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Republican Lock On Florida's Cuban-American Vote May Be Over

Nov 16, 2012
Originally published on November 16, 2012 8:07 pm

For Republicans ruminating over why their party lost the presidential election, here's something else to digest from the swing state of Florida. Cuban-Americans — long a reliable Republican voting bloc — split almost evenly between Mitt Romney and President Obama, according to at least one group's exit polls.

And that may explain why Obama won Florida and its 29 electoral votes.

Perhaps more important, the trend away from overwhelming Republican support signals that the long relationship between Florida's politically active Cuban-Americans and the GOP is beginning to fray.

Bendixen & Amandi International, a polling firm that works for Democrats, found in its exit polls that 52 percent of Cuban-American voters cast ballots for Romney, while 48 percent went for Obama. That would be by far the greatest percentage of Cuban-American support for a Democratic presidential candidate in decades.

"To jump up into 48 percent all of a sudden puts a vote that historically was monolithically Republican in play," said Fernand Amandi, managing partner of Bendixen & Amandi, who noted that while Democrats have been steadily gaining among Cuban-Americans, in 2008, that translated into just 35 percent support for Obama.

Other exit polls looking at the Cuban-American electorate had a somewhat higher level of Romney support, and there was some dispute about who won among the demographic on Nov. 6. But virtually all signs point to a trend away from a securely Republican voting bloc.

Amandi called his group's finding "a major development with implications, not just for Florida, but for the country." Bendixen had found support for Republican presidential candidates from Cuban-Americans in the state at 75 percent in 2000, 71 percent in 2004 and 65 percent in 2008.

The relationship between Florida's Cuban community and Republican presidential candidates dates to the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan.

Traditionally, candidates make a pilgrimage to Miami's Little Havana, where they drink Cuban coffee before TV cameras and throngs of approving Cuban-American voters. (Romney — a Mormon, and thus a non-coffee drinker — chose a juice bar rather than a cafe for his photo op.)

For the past three decades, the Cuban-American Republican voting bloc in South Florida has helped offset the region's many Democrats. And Cuban-Americans have been the key to Republican presidential victories here.

In the final week of this year's race, the Romney campaign mounted a Spanish-language TV ad in Miami in an effort to shore up its support among Cuban-Americans. It was anything but subtle.

The ad showed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the niece of Cuban leader Fidel Castro both saying they would vote for Obama. It was an attempt to push a well-used button in the Cuban-American community — linking an opponent with despised Venezuelan and Cuban dictators.

The Miami Herald had this translation:

NARRATOR: Who supports Barack Obama?

CHAVEZ: "If I were American, I'd vote for Obama."

NARRATOR: Raúl Castro's daughter, Mariela Castro, would vote for Obama.

CASTRO: "I would vote for President Obama."

NARRATOR: And to top it off, Obama's Environmental Protection Agency sent emails for Hispanic Heritage month with a photo of Che Guevara.

CHAVEZ: "If Obama were from Barlovento (a Venezuelan town), he'd vote for Chávez."

ROMNEY: I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this message.

Democratic strategist Jeffrey Garcia finds it noteworthy that the ad had little impact. "I just think it's about a community in general becoming a little bit more Americanized," he said.

Garcia and other analysts say exit polls confirm what's been evident for some time: that for Cuban-Americans, the future of their native land is no longer a major factor in determining whom they vote for.

One reason is that there's little difference between the two parties on support for the trade embargo against Cuba and how they view U.S. relations with Cuba.

And more than 50 years after the Cuban revolution, many in the first wave of exiles have died. Second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans, and more recent newcomers, are more open to voting Democratic.

But Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University and a strategist who works for Republican campaigns, says it's not just about demographics.

He says Romney's message on immigration, the economy and the "47 percent" alienated many Latinos, including Cuban-Americans. Moreno also says that was true even in staunchly Republican areas such as Hialeah — a blue-collar Cuban-American enclave.

"I think the Republican Party needs to reassess its rhetoric and some of its policies toward Latinos, beyond immigration to education and economic policies, without losing the core Republican message of lesser government," says Moreno.

Cuban-American support is one of the reasons Miami-Dade County was one of the few in the country to produce more votes for Obama this election than in 2008. The president's margin in Miami-Dade was 70,000 votes higher than four years ago. That's about the same number of votes by which he carried Florida.

Moreno and other analysts say this election shows Cuban-Americans, rather than being a sure thing for Republicans, have now become swing voters in Florida. That has implications for both parties as they begin to look ahead to future elections.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. For Republicans ruminating over why their party lost the presidential election, here's something else to digest. In Florida, exit polls show that Cuban-Americans - long reliable Republican voting bloc - split almost evenly between Mitt Romney and President Obama. As NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami, Cuban-Americans shifting loyalties present opportunities for Democrats and challenges for Republicans.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It began with Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s and continued through the campaigns of Republicans George W. Bush...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

GOVERNOR GEORGE W. BUSH: And I believe that it is important for the Cuban people to live in freedom.

ALLEN: ...John McCain...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Then I'll sit down and talk with one of the Castro brothers. I'll sit down with them right after they empty the political prison, right after they have free elections, right after...

ALLEN: ...all the way up to the most recent Republican presidential nominee introduced in Miami by Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: ...and my honor to welcome to my community, to welcome to my neighborhood the next president of the United States of America, Mitt Romney.

ALLEN: For 30 years, for Republican candidates, the path to the presidency has run through Miami and Florida's large politically active Cuban-American community. Since they were brought into the fold by Ronald Reagan, Cuban-Americans have been a strong Republican voting bloc in South Florida, helping offset the region's many Democrats.

Cuban-Americans have been the key to Republican presidential victories here, but exit polls from the recent election show that may be changing.

FERNAND AMANDI: We found that 52 percent supported Governor Romney, which would be a historic low for a Republican candidate amongst Cuban voters in the modern era, and 48 percent supported President Obama, which would be a historic high.

ALLEN: Fernand Amandi is with Bendixen & Amandi, a polling firm that works for Democrats and specializes in analyzing the Hispanic vote. Their exit poll is one of several conducted on Election Day by groups studying the Cuban-American electorate. While the numbers vary, the trend is the same.

For some time, Democrats have been steadily gaining among Cuban Americans. In 2008, President Obama won 35 percent of the community's support. Amandi says he was surprised, though, by the size of President Obama's gain in this election.

AMANDI: To jump up into 48 percent all of a sudden puts a vote that historically was monolithically Republican in play is a major development with implications not just for Florida but for the country.

ALLEN: In an effort to shore up its support among Cuban-Americans, in the final week of the race, the Romney campaign mounted a Spanish language TV ad in Miami. It was anything but subtle.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MARIELA CASTRO: I would vote for President Obama.

ALLEN: The ad showed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro's daughter, Mariela, both saying they would vote for President Obama. It was an attempt to push a button in the Cuban-American community that has worked many times before: linking an opponent with despised Venezuelan and Cuban dictators. Democratic strategist Jeffrey Garcia says it noteworthy that the ad had little impact.

JEFFREY GARCIA: I just think it's about a community in general becoming a little bit more Americanized and a little bit of silliness. I mean, these ads were so - they reeked of desperation.

ALLEN: Analysts say the exit polls confirm what's been evident for some time, that for Cuban-Americans, the future of their native land is no longer a major factor in determining who they vote for. One reason is that there's little difference between the two parties on support for the embargo and how they view U.S. relations with Cuba.

Another big factor in the Cuban-American political shift is demographics. More than 50 years after the Cuban revolution, many of the first wave of exiles have passed on. Second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans and more recent newcomers are more open to voting Democratic. But Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University and a strategist who works for Republican campaigns, says it's not just about demographics.

Romney's message on immigration, the economy and the 47 percent alienated many Latinos, including Cuban-Americans. Moreno says that was true even in staunchly Republican areas such as Hialeah, a blue-collar Cuban-American enclave.

DARIO MORENO: I think the Republican Party needs to reassess its rhetoric and some of its policies toward Latinos, beyond immigration to education and economic policies, without losing the core Republican message of lesser government.

ALLEN: Moreno and other analysts say this election shows that Cuban-Americans, rather than being a sure thing for Republicans, have now become swing voters in Florida. That has implications for both parties to begin to look ahead to future elections. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.