDERS
Not far from the bright lights and colors of Epcot, Disney World’s international theme park, is a more sprawling and less sanitized Latin American community. Even the white, non-Hispanic politicians have campaign billboards in Spanish here. Latin music is all over FM radio; basic foodstuffs from the island, such as plantains, yucca, and mango, are abundant in grocery stores.
Lunching one afternoon at Puerto Rico’s Café with her family, 40-year-old Jessica Smith recalled the thrill she felt helping to elect the first African-American president in 2008. Many Hispanics with ties abroad felt a kinship with Obama, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. “I thought he was going to change everything,” Smith said. “Obviously, that was not the case.”
“The state of the economy, it’s not getting any better,” said Eddie Burgos, a 37-year-old financial adviser, sitting at a table nearby. “I’m more optimistic about what Romney can do to turn things around. I don’t want more of the same.”
Smith, a Christian who homeschools her two children, was particularly disappointed when Obama came out in favor of gay marriage (although a recent Pew Research Center poll found that Hispanic support for same-sex marriage has risen substantially). Yet Smith is reluctant to commit to Romney. Why? “He and his party act like they want nothing to do with Hispanics and immigration,” she said.
That sentiment came up again and again in interviews with Orlando-area voters. Even though immigration matters do not directly affect Puerto Ricans, they understand what it feels like to be seen as outsiders. “Even though we are citizens, we feel for other people who aren’t, and some of them are our friends and like family to us,” Smith said.
Immigration is a more pressing concern for the Dominicans, Venezuelans, Colombians, and Mexicans who make up the rest of central Florida’s Hispanic community. They, too, lean Democratic but swing between both parties. “Had I not gotten lucky along the way, I would be one of those people who need the Dream Act, and Romney wants to veto it?” said Diana Fis, a 27-year-old law-school student from Venezuela who was undocumented until she married her American husband. “There are a lot of kids that want to give back to this country, this land of opportunity, and I’m an example of that. I can’t support someone who goes against my people.”
Romney had the opportunity to clarify his position on the Dream Act in the second debate with Obama. “The kids of those that came here illegally, those kids, I think, should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States, and military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident,” he said. He also stepped up criticism of Obama for breaking his campaign promise to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.
But with polls showing Obama’s lead among Hispanic voters nationwide at 45 to 52 points, it appears that Romney’s earlier, strident calls for border security left a mark. What’s more, the hostility that some Hispanics perceive bleeds into a perception that Romney doesn’t care about the poor or middle class. Democratic attacks on his plan to perpetuate tax breaks for the wealthy and on his career as a venture capitalist have sunk in.
Rachel Figueroa, 19, waits tables at a restaurant owned by her grandmother to help pay her tuition at Valencia College. “I don’t believe Romney is going to work to help the middle class. He’s for the top 1 percent,” she said. Her impression was formed when Romney advised some Ohio college students in April to borrow from their parents. “I’m sure Romney can afford to do that, but my parents can’t,” Figueroa said.
Over 850,000 Puerto Ricans live in Florida, more than in any other state other than New York, with the largest concentration in central Florida. But while polls show they favor Obama (a Florida International University survey pegged support for him at 61 percent), their votes are not guaranteed. In 2008, only 50 percent of eligible Hispanic voters cast ballots, compared with 65 percent of blacks and 66 percent of whites, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Cross off David Quintero, 28, who says he won’t vote in 2012. It took him four long months to find a job as a waiter when he moved to Orlando from Virginia earlier this year. To Quintero, both Obama and Romney are mouthing empty words.
“The challenge is really getting out the Puerto Rican vote, especially these first-generation voters who are just getting established and finding a good job and trying to send their kids to school,” said Lynnette Acosta, a Puerto Rican information-technology manager in Orlando who is one of 35 national cochairs of the Obama campaign. After back-to-back media interviews one recent afternoon, Acosta was slated to do a conference call with a group of Puerto Ricans who live on the island—and can’t vote in the presidential election—but want to make phone calls to help get out the vote in Orlando. Her house is stocked with bottled water for the volunteers who pick up voter lists and campaign literature before canvassing neighborhoods.
The Obama campaign maintains that its vaunted ground game from 2008 is even more extensive in 2012 and features 103 offices around the state (24 in largely Hispanic neighborhoods). Romney has half as many offices.
But what Romney lacks in square feet, campaign volunteers such as Julio Quinones are making up for in sweat equity. The 22-year-old Valencia College student drives a 1996 Ford Explorer with no air conditioning, voters lists tucked underneath his windshield visor. He’s been harassed by Obama supporters and nearly bitten by a police dog while out canvassing. He wore a wide-brimmed hat to shield him from the sun as he walked door-to-door one afternoon.
“Did you hear Romney say in one of the debates that 50 percent of college students can’t find jobs? That’s crazy,” said Quinones, who is studying horticulture. “I think I’ll feel more comfortable if Mitt Romney is in charge.”
Quinones comes from a solidly Republican, Cuban-American family that represents the longtime face of the Hispanic vote in Florida. But the explosive growth in the Puerto Rican population—from 482,000 in 2000 to 850,000 today—is diluting the Cuban-American community’s influence. Cuban-Americans make up 32 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida, while Puerto Ricans compose 28 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Courting the Hispanic vote in Florida once meant a trip to Miami for a cortadito and a declaration of Cuba Libre! Now it also involves a more economically framed pitch here and in nearby Kissimmee, where Romney campaigned with Rubio last week.
“I’d been looking forward to being here with you today,” Romney said. “I wanted to be able to speak a little in Spanish, but Marco did that for me, and I appreciate that.”
This article appeared in print as “Shades of Brown.”
This article appears in the Nov. 3, 2012, edition of National Journal.