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.