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The Latino swing vote: on the I-4 corridor, voters are hearing all comers

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ORLANDO, Florida – If the Obama campaign counts Florida among the states that could swing either way come November 6th, a visit to the central region of the state shows why. The Hispanic voters I interviewed here expressed a lack of enthusiasm with the political process; some are already sure they won’t vote at all, others remain loyal to their respective political parties, and others—a plurality—are still undecided. They’re annoyed with Obama for any number of reasons, but they’re not convinced by Republican alternative Mitt Romney. The Hispanic vote in this region of the state is looking like one of the biggest toss-ups in the country this election cycle.

Four years ago, central Florida wasn’t immune to the Obama fever sweeping the country, when the candidate offered hope and change in his initial presidential campaign. Thousands of people packed parks and plazas for campaign rallies. Obama won Florida, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since Bill Clinton in 1996.  The Hispanic vote was key to his victory.

Fast-forward to 2012, and it’s a different story.

Florida has been beaten down by unemployment and foreclosures. And while central Florida’s Latino population is dominated by Puerto Ricans, who are United States citizens, the lack of immigration reform has also been felt by this group–because it affects their relatives, friends, the economy, or simply because they empathize with the undocumented.

In gas stations, supermarkets, restaurants and churches, the common denominator Hispanic voters share is lack of motivation.

“I’m going to vote because it’s an obligation. But honestly, I’m not enthusiastic, because the presidential candidates don’t motivate me. There’s nothing in this campaign making us say, ‘This is the person we need to bring change for everyone, not just one group,’” says Deborah Soto, a Republican who considers herself an undecided voter.

Soto, born in the U.S. to Puerto Rican parents, says that she’s concerned about two issues: the absence of a program to assist people who are emptying their savings and retirement plans to pay their mortgages, and immigration. “The breaking up of families is very sad to me,” she says.

Soto also supports the efforts of undocumented young people—the “DREAMers”—to win relief. Like others we interviewed—Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike—she agreed that if Obama, in the absence of immigration reform, issued an executive order to stop these young people from being deported, it would inspire her to vote for him.

“That would make me enthusiastic. If he says ‘I’m going to do this, and here’s how,’ he’d definitely have my vote,” she says.

Another undecided voter—an independent—agrees. “I’d definitely be motivated to vote for him.”

The possibility that Obama might sign an executive order to help the DREAMers resonates even among Republicans, who find Romney’s hard line on immigration off-putting.

Ambar is a Republican who cast her first presidential ballot for John McCain in 2008, but is now undecided. An executive order providing relief to DREAMers “wouldn’t be the only factor [in deciding whether to vote for Obama], but I definitely think it is a strong one,” she says. “Let’s say if everything else is even [between the two candidates], except for that one thing [administrative relief for DREAMers] then yes, I would vote for Obama.”

Wilmer Enoch González, a Republican born in Puerto Rico and raised in the U.S., says that the economy will determine who he votes for—but immigration is also an important issue to him. That’s especially true because immigration relief would help talented young people “who can contribute to what I’m most concerned for, which is the economy.” He’s undecided, though he’s leaning toward Romney.

“But if the president signs an executive order [giving relief to DREAMers], I’d be one foot in one foot out again,” he says, using an idiom to indicate an even split between the candidates.  “But right now I’m not so inclined to support Mr. Obama.”

It’s widely rumored that Romney will soften his historically harsh immigration stance, possibly by naming a Hispanic as his running mate—maybe even Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who, cognizant of broad support for the DREAM Act among Hispanics, is developing a “Republican version” of the bill.

Some Hispanic Republicans welcome the possibility, but don’t think of it as determinative. “If Romney picks Marco Rubio, there’s some motivation, because he’s Latino and he represents my face, but he has to go further, he has to say what he’s going to do for us,” says Republican undecided voter Soto.

One Republican restaurant owner, when asked about Rubio, said, “I don’t know who that person is.”

Another factor driving enthusiasm down among many Hispanic voters in central Florida is Obama’s recent decision to support same-sex marriage.

Without exception, evangelicals—and even some non-evangelicals—lamented the development.

“I voted for Obama in 2008. I’m not sure that I’m going to vote for him again. He supports same-sex marriage and its put me between a rock and a hard place. I’d have to vote for him because he’s the Democrat, and the Republicans aren’t an acceptable alternative. If we give him our votes, it’s because there’s no other option, but it’s not because we’re motivated,” one young man said.

Reverend José Elías González, of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, says the Obama administration and reelection campaign underestimated the backlash that support for same-sex marriage would create among Latino evangelical voters.

“There’s a saying that if you want to know how cold the water is, ask the fish,” says González. Obama’s decision to support same-sex marriage could cost the president “thousands and thousands of votes,” he predicts, especially because he hasn’t shown the same conviction in defending other issues like immigration reform.

One young Democratic voter, the daughter of the Orlando restaurant owner, admitted that Obama’s support for same-sex marriage could chill motivation even further among some groups of Hispanic voters. But if Obama did something for the DREAMers, “he’d reignite enthusiasm among Latino voters.”

Whether he’ll do anything remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt that the Latino vote along the I-4 corridor is still open to offers from all comers.

Maribel Hastings is a senior advisor at America’s Voice.