How a shifting Latino vote in Florida could influence the election

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FILE - This Oct. 29, 2012 file photo shows people standing in line to vote in the presidential election, in Miami. There’s always grousing about people who don’t bother to vote. But look at it another way: An estimated 133 million Americans will cast ballots in Tuesday’s election. That’s about 6 in 10 eligible adults. Some will persevere despite long lines, pressing personal burdens or the devastation left by Superstorm Sandy. Why do they do it? It’s not because any one voter will decide the contest between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Depending on which state they live in, the odds of casting a deciding vote for president are somewhere between 1 in a million and essentially zero. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

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By Ivette Feliciano and Zachary Green

It’s morning at Melao Bakery in Kissimmee, Florida, and Jezreel Zapata Moreno is busy ringing up customers buying breakfast for the start of their day. Like most of the customers here, Moreno is Puerto Rican, having arrived in Kissimmee from the U.S. island territory just a few months ago in July. And also like many other Puerto Ricans living in Central Florida, he came to the state in search of a better life, away from Puerto Rico’s crushing debt crisis.

“Sadly, the situation in Puerto Rico has been very difficult, and that’s why so many of us are moving here,” he said. “We’re in search of a place where we can prosper economically and where our kids can receive quality education.”

Central Florida’s warm weather, thriving jobs market, and built-in Puerto Rican community has been a draw for many Puerto Ricans, both from the island and from other parts of the U.S. mainland. 39 percent of Florida’s Puerto Rican population currently live in areas surrounding Orlando and Tampa, and 1,000 additional families are arriving from the island every month. This boom in the population isn’t just affecting the state’s demographics; it’s also having an effect on the makeup of Florida’s all-important Latino vote.

Making up 15 percent of the state’s registered voters, Florida’s Latino electorate is an important demographic for presidential candidates to capture, especially in a year when polling numbers in the state between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are neck-and-neck. For decades, Florida’s Latino power base was in southern Florida, centered in Miami-Dade County with its high concentration of Cuban Americans. Often conservative-leaning, these voters helped swing the state toward Republican presidential candidates, throwing their support behind Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

However, in recent years, Florida’s Puerto Rican population has grown to over 1 million, rivaling Cuban Americans for the majority Latino demographic. It’s estimated that they will surpass the Cuban population by 2020. Puerto Ricans also lean more Democratic than Cuban Americans, helping to grow Hispanic Democratic registrants by 83 percent over the past decade. And Puerto Ricans are unique among recent Latino arrivals in the country: since they are already U.S. citizens, they can register to vote in the presidential election almost immediately upon reaching the mainland.

Jezreel Moreno is one of those first-time Puerto Rican presidential voters. A registered Democrat, he intends to vote for Hillary Clinton in November. He believes that she best addresses the issues that concern him and other people in his community. “I think our priorities are jobs and economic stability for our families,” he says. “We want security for our children, to live somewhere that is quiet and secure.”

He’ll be one of thousands of new voters in Florida who help make those decisions in the fall.

Read the full transcript below.

IVETTE FELICIANO: On a Tuesday morning just south of Orlando, in Kissimmee, Florida, these canvassers are registering voters outside the Unidos supermarket, on behalf of “Mi Familia Vota,” or “My Family Votes,” a civic engagement organization focused on increasing Latino political power in the United States. Jeamy Ramirez has been working to educate her fellow Latino voters since moving to the city from Puerto Rico four years ago.

JEAMY RAMIREZ: Here you can vote on Election Day, or you can do early vote which is like 7 or 10 days before the election, you can mail in your vote. Many ways to participate.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Latinos account for half of Florida’s population growth since 2010 and are one quarter of the state’s 20 million residents. The fastest Latino growth has occurred in the counties along the I-4 corridor from Orange, Osceola and Seminole, around Orlando, to Polk and Hillsborough Counties, around Tampa. Esteban Garces is Mi Familia Vota’s State Director, on this day, leading a registration drive at Valencia College.

ESTEBAN GARCES: The October 11th deadline is now just a few days away, so it’s all gears, all systems running.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Only 74,000 votes decided Florida’s 2012 presidential election. Garces says because about 500,000 eligible Latinos are not registered to vote in the state, “Mi Familia Vota” is in the field every day.

ESTEBAN GARCES: Our staff is very much aware that the work that we do is going to impact this election. Our work is going to determine who the next president is.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Since January, “Mi Familia Vota” has registered more than 27-thousand new Latino residents.

44-year-old Army veteran Eric Peguero embodies the ambivalence many Latinos feel toward the presidential candidates. A registered Republican who calls himself a moderate conservative, Peguero voted for Marco Rubio in the Republican presidential primary, but says that support does not extend to Donald Trump.

A son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and married to a woman from Guatemala, Peguero says immigration reform is his top concern. But he rejects Trump’s call to build a wall along the U.S. Mexico border and track down and deport undocumented immigrants.

ERIC PEGUERO: I don’t agree with Obamacare or anything like that, but going to the Republican nominee is ludicrous. Simply, you can’t count on anything he says. One, I do believe in immigration reform, but I don’t believe we can built a wall. Two, we can’t deport 11 million people, and not all of them are criminals.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Peguero says he plans to vote for Hillary Clinton, because he sees her as more diplomatic and better equipped to handle the economy.

ERIC PEGUERO: We have to see that the economy is working, and I think someone like Hillary Clinton that’s been running for 30 years has that kind of experience, and can make something happen realistically. I don’t think just because you have business experience that translates into government experience, because you don’t tell the congress what to do, you have to negotiate with the congress to get it done.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Peguero’s views are typical of Clinton supporters and help explain why she is preferred by the majority of Florida Latinos, according to a recent “Univision” poll, which also found her with wider leads among Latinos in the Latino-heavy battleground states of Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.

Luis Martinez Fernandez, a Cuban immigrant who grew up in Puerto Rico, is a history professor at the University of Central Florida.

LUIS MARTINEZ-FERNANDEZ: As far as a bloc, I’ve been saying for many years that there’s no such thing. For one, a bloc is sort of solid and immovable. However, when it comes to the Hispanic vote in Florida, we see that it sways from election to election.

IVETTE FELICIANO: For decades, Cuban-Americans in south Florida were the face of the state’s Latino vote, and they were reliably Republican, supporting Ronald Reagan and both Presidents Bush. By 2012, Barrack Obama split the Cuban vote with Mitt Romney.

LUIS MARTINEZ-FERNANDEZ: We’re talking about a generation that continues to die off, and that makes them weaker. Weaker in terms of their political presence.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Fernandez says a younger generation of Cuban-Americans and new waves of Cuban immigrants less wedded to anti-Castro anti-communist sentiments has eclipsed the older generation, and are increasingly supportive of democrats.

Adding to the shifts, about a thousand Puerto Rican families, U.S. citizens with an automatic right to vote, arrive in the I-4 corridor region every month…leaving the island’s economic and debt crisis that has driven the unemployment rate there to 11 percent. More than half of Orlando’s Latino population is Puerto Rican.

LUIS MARTINEZ-FERNANDEZ: If you look at all the Hispanic subgroups, the one that leans democratic at the highest rate are Puerto Ricans.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Fernandez says while immigration reform is a high priority among Latinos generally, it’s less of a priority for Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, and Cubans, whose legal residency applications are fast tracked.

LUIS MARTINEZ-FERNANDEZ: Now, that doesn’t mean that they’re not sensitive to these issues; that doesn’t mean that we’re not offended when fellow Latinos from Mexico are called frightening names and are insulted. So it doesn’t mean a lack of sensitivity. What it means is that there are different priorities.

IVETTE FELICIANO: The top priorities for Florida’s Latino voters are the economy and jobs, followed by immigration, education, terrorism, and healthcare.

After losing his job in Puerto Rico, 34-year-old Jezreel Zapata-Moreno moved to the Orlando area in July and now works as a cashier at Kissimmee’s Melao Bakery, a popular Puerto Rican restaurant.

JEZREEL ZAPATA-MORENO: Sadly, the situation in Puerto Rico has been very difficult, and that’s why so many of us are moving here. We’re in search of a place where we can prosper economically and where our kids can receive quality education.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Economic prosperity and upward mobility are the talking points of the conservative Latino political group “The Libre Initiative.”  The group’s volunteers are phone banking daily to identify and urge conservative-leaning Latinos to vote. Daniel Garza is the organization’s executive director.

DANIEL GARZA: You have an influx of Puerto Ricans that are leaving that economic condition in Puerto Rico not because they want to but because they have to. What you see in Puerto Rico is starting to happen here, we’re on an unsustainable path, a fiscal path here that is going to ruin the next generation.  It’s important for us to drive that conversation within the Puerto Rican community here in Orlando, because they can make a difference.

IVETTE FELICIANO: The current Republican nominee has said some pretty controversial things immigrant communities Latino communities.

DANIEL GARZA: To say the least.”

IVETTE FELICIANO: Are you worried at all about what that means for conservative candidates?

DANIEL GARZA: Look, we are part of a long-term effort. We focus on ideas. We don’t want to see our growth rise and fall based on personality. So we stay away from associating to personalities who we feel there’s a lack of enthusiasm around by the Latino voters. We see a lack of enthusiasm around both candidates, to be honest.

IVETTE FELICIANO: President Obama carried Florida in both the last two elections. One reason: he won 57 percent of the state’s Latino vote in 2008 and 60 percent in 2012.

Clinton’s support is not as high, around 53 percent. But she has a built-in advantage- 38% of Florida Latinos are registered as Democrats and 26-percent as Republicans.  Independents are the fastest growing contingent and make up 33 percent.

BOB CORTES: When we came from Puerto Rico I did not understand the ideologies of the party. I did not understand what it meant to be a Republican or a Democrat.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Brooklyn-born and Puerto rico-raised bob Cortes registered as an independent when he first moved his family to Florida 27 years ago and founded a towing company and airport passenger shuttle service.

He’s a republican now and the first Puerto Rican from his district to win a seat in the state legislature.

BOB CORTES: A lot of my fellow Puerto Ricans lean with the ideology of republicans because we’re fleeing an island right now that is 70 billion dollars in debt. With a size of government too big. The Republican Party is fiscal conservative and wants a smaller government. We have of course the pro-life issue I’m extremely pro-life.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Cortes believes candidates like him with socially conservative values can improve Republicans’ standing with Latinos, who are predominantly catholic and evangelical. As a businessman himself, Cortes also supports Trump for president, whose message aligns with his own platform promoting job creation and entrepreneurship.

BOB CORTES: When I go out to speak to somebody, whether they’re Puerto Rican, Hispanic or from south America, central America or Mexican, I can relate to their stories of what brought them here because I came here 20-something years ago looking for the same things that they’re looking for, the American dream, and I actually can give them some insight on how I did it and where I am today. The messaging has to come from the candidate themselves to make sure that Latinos vote for candidates, not necessarily for parties, which is why we’re such a swing voting group.

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