Nuyoricans in Florida Could Tip the Race - If They Vote

Osceola Star

KISSIMMEE, FLA. -- Governor Mitt Romney must win Florida. If he doesn't, he'll have to sweep every other battleground state to make up for it. His campaign seems pretty confident and the most recent polls put him a few points ahead.

But at least one man thinks President Barack Obama will win the state's 29 electoral votes. The quintessential swing voter, in the quintessential swing county of the quintessential swing state, 66-year-old William Morales embodies one of Florida's fastest-growing voting blocks: The Nuyorican in Central Florida.

Wheeling a shopping cart full of green coconuts back to his car from Bravo Supermarket in Kissimmee, Florida, Morales seems confident that Latinos, and particularly, mainland-born Puerto Ricans like himself, will tip the Florida scale in favor of his pick for the White House, President Obama.

"Yes, we'll win it for him, I just know it," said Morales, smiling. Most statisticians and politicos wouldn't go as far as Morales, a retired U.S. army vet who wears thick glasses that seem to magnify the size of his eyes. But the proud Nuyorican, a recent transplant to Florida from the East Coast, did offer one insight, with which many experts would agree:

"If Romney wins Florida, it will be because Latinos didn't turn out to vote," he said.

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For decades, Florida's Latino vote has been dominated by the Cuban refugee community, which tends towards conservatism. But the tide seems to be shifting.

In the last election, the growth of the Latino community in Central Florida helped push Obama over the edge. Three out of the four counties which Bush won in 2004, but then voted for Obama in 2008, were in Central Florida -- and all three have experienced significant Hispanic population growth since then.

The most drastic change, however, was in Osceola County, where voters gave 53 percent of their vote to Bush in 2004, and 60 percent of their vote to Obama in 2008. In 2011, nearly 60 percent of the residents in Osceola's biggest city, Kissimmee, were Hispanic, and the largest portion were Puerto Ricans. In just 10 years, census data shows, Osceola grew 56 percent, in large part due to Nuyorican migration to the area.

"They came mostly because of family, and also because of jobs here," said Guillermo Hansen, the director of the Hispanic Business Council in Kissimmee/Osceola. Hansen said that three hurricanes that hit the area in 2004 created huge labor demands that were filled by Nuyoricans who migrated from New Jersey and New York.

"Before 2004, here in Osceola County there were seven tiling companies," Hansen said. "And now, there are 35 tile companies. Hardly anyone in this county was free from damage -- we needed them."

Puerto Rican voters are a unique group compared to other Latinos, because as citizens by birth, issues like immigration reform are not necessarily as pressing as for other Hispanics. That tough immigration rhetoric from the Republican party during the campaign has pushed some Hispanics away from supporting Romney.

Still, boricuas, much like the rest of the U.S. Latino population, tend liberal. And Nuyoricans are even more liberal than those born on the island.

However, the potential of the Nuyorican voting block is a lot more exciting for Democrats than the actuality: They don't show up to vote.

"Puerto Rican turnout hovers around 40 percent on the mainland but is more than twice that on the island," Stanford professor of political science, Gary Segura, wrote in Daedalus journal this fall. In fact, Puerto Ricans lag considerably behind most other Latino groups in the U.S., despite their high participation on the island.

The low turnout likely has to do with differences in electoral institutions and party mobilization tactics, according to UC Irvine political science professor Louis DeSipio, who studied the trend in 2006. Whatever the reason, the trend is notable.

"They all vote over there, but not here," said Luis Rodriguez, a San Juan native who lives on the island, but is visiting a friend who cuts hair at the Puerto Rican-owned MVP Haircuts in Kissimmee. "They just aren't as passionate about the politics over here."

Still, some pollsters say that the Latino vote could spell victory for Obama in states like Florida.

"If Latinos turnout at the high rates we are expecting, they could deliver Nevada, Colorado, Florida and Virginia to Obama," Matt Barreto, principal investigator for Latino Decisions, said Monday.

Even if the Hispanic vote doesn't push Florida to the Democrats this time around, changing population demographics suggest that the state may not be red for much longer. The Hispanic population is booming -- nearly 17 percent of the U.S. is now Hispanic -- but most Latinos are still young. Of Latinos who are citizens, more than 40 percent are under the age of 18.

Eleven-year-old Juan Sebastian, who is getting his hair cut at the barbershop, says that if he could vote, he'd vote for Obama.

"Florida es muy Republicano, pero vamos a cambiar eso," says Juan Carlos Hernandez, Juan's father, looking on as the barber trims his son's hair. Translation: Florida is very Republican, but we're going to change that.

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"Mi hijo será parte del cambio," he says. "My son will be part of this change."

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