Politics

How Latino Voters Have Shaped the Story of the 2012 Elections

Cuban-Americans aren’t the only Latinos candidates need to woo in Florida. Puerto Ricans also command attention.

Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Nov. 2, 2012, 6:55 a.m.

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.’ “

ROM­NEY PIVOTS

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.

ROMNEY PIVOTS

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.

“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.”

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.”

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.

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 Flor­idaIn­t­er­na­tion­al 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 ofCuba 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 ap­peared in the Sat­urday, Novem­ber 3, 2012 edi­tion of Na­tion­al Journ­al.

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