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.