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."
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Osceola County, just south of Orange County and its Orlando hub, features some of the best and worst of old and new Florida: vast tracts of grassland and swamp, garish strips of retailers hawking T-shirts and cheap buffets, and tons of tourists.
It takes some effort to find the host of serene lakes still brimming with lunker bass and historic old downtowns shaded by massive oaks draped with Spanish moss. But it's hard to avoid the suburban sprawl and clogged roads typical of an area unprepared for the exploding growth that started in the 1980s.
Osceola residents include upscale suburbanites relishing Disney's hyper-planned Celebration community, recent transplants from Puerto Rico, Nicaragua and Colombia, and old Florida cowboys who still cherish Osceola's rodeo tradition.
In 2004 George W. Bush won Osceola County by fewer than 5,000 votes when 63 percent of voters turned out. Four years later, Obama won it by 20,000 — almost 10 percent of his 263,450-vote margin in Florida — when turnout reached 73 percent. The trend becomes starker when you factor in nearby Orange and Seminole counties, part of the Orlando metropolitan region also seeing soaring growth of Hispanic residents.
In 1996, Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties made up about 7.4 percent of the statewide vote, and Bill Clinton lost those three counties to Bob Dole by 12,000 votes. In 2008, those counties made up about 9.2 percent of the statewide vote and gave Obama a 100,000-plus vote margin of victory.
"If current population growth trends continue, the Orlando media market could overtake both Miami and Tampa in the next 20 years; and if the core of that market, metro-Orlando, continues to take a big turn toward the Democrats, the statewide and even national political implications are stunning," Steve Schale, who directed the 2008 Obama campaign in Florida, recently noted on his blog.
The Florida political map for decades has been simple: Democrats win southeast Florida handily, Republicans dominate North Florida and the battleground that decides statewide elections is along the I-4 Corridor — the Tampa Bay and Orlando area media markets.
"If the three counties around Orlando continue to trend in the coming decade and beyond like they have in recent years, the fundamental balance of the I-4 will shift," Schale said, noting the growing Puerto Rican and African-American populations there.
Osceola County is an ominous harbinger for Florida's dominant Republican Party, but the fastest growing part of its electorate still remains an unpredictable enigma to political strategists and academics alike.
Why? Because something is fundamentally different between Election Day in Little Puerto Rico near Disney and Election Day in Puerto Rico, nearly 1,200 miles away.
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Carlos and Emily Quinones moved to Osceola five years ago from Puerto Rico. They plan to vote for Romney in November but say elections here are night and day from where they grew up.
"On Puerto Rico, politics is the favorite hobby of almost everybody. People are passionate about it. It's part of their identity,'' said Carlos Quinones, a water district manager. "Here people are not really so enthusiastic about it."
Voter turnout on the island typically exceeds 80 percent — one of the highest rates in the world. Residents fiercely divide themselves between the two main parties, one favoring statehood for Puerto Rico and the other preferring to remain a commonwealth.
"You have to understand that when you have been a colony of one master or another for over 500 years, politics becomes a national sport. It divides us to simplest of things — the color of the car you buy, the color of the tie you wear is always identified with the party you're from. It just gets ingrained in your daily life," said former Puerto Rico Attorney General Jose Fuentes, a Romney supporter.
Spain ceded Puerto Rico to America in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, and Congress in 1917 made Puerto Ricans American citizens. The Democratic and Republican parties include Puerto Rico in their primaries, but under the U.S. Constitution only the 50 states and the District of Columbia are entitled to choose electors in the presidential election.
That means a Puerto Rican living on the island can't vote in November, but if they live on the mainland they can. And Puerto Rican turnout on the mainland is nowhere near what it is in Puerto Rico.
"People get here and it takes them time to feel part of the community," said Fuentes, who now lives in Maryland. "In Puerto Rico, they're U.S. citizens, but they have never had full enfranchisement. They have never had full representation in Congress, they've never been able to vote for the president of the United States, so it takes them a little bit of time to get used to it."
Puerto Rico Sen. Juan Eugenio Hernández Mayoral, son of a former governor, frequently visits Central Florida to campaign for Obama among Puerto Rican voters.
"Politics here are a lot less personal than what people are used to in Puerto Rico, and it takes time for people to get engaged when they move here," he said. "That's why we need to keep educating people here that they need to register, they need to vote because they are part of a crucial voting bloc and may be the deciding factor in this state. This is the first time in history that Puerto Ricans really can decide the presidency."
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Romney doesn't need to win Osceola County; he needs to trim Obama's margin. The Puerto Rican voters here lean heavily Democratic, but not fiercely so. Jeb Bush won Osceola. So did Marco Rubio.
Amid the rain on Buenaventura Lakes last week, it was easy to find Obama supporters saying he inherited a mess and deserved a second term. It was only slightly less easy to find Romney supporters.
"I planned on voting for Obama, but then he came out for gay marriage. I don't agree with that and can't vote for him," said retiree Efrain Rivera, a recent transplant from Puerto Rico.
Most common were the sentiments of people like Carmen Cornillie.
"I'm not paying much attention. I don't know if I'll vote. Maybe I'll just stay home and watch TV," she acknowledged, chuckling at the suggestion her community is a central battleground in the presidential election.
"I don't think so," she said.
Osceola County has been the center of the political world before. Many credit the frontier area for settling the contested presidential election of 1876. Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but it took weeks for the votes to trickle out of the swamps of Osceola County and ultimately deliver Florida's three electoral votes — and the presidency — to Rutherford B. Hayes.
This year, the votes in this fast-changing community will again be critical in picking a president.
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]