At a Puerto Rican community center in Orlando two weeks ago, a parade of Republican luminaries took the stage to plug their presidential candidate en español. "John McCain es nuestro amigo," said John Quiñones, an Osceola County commissioner born in Puerto Rico ("John McCain is our friend"). "El país primero antes que la ambición personal," declared U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez ("Country first before personal ambition"). There, too, were former Florida Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez and current Governor Charlie Crist. When McCain himself arrived, he rattled off a litany of proposals tailored to the audience. He pledged his support for a referendum on Puerto Rican statehood. He eulogized the sacrifice of Latinos who served in the military. And he exalted the "cultural input" and "vitality" of Hispanics across the country. Then he concluded with the bottom line: "We have to win Florida."
The scene signals just how important some of Florida's emerging Hispanic communities are to winning the state. Though Cuban-Americans dominated the Latino electorate in Florida for decades—accounting for 70 percent of it in 2000—newer arrivals have scrambled the demographic mix. For the first time, non-Cuban Hispanics make up a majority of Florida's Latino voters (who, as a whole, account for 11 percent of the state's electorate). The groups fueling the growth: Puerto Ricans, who have mostly converged in the Orlando area, and Central and South Americans, who have largely settled in South Florida. Unlike GOP-leaning Cuban-Americans, these constituencies tend to tilt Democratic. That helps explain another milestone: registered Democrats now outnumber registered Republicans among Latinos in the state. "The increased number of non-Cuban Hispanics is becoming a really significant factor in Florida politics," says Dario Moreno, a professor at Florida International University. "Both of [the presidential campaigns] have been working them very hard."
In theory, the changes bode well for Democrats. "Republicans are so used to using the foreign policy-related angle," appealing to Cuban-Americans by taking a hard-line stance against Fidel and Raúl Castro, says Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida. "Now they need to have a domestic message"—terrain that favors Democrats these days. If he manages to capitalize on the opportunity, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama could outdo John Kerry's performance in 2004, when the Massachusetts senator captured 44 percent of Florida's Latino vote. "If [Obama] gets 55 percent, then he would pretty much ensure winning the state," says Sergio Bendixen, a pollster for the New Democratic Network (NDN) and expert in Hispanic public opinion.
Yet that won't be easy. Recent polls show Obama trailing McCain among Florida Latinos by as much as 10 points. Part of the reason: the newer groups, "while being less Republican than Cubans, are far less Democratic than their counterparts in other parts of the country," says Moreno. (National polls show Obama leading among Hispanics overall by roughly 30 points.) The state's non-Cuban Latinos have a pronounced independent streak: they account for a significant chunk of the 29 percent of Hispanics in the state who registered with no party affiliation.
In South Florida—the seat of Cuban-American power—newer Hispanic groups like Colombian- and Venezuelan-Americans are just beginning to flex their political muscle. Many of them are middle-class professionals who fled unrest in their home countries and remain more focused on the political scene there than the one in the United States. "People physically might be here, but their minds are still back home," says Republican State Rep. Juan Zapata, the first Colombian-American to be elected to the Florida legislature. "The Colombian community didn't get me elected. It was the Cuban community." But the various groups are getting more organized. Four years ago, Ernesto Ackerman founded the bipartisan Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens to promote involvement in local politics. And this year, the hard-fought presidential race has galvanized the newcomers. "There's a tremendous movement of people who want to get involved in the political process," says Fabio Andrade, a Colombian-American and Miami-Dade County co-chair for the McCain campaign.
The presidential contenders are targeting these communities. McCain repeatedly cites his support for a free trade agreement with Colombia on the stump and even paid a visit to the country's president, Alvaro Uribe, earlier this year. The Obama camp, for its part, has deployed Dan Restrepo, a Latin America policy advisor to the senator and also a Colombian-American, to meet with the Colombian community in Miami. The candidates are vying on the airwaves as well. McCain is now running a Spanish-language commercial that hammers Obama for saying he'd be willing to communicate with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. In the spot, an announcer asks, "Did you see who Obama wants to talk with?" Then footage appears of Chávez thundering, "Go to hell, you filthy Yankees!" Obama's campaign fired back with a statement that read, "We cannot afford more of the same foreign policy that has strengthened Chávez and set back U.S. leadership in Latin America, while doing nothing to break our dependence on foreign oil."
Puerto Ricans are the most coveted emerging group in the state. Second only to Cuban-Americans in number, they're U.S. citizens and thus eligible to register to vote as soon as they set foot on the mainland. And they're signing up in large numbers: they top the list of new voters registered by Democracia U.S.A., a prominent civic-engagement organization working in Florida. Puerto Ricans have clustered mostly in Orlando and nearby Kissimmee, drawn to tourism and service-sector jobs. Since many arrive directly from the island, they lack the deep Democratic tradition of their brethren in New York. "The majority of Puerto Ricans [in Florida] are by and large Democrats, but they're not as brand-loyal because island politics are so different," says Democratic State Rep. Darren Soto, who is of part Puerto Rican descent. (Back home, the main political groupings, the Popular Democratic Party and the New Progressive Party, differentiate themselves primarily on the issue of the island's status—whether it should remain a commonwealth or seek to become a state.) That has made Puerto Ricans more open to entreaties by the parties.
Puerto Ricans are a central component of the Florida GOP's long-term strategy. Senator Martinez courted them energetically as mayor of Orange County (home to Orlando) in the late 1990s. And Jeb Bush, who speaks Spanish and whose wife is Mexican, campaigned vigorously in the area during his successful gubernatorial runs in 1998 and 2002—both years in which he won the Puerto Rican vote, according to Lew Oliver, the Orange County Republican chair. Moreover, the party has been aggressive in recruiting and fielding Puerto Rican candidates for local office. When John Quiñones ran for state representative in 2002, in a district that covers parts of Orlando and Kissimmee, the GOP mustered critical support—dispatching Bush to walk neighborhoods with him and helping with fundraising and organizational resources. Quiñones won and became the first Puerto Rican Republican in the state House (in 2007, he won his current seat on the Osceola County commission). He in turn helped drive up Hispanic support for George W. Bush in 2004, when the president won an impressive 44 percent of the Puerto Rican vote statewide, according to the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University.
This election cycle, the strategy appears similar. The GOP has eight Latino candidates (most of them Puerto Rican) running in local races, ranging from state attorney to two seats on a soil and water conservation board. Many of them touted their candidacies at the McCain event in Orlando two weeks ago. By comparison, two Hispanic Democrats are competing in local contests. The Republicans are highlighting that disparity in robo-calls and local ads proclaiming, "El Partido Republicano Tiene Un Rostro Hispano" ("The Republican Party Has A Hispanic Face"). "The Republican effort to elect, promote, defend and support Hispanic candidates in Orange County is, in my opinion, the best in the entire nation," says Oliver. The Democrats "have done, in my view, a miserable job." Soto, the state representative, who's running for re-election, responds that many of the GOP candidates are "props" and "not running a serious campaign." He adds, "This election is about action, not catchy slogans."
Democrats point to some promising trends in Central Florida this time around. The party has been outperforming Republicans in voter registration in the area. And Latinos suffering from the economic crisis are in an anti-establishment mood. Soto says his polling in his district—which is about 50 percent Hispanic—shows Obama leading McCain by more than 20 points. "The biggest potential shift [in voting behavior] is still within the Puerto Rican community in Central Florida," says Al Cardenas, former chair of the state GOP. "I would say that's a work in progress at this point. But McCain starts out with significantly less percentage than Bush did in 2000 and 2004."
Add to that the fact that Obama is devoting significantly more resources to his Latino outreach in Florida than his Democratic predecessors. The effort was on display two weeks ago at an Obama campaign office in Kissimmee that buzzed with activity. A group of canvassers stopped by, bearing stacks of completed voter registration forms. A field director lined up volunteers for an upcoming neighborhood walk. And a group of phone-bank volunteers dialed up voters to pitch their candidate. "Are you supporting Barack Obama?," Wilfredo Román asked a female respondent in Spanish. She replied that she was undecided, prompting Román to launch into a spiel about Obama's policy stances. "We need to have change," he told the woman, "and it's up to us to put in the person who can bring it about."
Like their Republican opponents, Democrats are trying to re-create the political fervor that Puerto Ricans display on the island—a zeal that tends to dissipate when they arrive on the mainland. Back home, political events are festive and participatory, featuring food, music, dance and the famous caravanas—long, jubilant parades that snake through city streets. "That's what's so successful in Puerto Rico—everybody with energy and passion," says Betsy Franceschini, an Orlando businesswoman and member of one of Obama's Hispanic leadership councils. "They can participate. They're part of the process." If Florida's Puerto Ricans—and the state's emerging Latino communities in general—get anywhere near as engaged by Nov. 4, they could push either of the candidates over the top in a close contest.