Osceola County, Florida: A Political Trendsetter in the Making

From Buckhead to Bucks County—and of course “crucial Waukesha County”—political analysts have plenty of geographic areas they cite as bellwethers, the sorts of places populated by oodles of swing voters who cast the most decisive votes in our elections. For decades, Florida’s “I-4 corridor” has earned a reputation as the essential swingy turf in the Sunshine State. I-4 is the interstate that runs from downtown Tampa across Florida, up through swamplands and suburbs, terminating at the doorstep of Daytona International Speedway. Along the way, it passes by some of the state’s biggest tourist attractions. As you drive past Walt Disney World, you can spot the “Mickey pylon,” a large power pole in the shape of the head of the Mouse himself. In political parlance, the “I-4 corridor” is shorthand for counties like Orlando’s Orange County, places with large populations of exactly the sort of voters both parties crave: swing voters, yes—and increasingly, Hispanic voters. When pundits talk about the Hispanic vote in America, they will often go to great pains to note the bloc “is not a monolith.” There are counties with large Latino populations in states along the southern border, and then of course there is Miami-Dade County in South Florida with its large population of Cubans, many of whom fled Fidel Castro’s Communist regime or descended from those who did. Too often missing is the story of the way that Hispanic voters are also reshaping our politics—and our concept of a swing voter, outside of the counties under the bright lights. Along Florida’s I-4 corridor, it is Osceola County (a county that nearly quadrupled its overall population between 1990 and 2020, and grew its share of Hispanic residents from 12 percent to 54 percent in that same period) that best tells the story of how Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis went from barely eking out a victory in 2018 to absolutely dominating his 2022 reelection. To give you a sense of what you’ll find if you visit Osceola County, imagine Florida swampland airboat tours, dotted with patches of working-class suburbs, especially surrounding the roads heading toward Disney World. The since-renamed Reedy Creek Improvement District, which governs Disney’s turf, comprises pieces of both Orange and Osceola counties. Osceola is home to a large number of service industry workers who support Florida’s tourism industry. It’s notably also home to a large Puerto Rican population, one which swelled in the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017. Despite its location along that I-4 swing-voter corridor, in both 2016 and 2018, Osceola County was not exactly friendly turf for Republicans. Hillary Clinton won six out of 10 voters in Osceola in her matchup with Donald Trump, and two years later, Osceola kept its status as a big blue county in a sea of rural red throughout Central Florida. Then-Gov. Rick Scott lost the county in his ultimately successful 2018 bid for U.S. Senate by a whopping 17-point margin, and Ron DeSantis lost to Andrew Gillum there by an even larger 21 points. Ouch. But by 2020, things started looking different. Joe Biden still won Osceola in 2020 but defeated Trump by a slimmer margin of 14 points, far less than the 25 points Clinton had won by in 2016. Making that even more notable is the fact that Osceola’s longtime political twin—Orange County just to the north—held steady for Democrats and broke for Biden by 23 points. Some posited that the Republican boost in performance among Hispanic voters during 2020 was a Trump-specific phenomenon, driven by what The New York Times called his “machismo.” Were this true, one might expect Republican performance to backslide without Trump on the ballot. But by the time 2022 arrived, Osceola was suddenly no longer voting for Democrats. Sen. Marco Rubio defeated Democratic challenger Rep. Val Demings by a few points, and Gov. Ron DeSantis absolutely crushed Charlie Crist there by historical standards, winning by almost seven percentage points. Even further down-ballot, Osceola and Orange counties’ own former state attorney, Aramis Ayala, a progressive, was handily defeated in Osceola by conservative Ashley Moody in the race for state attorney general. In Osceola, some of the common theories for Republican overperformance with Latino voters in the last two elections fall apart. While border counties in places such as Texas have swung heavily for the GOP, the strain facing those communities as a result of migration is not a factor in Osceola, a landlocked county that is a two-day drive from the closest town along the Mexican border. The Puerto Ricans who make up the bulk of Osceola’s Hispanic population need only establish residency in the state to become eligible to vote, rendering the issue of illegal immigration less potent. Furthermore, while anti-socialist sentiment was touted as a reason for GOP dominance in more heavily Cuban South Florida, there’s less reason to believe that would be applicable given the makeup of Osceola’s Latino voters. My colleague Patrick Ruffini, author of Party of the People: Inside the Multiracial Populist Coalition Remaking the GOP (Simon & Schuster), has another theory: It’s the economy. On issues like taxes or environmental regulation, Ruffini writes, “Republicans are more readily seen as defenders of Hispanic prosperity.” In a place like Osceola, with a large population of service industry workers affected by COVID-19 lockdowns and the resulting economic downturn, it isn’t hard to see how economic liberty might have a rising appeal to these voters. Hispanic voters are consistently among the most alarmed about the state of the economy, even as the pandemic fades into the rearview for many. In a recent Fox News poll, 63 percent of Hispanics said they were “extremely concerned” about being able to pay their bills, compared to only 49 percent of black voters and 46 percent of white voters. A majority of Hispanic voters (52 percent) said they felt the Biden administration’s policies are hurting, not helping, when it comes to inflation. As you watch election results come in next November, likely with a Florida Man on the ballot, keep an eye on Osceola County. After the infamous election of 2000, Florida has become astonishingly good at efficient and accurate vote counting, and you’ll likely see results there early (for more, see page 18). If Republicans are winning or even holding it close there, it would be an early sign that the GOP’s improvement with Hispanic voters over these last few elections could be sticking around.