An aerial photograph of Disney World in Kissimmee, Florida
If you want to know what’s different about Florida, both in general and in this election cycle, just ask José López. The organizer and leader of a laundry workers’ union that’s part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), López has been walking precincts as part of SEIU’s campaign to re-elect President Obama since mid-summer. One day, as he was chatting with an elderly man on his doorstep, his canvassing partner interrupted and asked López, “How much do you know about snakes?” A rather large snake, it seems, had slithered between López’s legs.
The elderly gentleman, who, like hundreds of thousands of new Florida voters, had migrated from Puerto Rico to the Orlando metropolitan area, excused himself, returned carrying a machete and proceeded to hack the snake not entirely to death. “The machete was too dull,” says López, shaking his head. “He ended up just beating that poor snake to death with that thing.”
“Old Puerto Ricans,” López sighs. He’s a Cuban-American himself, born and raised in New York’s Washington Heights, but he’s followed the geographic and political trajectory of New York’s very liberal Puerto Rican (or Nuyorican, as it’s come to be called) community, which has seen tens of thousands of its members move to the fast-growing I-4 corridor in central Florida over the past decade. Add these migrants from the North to the migrants from the South, and you have the reason why President Obama won Florida in 2008, and might just win it again this November.
Florida has long been a political anomaly: the one state where Latinos voted Republican. For decades, the state’s Latino population consisted chiefly of Cubans, who, like most refugees from Communist nations, tended toward conservatism. As recently as 20 years ago, about 80 percent of the state’s Latinos were Cuban. Today just 30 percent are—the rest are chiefly Puerto Rican, along with others from South America and Mexico. The diminished political weight of the Cuban community, one leading Florida Democrat points out, was evident in Monday’s presidential debate on foreign policy. “The debate was held in South Florida,” he says, “but it was the first presidential debate in decades with no question, no discussion, on Cuba.”
The transformation of Florida and its Latino community is still a work in progress, but the state has already been substantially remade. The coming of Disney World to Orlando decades ago created a burgeoning, largely low-wage tourism and service sector in what was then the sparsely populated center of the state. Developers churned out miles of one-story tract homes, abutted by the occasional trailer park and the ubiquitous strip malls. In the mid-'90s, Puerto Ricans from the North began to retire in the Orlando area. In Puerto Rico proper, a change to the federal tax code in 1996 began an exodus to Orlando as well. “A loophole had permitted drug companies that manufactured their products in Puerto Rico to avoid federal income taxes” says Darren Soto, a former Nuyorican who represents the Osceola County part of metro Orlando in the lower house of the state legislature. “When that loophole was closed, a number of Puerto Rican factories were closed, too, and migration from the island picked up here. Puerto Ricans heard this was a happening place and they began to build a critical mass here.”
The change is most apparent in Osceola County—until the past 20 years, home to several sleepy Southern towns. In recent years, though, Osceola has been booming. Between 2000 and 2010, its population grew by 56 percent—largely through the addition of Puerto Ricans to the local population. In those ten years, the county’s Hispanic-origin population increased from 50,727 (29.4 percent of Osceola residents) to 122,146 (45.5 percent of Osceola residents). The changes in central Florida have created a radically transformed state: In 1980, just 8.8 percent of Floridians were Latino. In 2010, 22.5 percent were.
The old Osceola hasn’t gone away. Roughly 40 percent of the county is white, a mixture of longtime Southerners and Northern transplants. As in much of the nation, the white population is a good deal older than the Latino. One evening this week, roughly half the volunteers in the Romney campaign’s Kissimmee office were elderly whites, many of them appearing to be at least 75. For that matter, the executive committee of the Osceola Democratic Party contains no Latino names.
The Puerto Ricans who migrated to Florida aren’t immigrants. They’re U.S. citizens, and all they need to do to vote is register. By 2008, the Puerto Rican surge had already transformed the state’s politics. Just four Florida counties that voted for George W. Bush in the 2004 election voted for Obama in 2008, but three of those four were in the I-4 corridor. The biggest flip came in Osceola, which had given 52 percent of its vote to Bush, and then gave 54 percent of its vote to Obama four years later.
Soto, who is now running for a state Senate seat in a newly drawn district that encompasses most of Osceola and portions of adjoining counties, acknowledges, “I wouldn’t be in the least competitive if I’d run in this district ten years ago. Then again, ten years ago, there weren’t remotely enough people in this area to form a district."
Four years ago, with a surge of support from central Florida, Obama carried the state over John McCain with 51 percent of the vote. Even with the recession, which decimated the local economy, central Florida has continued to grow: Osceola County’s population increased by 3 percent between 2010 and 2011. Not surprisingly, in the campaign’s closing weeks, the fastest growing region of America’s largest swing state is swarming with voter-mobilization drives and drowning in political advertisements.
The Obama campaign’s advertising on Spanish-language television and radio places a good deal of emphasis on Mitt Romney’s opposition to the DREAM Act, which it contrasts with the president’s creation of a way for young undocumented immigrants to legally remain in the country. Somewhat surprisingly, however, this isn’t the predominant, or even primary, focus of the campaign’s Spanish-language ads.
One such ad begins with footage of Romney accepting the GOP presidential nomination and then quickly enumerates the consequences of a Romney presidency. “Up to two million Hispanic students could see their Pell Grants cut by $1,000,” the narrator says. “Thousands more would lose their federal work-study” grants. The ad then cuts to Romney issuing his immortal line to a prospective college student: “Borrow money if you have to from your parents.” It then points out that Obama doubled money for Pell Grants and used his 2009 stimulus to invest in community colleges.
The president’s Spanish-language ads stress three points of difference with Romney: their positions on undocumented immigrants, on affordable education, and on affordable health care. “It’s our people particularly who don’t have health coverage,” says Yulissa Arce of Mi Familia Vota, one of numerous Latino voter-mobilization projects at work in Central Florida. Employed disproportionately in small businesses, restaurants, tourism, construction, and domestic work, Latinos have been stuck with the jobs that don’t have benefits. Polling has also repeatedly shown that Latinos are fiercely committed to affordable education as well. Several of the campaign’s ads intercut shots of Latinos in mortarboards, classrooms, and libraries with shots of Obama talking about lowering the rate of student loans.
Canvassing in Osceola County
Most of these ads have aired not just in Florida, but in other swing states with significant Latino populations, Nevada and Colorado in particular. One plainly crafted just for Florida, and really just for central Florida’s Puerto Rican voters, focuses on Obama’s appointment of Nuyorican Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, noting that Romney opposed her appointment.
In their own way, Romney’s Spanish-language ads also acknowledge Hispanics’ concern for the issues of health care and education. One ad lays the blame for rising tuition on the president. The other puts into Spanish Romney’s (deliberately) erroneous claim that Obamacare will cut Medicare by more than $700 billion. On immigration—well, the less said by Romney the better, though his campaign does have one ad vowing that he’ll find a bipartisan solution (no hint of what it may be) to the immigration conundrum.
While Puerto Ricans don’t live under the specter of deportation that haunts undocumented immigrants, the Republicans’ opposition to the DREAM Act and their campaign to suppress the Latino vote has created an obvious opening for Obama’s campaign that his supporters—such as Ralph Suárez, Jose López’s fellow SEIU canvasser—don’t hesitate to exploit. Encountering potential Obama backers whose commitment to actually vote sounds weak, Suárez tells them they are doing just what the Republican vote suppressors want. “They think we’re not informed, that we don’t know enough to care enough,” he says. “That’s why we have to vote. That’s why I’m out here.”
Suárez is just one of many precinct-walkers who are out there. “Obama has an army on the ground. We have an army on the ground,” says Soto, whose own Osceola campaign has had at least 20 people walking for it every weeknight since June. Statewide, the Obama campaign has 103 campaign offices to the Romney campaign’s 47. SEIU alone says its walkers and phone bankers have talked to 222,000 Floridians since summer, the vast majority Latino and black. A host of Latino voter-mobilization groups—the National Council de la Raza, Mi Familia Vota, the Labor Committee for Latin American Advancement and many others—have registered tens of thousands of voters along the I-4 corridor. Most of these organizations cannot legally support a particular candidate due to their tax status, but they can distribute literature that compares the candidates’ positions on issues of concern to Latinos. The latest Mi Familia Vota pamphlet, for instance, lays out the candidates’ respective positions on the DREAM Act and Pell Grant funding and lets the voter draw her own conclusion. The television network Univision has also committed resources to getting Hispanic voters to the polls.
Just how big a bump Obama will get from all this activity remains to be seen. Puerto Ricans from the island, while more liberal than the Cubans, are more conservative than their Nuyorican counterparts. Latinos who belong to evangelical churches, as a sizable minority of Florida Latinos do, tend to place greater emphasis on social issues than Latino Catholics. But the voter suppression and DREAM Act opposition are a punch to the gut even for many evangelicals.
The Romney campaign knows it can’t lose the Latino vote by a three-to-one margin, as some national polls have indicated it may, and still win the White House. Romney is coming to Kissimmee, in the heart of Osceola County, on Saturday for a rally with Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who carried Osceola County in 2010 when voter participation fell to half the level of 2008. Central Florida’s economy remains badly depressed, as all the shuttered stores, restaurants, and motels along Kissimmee’s Highway 192 make abundantly clear. Romney’s commercials highlighting the economy’s ongoing travails certainly resonate in Osceola.
But the I-4 corridor’s continuing transformation and the Republicans’ continuing nativism means that Obama’s support among Florida Latinos will almost surely increase over his 2008 levels. One senior Latino Democratic consultant is confident that Obama, who got 57 percent of the state’s Latino vote in 2008, will up that total to 60 percent “or a little more” this year.
Whether that’s enough of a bump to make a difference may depend on the Democrats’ ground game—and the Florida Latino consultant worries that precinct-walking isn’t as effective a mobilization tool with Puerto Ricans as it is with those born in the U.S. “There’s not much of a tradition of taking political cues from strangers in the Latino immigrant world,” he says.
Well, perhaps. The repeated successes of the union-led voter mobilizations within Southern California’s huge Mexican immigrant community suggest that this is not a universally applicable rule. And in two very different Puerto Rican neighborhoods in Kissimmee earlier this week, precinct walkers had no trouble bonding with the Puerto Rican expats who came to the door. SEIU’s López canvassed a working-class neighborhood that had obviously fallen on very hard times. The blocks he traversed had all the disorders of a suburban barrio—its streets lined with run-down 50-year-old tract homes, tattooed young men hanging out in front yards, puttering with similarly run-down cars. López was in his element—explaining to an attentive tattooed brigade why early voting was preferable to voting on Election Day, walking a young mother through the mysteries of the absentee ballot, even helping get assistance for a woman with a disabled son, frantic that her power had been turned off.
A volunteer precinct walker tries to convince an undecided voter.
The following afternoon, a pair of Obama canvassers walked a precinct in a decidedly more upscale neighborhood—Lakeside, a planned community of tract homes built in the mid- and late-'90s alongside a series of both man-made and natural lakes. No tattoos, no old cars in Lakeside, where the streets have names like “Emerald Pointe.” And Carmen, a retired nurse with a grandmotherly manner, played Lakeside like she owned it.
Born in Puerto Rico but raised in New York, Carmen began her doorstep conversations in English, but usually segued into Spanish after a brief exchange convinced her that Spanish would make her both more intelligible and more reassuring to the people she met. So reassuring, in fact, that Nancy, a young woman just home from work, sat down with Carmen on a bench in front of her house and had her painstakingly explain all the ballot measures (as written, unintelligible in both English and Spanish) facing Osceola voters.
In a sense, both López and Carmen had taken on the introduction-to-American-democracy role that the old big-city-machine operatives, at their infrequent best, performed as they padded their way through the immigrant communities of 1910. And on the street she’d been assigned to canvass in Lakeside, Carmen was finding the kind of neighborhood solidarity that would have gladdened a Tammany ward heeler’s heart.
Carmen’s contact sheet contained only the names of registered Democrats. But—almost unheard of in the annals of precinct walks—there were registered Democrats at every single house on her side of the street: no Republican households; no unregistered voter households; no sorry, they moved away households. Only one voter said she was still undecided. (“We’re praying on it and will see what God gives us,” the woman said; Carmen marked her down as a Romney voter.) On this one evening on this one street, Lakeside was looking like an improbable mini-reincarnation of Brooklyn’s Brownsville circa 1936, which, under the ministrations of Tammany boss Hymie Shorenstein, gave Franklin Roosevelt a majority of 60,000 to 3,000 in his first re-election campaign.
Like the Eastern European Jews of long-ago Brownsville, the voters of Lakeside kept bringing up their kids’ prospects—whether their children and grandchildren would receive—could afford—the kind of education that would be a ticket to the middle class, the upper-middle class. Like immigrants of yore, they preached the gospel of work. Nancy, who gets up at 3 a.m. every weekday to get to her job, said she “resents people who don’t want to work and live off the government”—but called the president “my Obama,” and promised that her extended Orlando-area family, 80 strong, would all vote for the president.
Unlike the legendary Hymie, Carmen had no jobs to dispense, no holiday turkeys—just a cajoling ability to turn out her ward to vote early, though not often. But the combination of Obama’s policies and the Republicans’ willful denigration of Latinos looks likely to produce the same half-policy-oriented, half-ethno-cultural Democratic surge among Florida’s Puerto Ricans that once characterized the Democratic immigrant communities of the New Deal era. Whether that will be enough to put Florida in Obama’s column we’ll know soon enough.