Diana Caballero is the ultimate swing voter in the ultimate swing state, a member of a sought-after demographic that could help decide the 2012 presidential race.
The South Beach beauty product distributor is among a growing legion of voters who hail from Puerto Rico, where citizens do not have the right to cast ballots in a presidential election. At 34, this vote will be her first for the countrys top post. And like many of the more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans who have moved to Florida in the past decade, her electoral decision is either candidates taking.
Experts say the importance of voters like her cannot be understated, particularly in Florida, a state where the 2000 election was such a close call that it was decided by manual count.
In Puerto Rico, U.S. politics wasnt that important. I never kept up with what the Republicans promised or what the Democrats said they would do, she said. To have to make a decision in such a short time is a little scary.
Caballero moved to Florida a year ago. Although being Puerto Rican made her a lifelong U.S. citizen, she could vote in primaries but did not gain the right to vote in a presidential race until she moved stateside.
Many other professionals from the island did the same, leaving behind a territory fraught with crime and unemployment. As the Puerto Rican labor force dropped by nearly 172,000 people in the past seven years, many of them came here, particularly Central Florida. In Osceola County, the Hispanic vote increased 62 percent since President Barack Obama took office a number most experts say is almost entirely attributed to the exodus from Puerto Rico.
Statewide, the Puerto Rican population grew 75 percent in the past decade, to about 850,000. Counties like Broward saw its Puerto Rican population soar 36 percent.
The island lost a lot of its population, said Wilfred Benitez, a Puerto Rican Democrat who arrived in 2004 and now runs a voter registration drive in Tampa. They went somewhere. Florida is like their first port.
Although Puerto Ricans are expected to turn out for the presidential race, they often sit out state and local races, Benitez said. This vote will be particularly baffling for many newcomers, he said, because so many amendments are on the ballot and many contested races are for positions that in Puerto Rico are appointed by the governor.
They can play a determining role in these elections, he said, but I am noticing that these people dont understand that.
Not only has the share of Cuban voters among the Hispanic electorate shrank, but, for the first time, the number of Latino voters now outnumbers blacks.
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.
Klofstad said the Puerto Rican vote is of particular interest, because its electorate here changed so drastically with such a large influx of people.
Experts say the population boom caused the candidates to rediscover Puerto Rico. President Obama made a historic visit to the island last year, and stumped in Central Florida last month with two former Puerto Rico governors. Gov. Mitt Romney was endorsed by the islands sitting governor during a campaign stop in Orlando.