Both presidential campaigns are focused on a slim but crucial constituency in Florida: first-time voters from Puerto Rico, political observers said.
The Miami Herald estimates as many as 300,000 such voters could be casting ballots this year and pundits say whether they'll support President Barack Obama or his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is far from clear. In a state where the vote was decided by fewer than 1,000 ballots in 2000, the bloc of Hispanic voters could tip the state and with it, the election, politicians said.
"The Puerto Rican vote in Florida is up for grabs, of course," said Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno, a Republican who has endorsed Romney. "Puerto Ricans in Florida tend to be very conservative socially. If they are second or third generation moving south from New York, that's different. Those coming straight from Puerto Rico are social conservatives for whom issues such as high taxes are very important."
One significant concern for the campaigns is the unfamiliarity many of these first-time voters may have with the voting process. Florida's ballot has scores of state amendments along with state and local races to be decided, a potentially confusing and intimidating ballot, bringing back memories of bleary-eyed poll workers holding up ballots with hanging chads.
One thing remains clear: The demographic shift has put these voters in the spotlight. Florida's Hispanic population has increased by 75 percent in the last 10 years.
"This migration could be a game-changer for the Democrats if these individuals turn out to vote," said Casey Klofstad, a political scientist at the University of Miami. "In a close race, any one group can be a decider. Puerto Ricans are the swing group in a swing state."
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