In 2008, the Obama craze swept the nation. State after state was giving President-elect Barack Obama a strong showing. But in Florida for some reason, the margin wasn’t as high as expected. Obama was barely winning the state, and eventually won it by less than 3%.
Even with this close race, many expected the President to do well in Orange County. After all, Orange had been trending Democratic for some time. The last Democrat to lose Orange County was President Clinton in his 1996 reelection bid, and that was only by 516 votes. Even with Democrats winning Orange County, the margins have been quite slim. John Kerry only won Orange County by 816 votes over George Bush. Al Gore did win by 5,703 votes, but that was only a difference of 2% in the overall Orange County vote.
So, when President-elect Obama won Orange County by 86,890 votes in 2008, it was quite a shock to the average political observer. Yes, it was understood that the demographics had changed over the last ten years. In addition, it was understood that Obama would perform well in Orange County. But winning by 19% wasn’t expected whatsoever. Was Obama’s victory in Orange County by such a large percentage a fluke?
Fast forward to 2010, which was a bad year for Democrats. Still, Alex Sink won Orange County by 9%. In the down ballot races, Republicans pulled off the victories, but their margin of victory in Orange County was substantially lower than what these candidate garnered statewide.
What has changed in Orange County? Along with Pinellas and Seminole Counties, Orange County was one of the birthplaces of modern Republicanism in Florida. Dan Webster, Toni Jennings, Mel Martinez, Lou Frey and Glenda Hood all called Orange County home. Currently, the next wave of Republicans, such as Andy Gardiner, can also call Orange County home.
But unlike Seminole County, which hasn’t seen much of a change over the last 20 years regarding demographics, the same cannot be said for Orange County. In 2000, the Hispanic population made up 18.9% of the population in Orange County. In 2010, they comprised of 27.5%. Much of this population increase has been because of the increase of Puerto Ricans.
When it comes to understanding the explosion in the Puerto Rican population, most people, even those that study Florida politics, are unaware of the origins of this population expansion. Most people think that the Puerto Rican expansion stated in the mid-1990s. In fact, the immigration of Puerto Ricans started in the late 1960s. When Walt Disney World was being build, much of the labor was brought in from Puerto Rico. Since there wasn’t a large population in Florida, pulling off a project like WDW required more people. Therefore, Puerto Ricans were secured jobs with the Disney Corporation for two main reasons. First, because the project was so large, cheap labor was desired, which is what the immigrant population provided. Second, because of the immigration status that Puerto Ricans had over other immigrat groups from Latin America, they were easily able to move to Florida and start work on WDW right away.
Therefore, the original Puerto Ricans that came into Florida were actual immigrants from the island. As time passed, the Puerto Rican population increased. While this immigration was slow between 1970 and 1990, the early 1990s started to see a spike in Puerto Rican migration to Florida. Unlike the previous immigrants, who came directly from Puerto Rico, these new Puerto Ricans were mostly from other parts of the United States, with an overwhelming majority of them coming from New York City. When these Puerto Ricans moved to Orlando, they didn’t really bring as much Puerto Rican heritage with them as much as they did their New York heritage. Driving through these Puerto Rican neighborhoods, one would wonder if they were in New York, as sporting New York Yankees and Giants clothing is more common than seeing anything from Florida or, even, their native Puerto Rico.
The reason that Orange County has become highly Democratic is because of this Puerto Rican migration. Many of these voters were Democrats in New York. And since their politics are more along the line of average American politics compared to the Cuban and Mexican communities, which gravitate to more specific issues, Puerto Ricans usually vote with their overall interests, which are usually liberal.
As far as geography, Puerto Ricans mostly live in south-central and eastern Orange County, with Semoran Blvd. (SR 436) in the east and South Orange Blossom Train and John Young Parkway in the south-central area being the main roads.
Though Puerto Ricans make up a large part of the Orange County Hispanic population, there are a number of other Hispanics groups in the county. In Ocoee, Mexicans make up a large part of that community’s Hispanic population. Throughout the rest of the county, people from other Latin American countries reside, but there isn’t a strong center of population for any of them.
The other major minority group in Orange County is the African-American community. Unlike the Hispanics, who have been a recent phenomena, blacks have been a staple of Orange County politics for quite a while. Many of the African-Americans have been in Central Florida for a number of generations.
The largest concentration of black votes are located in the heart of Orange County, but are still split up into to distinct, but connected, neighborhoods. The first neighborhood is located west of downtown, commonly known as Paramore. This area is where most African-Americans first settled in Orlando. But in the early 1950s, the area known as Pine Hill would soon sprout up. This was originally a white, middle class neighborhood, with subdivision construction starting in 1953 for WWII veterans looking to move to Florida. As time passed, the growing African-American population from Paramore could no longer stay within a small area. Many of them moved along Orange Blossom Trail (which will be mentioned later), but many others moved along Colonial Drive (State Road 50) and started to settle in Pine Hills. In the early 1980s, Pine Hills was more of a mixed neighborhood than the white Orlando suburb that had originally been planned. But the mid-1990s, most of the white population had gone. Today, nearly 70% of Pine Hills is African-American.
When political battles happen in this area, both of these distinct areas are handled differently, but yet the same. Usually these two areas are located in the same district, but candidates might target one area over another to get an electoral advantage. Therefore, the Pine Hills part of the district can be totally void of signs for a certain candidate while the Paramore area has a vast number of signs for that same candidate.
Most of the candidates in this area usually use their political and community connections when it comes to winning elections. African-American politics in Orange County is just as strong as the machine politics of Chicago. Therefore, most of the voters in the district already know who they are voting for before the election. This makes it very hard for any outsider to win an election. If one is in the political machine, they will have success. If not, they will just simply fade away.
Another large area of African-American population concentration is along Orange Blossom Trail from I-4 to Sandlake Road. These communities also stretch westward along Oak Ridge Road. Just like the Pine Hills area, Oak Ridge and the surround areas were intending as white suburbs. Around the same time that Pine Hills started seeing African-Americans move to that region, the same happened along OBT. Unlike the other neighborhoods, many whites still live in these neighborhoods today, making up about 35% or so of the population. Because this area is still considered a mixed community, it is rarely considered a focal point of any campaign. Even the highly African-American neighborhood of Tangelo Park, located southwest of Oak Ridge near International Drive, is rarely targeted despite the fact that the neighborhood is 90% black.
Smaller population of poorer blacks are located in areas like Winter Garden, where the obscene signs of Florida’s segregationist past, in the form of old sharecropper houses, not only still stand, but are still inhabited. These voters are usually merged into majority white districts, as they are usually surrounded by large centers of white populations in multiple counties.
In addition to African-Americans, there is also a growing Haitian population in Central Florida, with many of them living in the Pine Hills neighborhood. Unlike Miami, where they have worked hard to organize politically, there hasn’t been much of a movement to involve the Haitian population in the political climate in Central Florida. But with their growing numbers, this could possibly change.
One other smaller, but growing, minority group is the Vietnamese population. After the fall of Saigon, many from the former South Vietnam found their way to Orlando around the corner of Mills Avenue and Colonial Drive, commonly known as “Little Vietnam”. Like the Cuban community in Miami, the Vietnamese are highly pro-Democratic. As far as the similarities in how they vote, Vietnamese are more bipartisan in their voting habits than Cubans. Some Vietnamese have tried to run for office in Orange County, but have had very little luck in succeeding. Therefore, while a proud and vibrant Central Florida community, Vietnamese still haven’t been able to gain any real political clout.
With the explosion of the minority population in Orange County, one might wonder where the white vote is located. Many of the neighborhoods are mixed nowadays, especially between whites and Hispanics. While Hispanics make up much of south-central Orange County, there are still a large amount of whites, from different economic backgrounds, living in the area.
Even with the mixed neighborhoods, there are two strong concentrations of white voters that are important, but for two totally different reasons. The first concentration of white voters is in Winter Park. Mostly upper income families, these voters buck the trend and are usually highly liberal instead of being the pro-tax cut conservative. Wealthy liberals in Winter Park are similar to those in Salt Lake City, who are more interested in the arts and wish to separate themselves from conservative values. Fancy gourmet restaurants, Priuses, local art exhibits and the Rollins College campus make up the liberal Winter Park area, which still captures the classical American Bohemianism of the early 20th Century.
The other large concentration of white voters is in southwest Orange County, along Apopka-Vineland Road and down into Walt Disney World, commonly known as the neighborhoods of Bay Hill, Windermere and Dr. Phillips. Unlike Winter Park, these voters are much more conservative, making church connections a top priority for many residents. This is an area where money is important as well as status. While Winter Park has more of a passe and individual style of living, southwest Orange County is very clannish. Most of the voters in this area are already locked up because of the church connection. Commonly known as “Church Row” by the locals, the churches along Apopka-Vineland Road take as much of a political stance as they do a religious one. Even with more people moving into the area even today, the grasp of Christian conservatism still holds a majority of votes. Those that are moving into Dr. Phillips and Bay Hill today seem to be more liberal and very similar to the type of voters we see in Winter Park. But will these liberal voters ever be able to compete with the the conservative, Christian Republican machine? Only time will tell.
Back in the early and mid-1980s, southwest Orange County had a firm grasp on electoral politics. Now, with the large increase of minorities, the power of the Dr. Phillips-Bay Hill-Windermere area is starting to die off. On the county level, this area still plays a major part. But when it comes to state and federal elections, they are no longer as important as they were previously. For example, Dr. Phillips was instrumental in getting both Dan Webster and Andy Gardiner elected to the State Senate. In 2012, Republican candidate Kelli Stargel can win the district without even campaigning in Dr. Phillips or Windermere. In fact, during the Republican primary, Stargel’s opponents Jack Myers and Ron Rushing (who is from Windermere) concentrated in this area while Stargel didn’t even show a presence. She still won the primary with 63% of the vote, while only getting 45% in Orange County.
Orange County is a quickly changing county. If the 19% win for Obama didn’t give people the hint, the 9% win by Alex Sink should have been the icing on the cake. Over the next 20 years, one must wonder if Orange County could be the 2nd most Democratic county in the state. It is highly unlikely that Gadsden County will lose this title, but Orange could take on Broward and Leon for this title. If the shift over the last 20 years is any indication, the next 20 years will be quite exciting.