Puerto Ricans' electoral impact grows in Florida

Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder holds a Puerto Rican flag at a Republican campaign event at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa on January 27, 2012 in Miami, Florida.
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Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder holds a Puerto Rican flag at a Republican campaign event at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa on January 27, 2012 in Miami, Florida.
Getty Images

KISSIMMEE, Fla. - Madeline Ortiz moved here a decade ago from Puerto Rico, part of a tidal wave of Puerto Ricans who have relocated to an area once dotted with cattle farms. They were drawn by promises of good weather, low crime rates and jobs at Walt Disney World and the other theme parks in nearby Orlando.

Plus, the housing was relatively cheap: In 1978, a company called Landstar Homes started building thousands of houses in the area, which it marketed in Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican communities in New York. Today, what was once a rural county is dotted with tract-housing subdivisions and main streets on which the local Century 21 office features a sign reading, "agents needed - bilingual a plus." Osceola County, which encompasses Kissimmee, is now 46 percent Latino and rising, and most of the Latino population is Puerto Rican.

Ortiz, a nurse, came to the area when Jeb Bush was governor. She likes Bush, who has been at the forefront of an effort to convince Republicans to better reach out to Latino voters. A generation ago, the civil rights fight pushed African-Americans into the arms of Democrats; more recently, the GOP's immigration rhetoric has prompted Latinos, a fast-growing voting bloc that will help decide this swing state and others, to rally behind President Obama. Yet while it may already be too late for Republicans to turn the tide with Mexican-Americans and many other Latino groups, Puerto Ricans are a different story.

Since they hail from a U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans are less likely to be chose sides based on immigration policy. And while they tend to support Democrats, voters in Puerto Rico elected a conservative Republican governor in Luis Fortuno, who was given a prominent speaking spot at the Republican National Convention. (While Puerto Rico has no say in the general election, Puerto Ricans can vote in presidential elections soon after relocating to the states.)

Swing State Stories

Ortiz, who backed President Obama in 2008, says she doesn't yet know who she's going to vote for this year. A Medicare recipient who is fighting cancer, she says she is concerned about the future of the health care program and complains that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney "doesn't really have anything concrete to say about it." But when she talks about the federal health care law championed by the president, she compares it to socialism.

"Everyone is going to have insurance in the whole country," she said. "Good. That's good. But what about the taxes? Who's going to pay for it?"

The political map of Florida is relatively simple: The panhandle in the north votes Republican by a wide margin, while the southern part of the state (with the exception of Miami's Cuban population) swings Democrat. The battle for the state's 29 electoral votes is largely fought here in the middle, in the area known as the I-4 corridor, where 43 percent of all Florida voters live. Anchored by Tampa and Orlando, it is the largest swing area of the largest swing state, which is why Republicans held their nominating convention in Tampa despite the risk of a hurricane. On Wednesday, Bill Clinton is scheduled to hold a "grassroots event" in Orlando to drum up support for the president. And next week, both candidates are expected to hold campaign events in Tampa, though public events have not been announced.

Florida is nothing if not a swing state: There have been five presidential elections here since 1992, with two going to the Democrats, two to the Republicans, and one resulting in that epic mess in 2000. Over those five races, 32.5 million votes have been cast for president in Florida -- and the difference between the parties in total votes is just .017 percent.