Battleground Florida: Growing Puerto Rican population near Disney critical in 2012
This is the first in a series of occasional stories from Times political editor Adam C. Smith profiling Florida counties that will be key in determining who wins the presidential election in America's biggest battleground state.
To understand how a once rural county best known for cattle ranches has emerged as one of the nation's most critical presidential campaign battlegrounds, go back more than three decades to a shrewd marketing decision by a Miami developer.
That's when Landstar Homes decided to aggressively market a development in rural Osceola County to Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the New York City area. The appeal of the low-crime, low-cost suburbs near Walt Disney World quickly caught on. Soon brothers, sisters, mothers and cousins of the early Puerto Rican residents flocked to Buenaventura Lakes and new developments sprouted to meet their demand.
Today, 46 percent of Osceola's roughly 300,000 residents are Hispanic, overwhelmingly Puerto Rican, and by 2020 nearly 200,000 Osceola residents will be Hispanic, according to census projections. This is ground zero for the changing demographics in America and a big reason why the long-celebrated swing voter battleground swath of Florida known as the I-4 Corridor is starting to turn into a Democratic stronghold.
Florida is America's biggest battleground state, a state that Republicans must win to have any shot at winning the White House. How Osceola votes in November won't necessarily decide whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama wins Florida's 29 electoral votes. Given the demographic shifts, few political observers view this as Romney country.
Campaigns ultimately come down to simple addition, however, and Osceola is on the leading edge of the population changes in the Orlando metro area, which is on the way to becoming the dominant population center of the state.
"This used to be an old cow town, but it's completely changed today,'' said house painter J.R. Hatchett, a third-generation Osceola County resident and one of the few non-Hispanics living in and around the Buenaventura Lakes area sometimes dubbed Little Puerto Rico. "There are almost no good ol' boys left around here. Back in 1984, my high school had maybe 20 Spanish kids out of at least 1,500. Today the school has almost no white students."