Puerto Rican first-time voters, especially in Florida, could be a critical game-changer in presidential race

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 country’s 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 candidate’s 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 wasn’t 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 don’t 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 island’s sitting governor during a campaign stop in Orlando.

Although Puerto Ricans traditionally vote Democratic, some — like Caballero — are so unfamiliar with party politics that they are approaching the race with an open mind.

In 2004, George Bush won Puerto Rican vote in Florida. But in ’08, it went to Obama.

“The Puerto Rican vote in Florida is up for grabs, of course,” said Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño, a Republican who dismisses the notion that Puerto Ricans are a shoo-in for Democrats. “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.”

At 52, Fortuño himself has never voted in a presidential election.

“The I-4 corridor, as I see it, is going to decide how Florida goes,” he said. “It’s mostly Puerto Ricans. There are a lot of other Hispanics in that area, but they are not necessarily American citizens.”

There were 2.7 million Hispanics in Florida in 2000, and 4.2 million in 2010.

“That’s a 57 percent gain in population,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “A good part of that growth is the Puerto Rican population growth in Central Florida.”

Overall, a growing number of Latinos are registering Democratic or citing no party affiliation, Lopez said.

Felix Castro, 35, moved to Miramar in 2008 from Puerto Rico and will also be voting for the first time in a presidential race. He said most Puerto Ricans will wind up casting ballots in favor of a candidate — not a party.

“Puerto Rico is a totally different political culture,” Castro said. “For us, when we speak of parties, the definition is clear: We are talking about independence for Puerto Rico, statehood for Puerto Rico or commonwealth for Puerto Rico. With Republicans and Democrats, you have a lot of people saying, ‘wait, wait, wait. I don’t understand.’

“I still have my doubts about the difference between the two.”