KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Christian Martell shuttles back and forth from the kitchen to the small tables at Puerto Rico’s Cafe in this Orlando suburb, ferrying food past artificial tropical plants to a smattering of Spanish-speaking customers who dine amid the bounce of Latin music.
Martell, 31, who was born in Puerto Rico, voted in a presidential election for the first time in 2008 — for Barack Obama. And he plans to do so again.
Martell represents an increasingly potent ethnic group whose rapidly expanding presence in metro Orlando — part of the fastest-growing Hispanic population in Florida — is threatening to upend the state’s political calculus, tipping it in Democrats’ long-term favor.
Puerto Ricans, who tend to vote Democratic, accounted for nearly 30 percent of metro Orlando’s population growth over the last decade, and played a big role in propelling Obama to victory in Florida in 2008. Only Cuban-Americans, who have historically favored Republicans, form a larger Hispanic group in the state.
As a result, both campaigns have been working feverishly to find support along the Interstate 4 corridor from Tampa to Orlando, a pivotal electoral battleground in a state where the Republican-dominated north and strongly Democratic south often cancel each other out.
Obama won the Orlando area — Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties — by 100,000 votes in 2008, a stunning contrast to the narrow 2004 loss by Democratic nominee John Kerry to the incumbent Republican president, George W. Bush.
According to Steve Schale, who managed Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida, much of the reason lies in these numbers:
Puerto Ricans accounted for more than one-quarter of the Orlando area’s 436,000 new residents from 2000 to 2010; they grew to roughly 15 percent of the region’s population in 2010, up from 9 percent a decade earlier; and the demographic group defined as African-Americans and Hispanics, primarily Puerto Ricans in this region, made up more than 75 percent of the 84,000 new voters registered between October 2006 and January of this year.
Of those new Hispanic and African-American voters, 84 percent registered as Democrats.Puerto Ricans associate Democrats with support for government assistance to address the island’s high poverty rate and social needs, campaign analysts said.
Republicans, however, are not conceding an Obama landslide among Florida’s Puerto Ricans.
After all, the island’s governor, Luis Fortuno, is a Republican who supports Mitt Romney. Although Romney’s advisers still expect the president to win a majority of Puerto Ricans’ votes in Florida, they point to a 16.6 percent unemployment rate among Hispanics in Orlando in 2011, second only to the rate of Hispanic unemployment in Providence.
That jobless rate, primarily due to massive losses in construction jobs in Florida, worries Democrats. Although polls show Obama leading Romney among Puerto Rican voters, his margin is not as large as he had hoped.
“When you look at pocketbook issues, the reason the president is struggling down there is because they’re on the front lines of the Obama economy,” said Alberto Martinez, a Romney campaign adviser in Florida.
In 2008, Hispanics nationwide chose Obama over John McCain, his Republican opponent, by 67 to 31 percent. This year, Hispanic voters nationwide favor Obama by a similar margin, 68 percent to 26 percent, according to a recent Latin Decisions poll.
The importance of reaching out to Hispanics was underscored by Romney’s appearance last Wednesday on Univision, the Spanish-language broadcast company, at a “Meet the Candidates” event at the University of Miami. Obama appeared on Univision the following day.
In central Florida, the fight for Hispanic voters has spawned a fierce media battle. Romney’s campaign and super PAC supporters have spent about $10.6 million on advertising in Orlando, compared with $8.2 million for Obama and his backers, according to recent figures from the Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Over the entire I-4 corridor, whose Orlando and Tampa media reach 45 percent of the state’s electorate, Romney and his supporters have outspent the Obama forces by about 64 percent, roughly $24.6 million compared with $15.9 million. Obama, however, has outspent Romney in Hispanic-targeted ads, $6.6 million to less than $1 million, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
In and near Orlando, campaign offices for each candidate are plentiful, Hispanic campaign workers are canvassing the neighborhoods, and bilingual phone banks have been established.
In Kissimmee, for example, 59 percent of its 61,000 residents are Hispanic, with the bulk of them Puerto Rican.
“We are working in the community, going door to door, making sure that they understand why their vote is very important,” said Anita Perez, 70, a native of Puerto Rico who belongs to a volunteer group called Hispanics for Obama.
“The big question is whether they will go out to vote,” said Lynnette Acosta, a national cochairwoman for the Obama campaign, who is a native of Puerto Rico and lives in the Orlando area.
If they do vote and the president retains his margins in Orlando, Romney would be faced with the daunting challenge of making up the difference closer to Tampa, where demographics have not changed as dramatically.
A big reason that Puerto Ricans have made a quick impact is that, as US citizens, they can vote immediately when they arrive on the mainland. Unlike Hispanic immigrants in the Orlando area from Colombia, Venezuela, and elsewhere, there is no yearslong wait between arriving in Florida and entering the voting booth.
The owner of Puerto Rico’s Cafe, Maria Cordero, said she considers voting an important responsibility.
“Always I vote,” Cordero, 59, said in halting English. “If you no vote, nobody will listen to you.”
Cuban-Americans can boast of a US senator in rising Republican star Marco Rubio.
But campaign aides from both parties said they are beginning to see less predictable voting patterns than in the past: Puerto Ricans who will vote Republican, and Cubans who will back Democrats.
After a raucous campaign rally by Bill Clinton in Orlando on Sept. 12, Cuban native Rick Giralt, 59, said he is voting for Obama despite decades of punching the Republican ticket.
“Have you looked at the alternative?” asked Giralt, an insurance adjuster, who left Cuba when he was 13. “I’ve been a registered Republican my whole voting life, but it’s not the Republican Party that existed when I started voting. It’s gone way to the right.”
His 26-year-old daughter, registered nurse Jackie Giralt, said her generation has begun asking questions and is less likely to vote Republican reflexively.
“They’re thinking for themselves now,” her father said with a smile.
Among Puerto Ricans, the key issues are “not very different from the general population,” said Acosta, 34, a computer project manager. “The number-one issue is the economy and jobs, education is second, and then health care.”
Even immigration reform, a hot-button issue among many Hispanics, is not the predominant concern for Puerto Ricans, she said.
“Puerto Ricans are US citizens, so the issue is not as personal as it is for some other Latinos,” Acosta said. However, she added, “we do identify ourselves with the larger population. And when we see Romney talking about self-deportation, that affects and offends Puerto Ricans.”
Martell, the restaurant manager at Puerto Rico’s Cafe, said he is much more concerned about the economy and clean energy than immigration reform.
“I believe we have to have our own borders and work and pay taxes. We’re Puerto Rican, we’re lucky, we’re part of the US,” said Martell, who is the owner’s son.
“I do feel for the others, but I also feel you have to take the right steps,” he added.
Martell also is attracted to Obama for another, nonpolitical reason: “He likes baseball, just like me.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story contained a caption that incorrectly characterized Puerto Rican patrons at a Kissimmee, Fla., diner. As US citizens, they are not immigrants.