KISSIMMEE -- Manuel Santiago was out of work when Barack Obama ran for president in 2008 and the promise of a better future lured him to the polls.
Today Santiago delivers part time for Pizza Hut.
“It’s not enough. I’m just getting by,” the brawny 40-year-old said on a recent afternoon.
This Orlando suburb has rapidly grown in the past decade, mostly due to an influx of Puerto Ricans like Santiago, and it will be one of the most contested areas of Florida in the 2012 election.
Some here say the president needs more time. “I’m already at the point where I don’t know if I can give him more time,” Santiago said.
Across Florida -- indeed, the country -- stories like Santiago’s are common. Collectively, they represent a major challenge to Obama, who won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in 2008 but has seen his standing drop precipitously among this increasingly powerful voter bloc.
Obama’s approval rating is 49 percent among Hispanics, down from 60 percent in January and far from its 82 percent peak in May 2009.
Nationally, frustration over the president’s failure to enact immigration reform (he blames Republican opposition) has gotten a lot of attention. But the concern that hits all Americans is rocking Hispanics even harder: jobs.
The unemployment rate among Latinos is 11.3 percent, more than 2 points higher than the general population.
Hispanics have felt the home foreclosure crunch more than non-Hispanic whites, and 2010 census figures revealed that more Latino children are living in poverty -- 6.1 million -- than children of any other racial or ethnic group.
“We know the country was messed up even before Obama got here, but he promised us jobs,” said Hector Rivera, 37, who lost his job at Lowe’s in St. Petersburg three months ago. His wife was laid off from a health center. They lost their home.
Rivera is scraping by with a job washing dishes at a Mexican restaurant but has given up on politicians. “I’m not going to vote at all,” he said.
In Tampa, Edwin Soto’s frustrations with finding work have convinced him Republicans may have better solutions. He moved from Puerto Rico shortly before the 2008 election, registered as a Democrat and voted for Obama.
“We definitely needed change, but he was not prepared,” said Soto, 38, eating breakfast at La Teresita Cafeteria before heading to a job fair.
Trying to gain support
Widespread disillusionment among Hispanics, the fastest growing minority group in the country, has chastened Democrats and sent the Obama campaign on a sweeping effort to rebuild support, with bilingual phone banks, canvassing and TV ads.
In late September, the first Hispanics for Obama community organizing event was held in Orlando, attracting 50 leaders from across the state. Democrats have run ads in Orlando, Miami and Tampa highlighting Obama’s jobs plan.
In Miami, volunteers have discussed targeting places and events likely to draw numerous Hispanics: BrandsMart USA on weekends, soccer games, movie premieres.
But the challenges were clear at a call center in the Miami suburb of Doral on a muggy Saturday in late July. A dozen volunteers sat in a temporary, dingy office with phone lists and cell phones. They called voters who campaigned for Obama in 2008 and asked them, in English and Spanish, Do you still support the president? And do you want to volunteer in 2012?
Most past supporters sounded happy to be contacted and eager to help, said Yolanda Escollies of Miami Beach, a campaign organizer. But several said they were frustrated by the stalled economy and stalemate in Congress -- and couldn’t commit yet to backing Obama.
“We’ve gotten a few people who are very upset,” said Escollies, 68, a retired Cuban-American teacher from New York. “Obama’s not doing everything perfectly, that’s for sure.”
When folks on the phone sounded reluctant about helping the Obama campaign, volunteers didn’t spend time trying to persuade them. They politely said they hoped the campaign could earn back their support, and hung up.
The goal was to pinpoint volunteers to create neighborhood networks of Obama supporters “to create ownership of their own campaign,” Escollies said.
‘Very, very confident’
“Obviously there’s been a lot of pain,” David Axelrod, the president’s political adviser, acknowledged last week, while defending measures Obama has taken. Democrats point to efforts to increase higher education funding for Hispanics and say the 2009 economic stimulus kept 1.9 million Latinos out of poverty.
With more Hispanics than ever casting ballots -- and with more Spanish-language TV and radio stations to reach them -- the Obama campaign is hitting those talking points with an emphasis on the middle class. Democrats hope that will resonate with Hispanics, a demographic that is more blue-collar than well-off.
“I’m very, very confident we’re going to win that fight,” Axelrod said. “The Republican Party has no claim to that vote.”
Republicans are gearing up their own outreach. The first Spanish language political TV ad in Florida this year was a Republican attack on Obama’s economic policies.
The Republican National Committee has also advertised on TV in New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, other swing states with large Hispanic populations. The ads have focused on two issues key for Hispanics: education and health care, traditionally campaign platforms for Democrats.
The GOP has its own problems. The debate over illegal immigration and laws in Arizona, Alabama and other states have alienated many Hispanic voters. Even if they are not directly affected by the issue (voters, of course, must be citizens) many Hispanics know someone who is, or they detect racism in the rhetoric.
“The only upside for Democrats is that it’s not like the GOP is winning a ton of fans among Latino voters,” said Gabriel Sanchez, research director for Latino Decisions, a nonpartisan polling group. “But as we get closer to the election, Latino enthusiasm for voting is getting weaker and weaker and that’s not a good sign for Obama.”
The I-4 corridor
Kissimmee and the surrounding area, part of the coveted I-4 corridor of swing voters, is an ideal litmus test.
It has exploded since home builders started marketing in Puerto Rico in the 1980s. Immigrants followed from Colombia, Honduras and Venezuela, drawn to plentiful tourism jobs. Today storefronts bear Spanish names, church services are delivered in Spanish and bars are packed for baseball games.
Obama worked the area hard in 2008, and support among Puerto Ricans countered traditional backing that Cuban Americans in South Florida have given to Republicans. Obama took 57 percent of Florida’s Hispanic vote, a key part of his victory. Like African-Americans eager to elect the first black president, many Hispanics in 2008 said they felt compelled to vote for a fellow minority.
Support swung back to Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections, however, and the economy has not gotten better. Finding the enthusiasm gap is as easy as walking into the parking lot of the local Publix Sabor.
“I was an Obama person big time,” said Leslie Vega, a 23-year-old nurse whose fiance lost his job a year ago. “I thought things were going to be a bit different. Now I just feel like things are never going to change.”
Vega is not likely to vote Republican -- but she may not vote at all. “I’m just kind of over politics at this point.”
Rick Ramirez, who works in security, vented over his rapidly depreciating home. He was angered to see Obama push the bank bailout (which began under President George W. Bush) but not do enough to help regular folks hold onto their homes.
Obama has lost his support, “unless he comes up with something miraculous in the next year. Which I don’t think he can. He’s got to pull a lot of rabbits out of his hat.”
There’s hope for Obama in 18-year-old Hilda Lebron. While many of her friends do not plan to vote, she is looking forward to it. Her parents are Republican; Lebron likes Obama.
“It takes a while to recover from all the stuff that happened,” she said. “You have to give people a chance.”