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Does Florida's increasingly diverse Latino population have the last word on Decision 2012?

by Bethany Robinson // Published June 1, 2012
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Does Florida’s increasingly diverse Latino population have the last word on Decision 2012? 

With former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney surpassing the magic number of 1,144 delegates needed for the party’s official nomination this week, the focus of the campaign season has shifted from winning delegates in primaries to winning over voters, specifically swing state voters, for the general election. One of the most important swing states of the 2012 election is Florida– with the potential to play the same decisive role in the Electoral College that it did in the 2000 election. 

Central to winning Florida’s 29 electoral votes is winning over Florida’s Hispanic electorate, an electorate that is not the Cuban American monolith some press reports might suggest. There are 1.5 million registered Latino voters in Florida, about 13 percent of all registered voters. Those 1.5 million Americans are predominantly comprised of people of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent. Although still outnumbered by Cubans 540,000 to 480,000, Puerto Rican voters are the fastest growing group of the Latino electorate, their presence nearly doubling over the last decade.

Voters of Cuban descent tend to lean more Republican while voters of Puerto Rican and other Latino descent tend to lean more Democratic. In the 2008 election, President Barack Obama won 57 percent of Florida’s Hispanic vote, while 42 percent went to Senator John McCain. Among non-Cuban Latinos Obama won by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, winning 65 percent to McCain’s 33 percent, however he did not win the Cuban-American vote. McCain won it with 53 percent to Obama’s 47 percent. 

While there are many reasons that Cubans vote differently than other Latinos, the biggest one is immigration. Cubans and Puerto Ricans do not have the same immigration concerns that other Latinos have. Cubans tend to be more conservative about social issues and are granted asylum when they reach the United States. Republicans tend to support harsher illegal immigration policies, but because those policies do not really affect Cubans due to their asylum, Cuban voters can support Republicans on immigration issues at no detriment to themselves. 

But immigration doesn’t explain most Puerto Ricans’ voting preferences. Because Puerto Ricans are American citizens at birth, illegal immigration policies are rarely of direct concern to them. Puerto Rican party leanings seem tied to other factors. Because most of the Puerto Rican growth in Florida comes from Puerto Ricans leaving Democratic stronghold states such as New York, Florida’s Puerto Ricans tend to lean Democratic. 

For the remaining Hispanic voters in Florida, however, immigration helps explain their preference for Obama in 2008. Non-Cuban and non-Puerto Rican voters lean more Democratic because Democrats tend to support social and immigration reforms that those Latinos view as greatly beneficial.

Even though different groups of Latinos lean different ways, the electorate is still very much up for grabs. Some of the biggest issues of concern to Latinos are the economy, immigration, and policy surrounding Cuba and Puerto Rico. Hispanics in Florida have been disproportionately affected by the downturn of the economy – their unemployment rate stands at 11.4% in comparison to national unemployment rate of 9%  and in 2010, more Hispanic children lived in poverty than any other racial or ethnic group. 

With figures like these associated with President Obama’s time in office, we could see a large influx of voters who voted for Obama in 2008 shift to Romney in the 2012 election. However, even with such dismal figures, Hispanics are more optimistic about the economy and the country’s future than any other demographic. That optimism could keep voters in President Obama’s camp. 

Still, immigration reform remains very important to parts of the Latino vote and could very well be the difference between whether or not we have President Obama or President Romney for the next four years. While campaigning in 2008, President Obama promised immigration reform, something that he and Congress have yet to produce. 

In fact, under the Obama administration more illegal immigrants have been deported than under any other president in recent history with the use of controversial tactics such as Secure Communities (SCOMM). SCOMM is a program that requires local law enforcement to share the fingerprints of detained undocumented workers with the proper Federal agencies. 

One would think that this stance could only help Romney gain votes, but that may not be the case seeing as Romney also has a very tough stance on immigration. Romney supports the implementation of “self deportation”, a system in which instead of the Government actively finding and deporting illegal immigrants the Government would make life so difficult for them that they would leave the country of their own accord in order to find better opportunities for themselves. 

The increased number of deportations under Obama and the idea of “self deportation” under Romney do not appeal to many Latino voters interested in immigration policy, keeping them out of either camp. Due to this, the deciding factor for voters voting based on immigration policies may be the DREAM act. The DREAM act, also known as Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors act, would grant legal residency to illegal immigrants who fulfill certain requirements such as arriving to the United States as a minor, completing college or serving in the military and showing good moral character. President Obama has voiced his support for the bill, but Romney has gone back and forth from saying that he would absolutely veto it to saying that he would support it if it focused more on military participation. President Obama’s clear willingness to support the bill could definitely help him win votes in the Latino community. 

The treatment of Cuba by the United States is an issue that remains very important to Cuban-American voters. One of the biggest reasons Cubans immigrate to the United States is to escape poor treatment and quality of life under the Castro regime. Romney, referring to Castro as a tyrant and vocalizing his hopes for Castro’s death, has consistently advocated his position of no appeasement or negotiation with Cuba. Many Cuban-Americans harbor a lot of anger and resentment towards Cuba and the Castro regime and identify with Romney and his stance on Cuba. Based off the belief that his stance would change things in Cuba most of those Cuban-Americans would vote for Romney. 

President Obama’s stance on Cuba varies greatly from that of former Governor Romney. United States’ policy used to limit not only the number of times one could visit Cuba, but also the amount of money one could send to Cuba. These policies angered many Cuban-Americans who wanted to be able to visit their relatives in Cuba and help them financially. Under Obama, those restrictions have been eased under with the idea that by limiting American interaction with Cuba, we force Cubans to rely more and more on Castro and his regime. Obama’s ideas and policy changes appeal to Cuban-Americans who finally have the chance to more easily connect with, help their families, and could help him win the Cuban-American vote that he was not able to win in 2008. 

The candidates’ positions on Puerto Rico are more similar. As it stands now, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated, organized territory of the United States with commonwealth status, however, that can be changed. Puerto Ricans have the opportunity to vote on plebiscites where they have four options for the future of Puerto Rico: remain a commonwealth, be granted statehood, be granted free association, or be granted independence. If the majority votes for any option other than remain a commonwealth then Puerto Rico goes before Congress to attempt to change their status. The next Puerto Rican plebiscite is on November 6, 2012, concurrent with both the United States Presidential election and the Puerto Rican Governor’s election. 

Obama and Romney both support Puerto Rican self-determination, an idea that appeals to mainland Puerto Ricans and draws them towards both camps. The deciding factor as to which camp those Puerto Rican voters ultimately choose could be Romney’s stance on English. Romney has said that he would not force Puerto Rico to adopt English as its official language in order to become a state, but has also voiced his goal of making English the official language of the United States. Latinos and mainland Puerto Ricans (those who support Puerto Rican statehood especially) who are proud of their Spanish-speaking heritage could see Romney’s pursuit for English as the official language as an assault on their history and culture and vote for Obama instead. 

Although they consist of only about 13% of Florida’s electorate, Hispanics may be the most coveted demographic in the state – partly because their partisan loyalties are still being defined. Being elected, or reelected, President of the United States could very easily come down to whichever candidate best energizes and mobilizes Latino voters in Florida – swing voters in a swing state. And this year more than ever, it will come down to more than a candidate’s views on Cuba.