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 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 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.