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Influx Of Puerto Ricans Changes Fla.'s Voter Calculus

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Florida is a perennial battleground state in presidential elections. And within Florida, the area around Orlando is a battlefield where the terrain has changed radically.

It used to be a tossup. But four years ago, Barack Obama won in Orlando — or technically in Orange County — with 59 percent of the vote, a margin of almost 80,000 votes.

What happened in Orlando?

There were several things: The Democrats registered a lot of black voters. Obama ran well among independents. But the biggest difference was the number of new arrivals to the area.

"In the three-county Orlando metropolitan area, the population has grown by 460,000 in the last decade," political scientist Rick Foglesong of Rollins College tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "Of that, 250,000 was Puerto Rican."

There are now almost as many Puerto Ricans in Florida as Cubans. And around Orlando there are far more. They trend Democratic.

So the question here isn't, "Which party will carry the Orlando area?" Instead, it's, "By how much will the Democrats win?"

Or, for the local Republicans, how much can they cut into the Democrats' margin?

Pushing Early Turnout

This year, the GOP has beefed up its phone bank operations.

"Our phone operations have now been fully computerized," says Lew Oliver, the Orange County Republican chairman. "When I started this business many years ago, we were, you know, dialing rotary telephones. Now we have Voice over Internet Protocol phones, where the phone pretty much does all the work for us — including leaving voice mail messages, dialing the number, that kind of stuff. And that allows us to go much, much faster."

Oliver says most people have made up their minds. So, the goal is to find the ones whose minds are set against President Obama — and there are plenty of them — and get them to vote early.

"I would be elated if we could get 60 percent of our voters ... to vote prior to Election Day," he says. "Last election cycle, it approached 50."

A Parallel To 2004?

Polls show Florida is very close. Around Orlando, the economy is still sour, but people are buying homes again — at lower prices.

Latino voters nationally tend to prefer Obama to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, 2-1.

Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Scott Randolph says that while the intensity of support for Obama among Democrats may not match that of Republican antipathy for him, he will still win here.

"I mean, the Democrats were sort of in that situation back in 2004. No doubt Republicans hated George Bush. I mean, there were plenty of Republicans that were not excited, really, about George Bush, but we nominated somebody that didn't motivate our base," he says, referring to Democrat John Kerry.

Randolph says the Democrats have been hampered by Florida's new election laws, which make voter registration more difficult.

'A Racial Issue'

The state party's head of Hispanic outreach, Betsy Franceschini, who was born in Puerto Rico, says the Democrats' appeal to Puerto Rican voters is based on social and economic issues.

But even on immigration, which isn't a problem for them because they're citizens, Puerto Ricans feel sympathy for Latino immigrants, she says.

Franceschini says it's about racial profiling. Her own son, she says, was stopped by police when he was driving near his home in Tampa.

"When they got him into the car, the police [officer] made a comment to the other police officer that was there — he says, 'Oh, he's Hispanic, so we have to, you know, check them out,' " she says. "And the charges were dropped. There was no reason for him to be stopped, but the only reason was that he looked Hispanic."

So, the argument goes, tough anti-immigration laws may not jeopardize Puerto Ricans, but they do connect with their experiences.

Franceschini says Obama scored points with Puerto Rican voters when he named Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and when he visited Puerto Rico.

And as for the intense dislike that so many conservatives feel for him?

"It's a racial issue," she says. "We feel that and we know that." Some of the negative attitude toward the president, she says, "is similar to what we live as Hispanics."

Inroads For Republicans?

The Republican counternarrative about Puerto Rican voters goes like this: Some Puerto Ricans are up from the island, where they may well have been Republican. Some are from the North, but the old politics of New York City or Chicago may be wearing off.

Puerto Ricans, after all, are often socially conservative and pro-military, and they often run small businesses.

Latino businessmen and -women meet regularly at the Chamber of Commerce in Kissimmee, just south of Orlando. It's a majority Hispanic town, and a majority of the Hispanics are Puerto Rican.

The president of the group, Nancy Ellis, was born in the Bronx and grew up in Queens, N.Y.

"I was raised as a Democrat, OK? Now, did I know why I was a Democrat? Nope. Am I learning about why I'm a Democrat? Yes," she says. "Could I be a Republican? Possibly. I'm on the cusp at this point, because I do like what some Republicans have to offer. But on the other hand, I like what Democrats stand for. And that's because, I guess, I'm a humanitarian."

Ellis is still high on Obama, but she says she's leaning Republican in the local House race.

Rafael Caamano runs the University of Central Florida's Business Incubator, helping local entrepreneurs. He was born in Puerto Rico and came to Kissimmee when he was in high school. He says he was one of just four Puerto Ricans in the school back then. He spent nine years in the Army, went into and out of business, and is a registered Republican.

"When you come out of the island, that's the mentality. But being here for so long, your mind starts changing and you start looking at other views," he says. He says Obama still has a chance to win his vote.

There's another legacy of the island experience that the local Democrats spoke of: big turnouts every four years, and very little voting in between.

In 2010, turnout here dropped by about a third. Democrats lost.

People who watch the electoral map often say this about Florida: There are scenarios in which Obama loses the state but wins re-election. But for the Republicans, it's very hard to build a majority without winning this battleground state.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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