Florida's Race Embodies a Polarized Electorate

PHOTO: Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to a crowd in Osceola, Fla., with Senator Marco Rubio during a rally in swing county where Latinos carry significant sway.Osceola Star
Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to a crowd in Osceola, Fla., with Senator Marco Rubio during a rally in swing county where Latinos carry significant sway.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- President Barack Obama pulled off a victory last night even without one of the states everybody was watching: Florida. With 29 electoral votes up for grabs, winning Florida appeared to be an essential element of Mitt Romney's path to the White House. But even if he wins the nation's largest swing state, he will have fallen well short of 270 electoral votes.

ABC News does not yet have enough information to project a winner. But with all precincts reporting, Obama leads Romney by more than 46,000 votes out of 8.3 million overall votes.

So what happened in the swing state that Romney thought he had in the bag? He likely underestimated the Latino vote.

According to exit polls, Obama won 60 percent of the Latino vote in Florida yesterday up from 57 percent in 2008 and 44 percent for John Kerry in 2004. According to separate polling from Latino Decisions Tuesday, nearly one in five voters in Florida was Latino, and 63 percent of those polled said that Romney either "doesn't care much" or is "hostile toward" the Latino community. Nationally, Obama beat Romney by a 71-27 percent margin with Latino voters, according to the national exit polls.

"Estamos bien, estamos bien, votando por Obama, estamos bien," a group of Puerto Rican voters sang on Tuesday afternoon, 100 feet outside a polling station in the swing county of Osceola, Florida. ["We are good, we are good, voting for Obama, we are good."] As one woman salsa-danced in place, a young man banged a hand drum to keep the rhythm.

"You don't see that at every polling place," commented Osceola resident, Juan Figueroa.

In the mostly-Puerto Rican neighborhood of Buenaventura Lakes, the mood was cheerful on Tuesday. Many wanted to talk about the changing electorate and power of the growing Latino vote. More than 80 percent of the votes cast at that precinct were for Obama, according to Osceola's tallies.

"I'm seeing an enormous excitement to vote here. It's unprecedented. It's just anecdotal at this point, of course, but I'm curious to see how this will have an effect on Florida," said Osceola commissioner, Democrat John Quiñones, who was elected to represent Buenaventura Lakes.

Indeed, more Latinos turned out to vote than local leaders had expected.

"They showed up, just look at those numbers for the Democrats -- it can only be the Hispanic vote," said Latino leader in Osceola, Guillermo Hansen, as he watched vote counts being tallied at the local county supervisor of elections office on Tuesday night.

Osceola is the biggest swing county in the I-4 corridor of Florida, which helped Obama secure his 2008 victory. It gave 53 percent of its vote to Bush in 2004, but gave 62 percent of its vote to Obama yesterday -- two percentage points more than in 2008. Much of this change can be attributed to the growing Puerto Rican and Nuyorican community in the area, which is now more than half Hispanic. And according to Latino Decisions polling in the I-4 corridor on Tuesday, 78 percent of Latino voters cast their ballots for President Obama.

Osceola is just part of a group of counties in Florida which have moved farther in the direction they leaned four years ago. Many of those areas that were conservative in 2008, in Florida, were even more conservative in 2012. And those counties that were liberal in 2008 were even more liberal in 2012. Miami, for example, gave 62 percent of its vote to Obama this year and 58 percent in 2008. Voters in Marion County, in contrast, gave 58 percent of their vote to Romney this year, and 55 percent to McCain four years ago.

And not everybody in the I-4 corridor, or in Florida, is happy about the recent population shift. Robert Danenfeld, a retired judge from New York, said that the rapid influx of Latinos has made some whites in the area uneasy. He was concerned about the display by those singing and dancing at the polling precinct, fearing it would be alienating to the other half of Floridians.

"There's some resentment here, particularly about the language and not learning English," Danenfeld said. "I'm not sure the singing [in Spanish] is a good idea."

Danenfeld was campaigning for his friend, Latino Democrat Armando Ramirez, who won a local seat which has been held by Republicans for a very long time. But Danenfeld is concerned that electoral politics will cause the cultural rift between the Latino community and the large white retiree community to grow larger.

"They might not know the resentment is there, but it is," Danenfeld said.

Just a few miles from the Buenaventura Lakes polling precinct, voters at the St. Cloud Senior Center showed another side of the county. An area with many more white families and retirees, 55 percent of those who voted at the precinct, voted for Romney.

While population shifts have prompted some Republican leaders, like George W. Bush, to focus on capturing the Latino vote (he won around 40 percent nationally in 2004), Mitt Romney largely failed to do so in Florida and in other important swing states like Colorado. His stance on immigration, proposing "self-deportation" did not play with Latino voters especially. In Florida, Hispanic voters ranked immigration as the second most important issue they were voting on, after the economy in Tuesday's Latino Decision poll. Romney's loss in the state and across the country will likely necessitate a restructuring of the GOP platform to appeal to a more diverse electorate.

During his victory speech last night, President Obama addressed the challenges of uniting an ethnically and politically diverse nation, but insisted that the similarities holding us all together are stronger than our differences.

"What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth," he said.