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Many Hispanic voters on fence about Obama in 2012

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 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.

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 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.

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