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Following the Currents that Guide Florida's Future
Have Republicans blown it with Hispanic voters?
Joe Saunders
With its status as the nation's largest minority, the Hispanic voting population of the United States – and the Sunshine State – is rapidly becoming one of the nation's most coveted electoral demographic group. President Obama's re-election was due in large part to his strength among Hispanics and other minority groups. The question now faces both political parties: What is the best way to help ensure Hispanic support in future elections. Dr. Aubry Jewett of the University of Central Florida thinks Republicans would do well to reconsider their stance on immigration, which he says is hurting the party even among Hispanics with little or no immigration worries themselves. Nicole Murillo, secretary to the Democratic Party of Osceola County (where the population is more than 25 percent Hispanic) says Republicans need to change their view of Hispanics as a whole. Meanwhile, Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, puts it starkly: If the Republican Party doesn't change, he writes, "we are history."
Aubrey Jewett
Professor of political science, University of Central Florida

Hispanic voters have had significant impact on Florida politics and their influence is growing and changing.

The Sunshine State's fast-expanding Hispanic population is becoming more Democratic over time. If Republicans do not figure out how to broaden their appeal to this important group they will see more losses in statewide elections and eventually lose their dominance in Tallahassee.

Between 2000 and 2010, Florida’s overall population grew by 17.6 percent to about 19 million. The state's non-Hispanic white population grew slowly by about 4 percent to almost 11 million and is about 60 percent of Florida’s total population (this is down from 65 percent in 2000). Florida’s black population grew by 28 percent to almost 3 million residents and makes up 16 percent of the Florida population (up from 14.6 percent in 2000). The Hispanic population grew by 57 percent to more than 4 million and Hispanics make up 22.5 percent of Florida’s population (up from 17 percent in 2000).

Within the Hispanic community, Cubans are the largest subgroup (1.2 million), followed by Puerto Ricans (850,000) and Mexicans (630,000). Cubans have long dominated Hispanic politics in Florida because of their numbers, concentration in South Florida (particularly Miami Dade where they make up more than one-third of the population), shared ideology and easier path to citizenship.

However over the past decade, the Puerto Rican and Mexican population grew at a faster rate (76 percent and 73 percent respectively) compared to the Cuban population (45 percent). The Puerto Rican population is beginning to exercise more political clout as its numbers grow in Central Florida (13 percent of Orange County, and 28 percent of Osceola County) and because they have the political advantage over other Hispanic subgroups of being U.S. citizens. By contrast, Floridians of Mexican descent are more widely dispersed and frequently not citizens and thus have wielded less political power in the state.

Non-Cuban Hispanics (including Puerto Ricans and Mexicans) in Florida and across the United States tend to favor the Democratic Party because of the party's proactive stance on civil rights, economic policies that favor the poor and working class, and liberal immigration policy.

However, Florida’s Cuban-Americans traditionally favored the Republican Party because of their strong stance against communism and Fidel Castro and their pro-business views. However, some evidence suggests that there is a generational shift occurring among Cuban voters, with older Cubans still leaning Republican but younger Cubans leaning Democratic. Younger Cubans are not motivated very much by hatred for Castro and, like many younger voters of all races, tend to be more liberal on economic and social issues and, like many other non-Cuban Hispanics, tend to view the Democrats as much stronger on protecting civil rights for minorities.

As of the 2012 general election, Florida had almost 12 million registered voters and about 14 percent (1.66 million) were Hispanic: about 39 percent Democratic, 29 percent Republican and 32 percent other (No Party Affiliation or Minor Party).

As recently as 2006, fewer than 11 percent of Florida registered voters were Hispanic and more of them were registered as Republican (37 percent) than Democrats (33 percent). So, along with an overall population increase of Hispanics, Florida has seen a growing percentage of Hispanic voters, more Hispanic Democrats than Republicans (this flip occurred in 2008), and a larger percentage of Hispanics not registered with a major party than the state as a whole (almost one-third of Florida Hispanics versus about one-fourth of all state voters).

According to the 2012 exit polls, Hispanics voters played a critical role in Barack Obama’s narrow reelection victory in Florida where they constituted 17 percent of the electorate (up from 14 percent in 2008) and gave the president 60 percent of their votes (up from the 57 percent in 2008).

Significantly, exit polls also found that even Florida’s Cuban voters favored President Obama in 2012 by 49 percent to 47 percent.

Clearly, Florida Republicans should be concerned (and Florida Democrats excited) about the Sunshine State’s fast growing non-Cuban Hispanic population that leans Democratic and steadily increasing Cuban population that is becoming less Republican.

Florida Republicans can take some consolation that Hispanics still seem to be a swing voting block from one election to the next. For instance between presidential elections, in 2010, exit polls showed that Cuban Republican Marco Rubio got 55 percent of the Hispanic vote in his victorious three-way Senate race, and, perhaps more noteworthy, that Republican Rick Scott got 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in his winning bid for governor.

Still, if Republicans want to remain competitive in future statewide elections they need to do a better job of appealing to Florida’s fast-growing Hispanic population. While the Republican Party’s message of lower taxes, smaller government, less business regulation and conservative social policy may naturally appeal to many Hispanic immigrants to Florida, that message is increasingly drowned out by the GOP’s stance on illegal immigration.

Cubans (with special immigration status) and Puerto Ricans (as U.S. citizens) do not have to worry about the direct impact of crackdowns on illegal immigration. However, many of them, as well as many other Hispanics, believe that Republican rhetoric on the issue is actually anti-Hispanic, as opposed to anti-illegal immigration, and also worry that crackdowns on illegal immigration may lead to profiling and civil rights violations. Thus, it is no wonder that many Hispanics seem to be turning away from the Republican Party.

At a minimum, Republicans need a more eloquent messenger for this issue and a more nuanced message. However a bolder step, and one potentially politically more helpful, would be to change their stance. Perhaps suggesting a deal for enhanced border security coupled with legalization (but not necessarily citizenship) for adults who entered the country illegally and an actual path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who were brought over to the country as children and have grown up in the U.S. (similar to the Dream Act).

Some supporters in the base of the Republican Party are likely to resist changing their stance on illegal immigration. But the fact is that the Sunshine State’s Hispanic population is growing rapidly and both non-Cuban and younger Cuban Hispanics are voting more Democratic.

If Florida Republicans do not figure out a way to attract more Hispanic voters, they will almost certainly lose more statewide elections in the future and over time even see their majorities in the congressional delegation and state Legislature disappear.

In starkest terms the GOP faces a choice: ease up on the harsh rhetoric and start to support a path to citizenship (or at least legalization) or risk traveling back down a path to minority party status in Florida.

Nicole Murillo
Secretary, Hispanic Caucus, Democratic Party of Osceola County

The Hispanic vote in Florida has become an important tool in the election process in the last decade.

Many factors have contributed to this phenomenon: the number of Hispanics who are becoming citizens; the group of Hispanics who are citizens by virtue of being born in the United States or native of Puerto Rico; and the way both parties see Hispanics as a minority group.

This past election shows that the Cubans born and raised in the United States are having a tendency to be Democrat by choice, rather than Republican by tradition. The era in which most Cubans supported the Republican Party due to the Bay of Pigs disaster during the Kennedy administration is gone, and replaced by the eight years of the past administration in which the Hispanic community, nationwide was deeply affected by loss of jobs, lack of opportunities, and the way the Republican Party sees Hispanics as a minority problematic group.

Republicans focused their attention in South Florida, not realizing that Central Florida has been increasingly populated by Puerto Ricans, from the island and other states, and gradually accompanied by Hispanics with other nationalities.

The Democratic Party has a big step ahead of the Republican Party because of President Obama’s campaign, which focused on minority groups.

The way President Obama looked at the Hispanic as a whole group was very different from how Romney and Republican did. The anti-immigrations laws in Arizona were very harmful for the Republican agenda and made it worse when Romney supported a “self-deportation” law.

Democrats are looking at the Hispanics in the way we want to be looked at; as a group that has a big potential and wants to be integrated into this economy, country, and culture. Republicans see Hispanics as a group that they need to get rid of in order to have a better country.

The past presidential candidates reflected the way Hispanics wish to be seen. It is a reciprocal approach. Hispanics portray Obama as one of us or someone who is related to us because of the way he perceives us. The way Hispanics perceived Romney is someone who does not belong to our group, someone who do not take minorities into consideration.

Attracting Hispanics voters is a simple strategy that seems not to be seen by Republicans. We are here to stay. We have the same dreams and ambitions for ourselves and our children as any other ethnic group. The aim should not be simply going to Hispanics early during election process or avoiding focusing on divisive matters, but to see Hispanics with different approach.

A Puerto Rican commissioner from Osceola County thinks that it was not about Obama being the right candidate, but the way we, Hispanics, perceived Romney. I think it is the other way around; the way Romney perceived Hispanics was what made the difference.

It is offensive think that Hispanics are not capable of making a good decision. Republicans are going to stay far from reaching Hispanics voters if they do not come out with a different approach toward Hispanics as a whole.

Al Cardenas
Chairman, American Conservative Union, Former Chairman, Republican Party of Florida

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney collected far more resources and contacted far more voters than any Republican presidential candidate in history. Millions more registered to vote between 2008 and 2012; yet Governor Romney received about 800,000 fewer votes nationally than Senator John McCain in 2008.

And, this was at a time when President Obama did not yet have a record, and the country had only begun to face the meanest financial meltdown in our country's history, blamed primarily on Republicans. In turn, President Obama also received fewer votes – about 7 million -- in 2012 than he had in 2008. Republicans were poised to win the presidency if only the projected GOP and Romney turnout had indeed shown up. They didn't. Why?

Mitt Romney is a successful businessman, with a beautiful family and whose best skill sets are ideally suited to fix the economic woes we face as a nation. The Obama campaign strategy had a great ground game but they didn't really win this. We lost it.

Even according to all of the exit polls, most of the blame of our current financial situation lay on the current president, not on the Congress or former President George W. Bush.

The real story for the loss is simple but fixing it will be hard.

The demographics of the country have changed and the new majority-in-waiting do not care for the GOP brand. Our polling indeed gave us confidence that we could compete, especially in the Latino community, without changing our values.

Mitt Romney united conservatives and center-right supporters eager to defeat President Obama. The majority of independents even supported Romney as well. No presidential candidate in recent history had received a higher percentage of the white vote than did Mitt Romney.

But, unlike all previous elections, in 2012 minorities turned out at equal or higher numbers than did whites. While 87 percent of all voters were white in 1980 when Reagan won, in 2012, they only represented 72 percent of all voters. By the time Mitt Romney received his party’s nomination, the GOP was a damaged brand beyond repair within the black, Latino and Asian-American communities where the “floor” of support had shrunk to new lows.

In retrospect, perhaps the most significant question polled during the general election was: “does candidate X care for people like me?” Governor Romney’s numbers with the minority electorate were most troublesome, and, as it turned out, decisive. This was based on an inherited damaged GOP brand, a successful negative effort by the Obama campaign to portray him as not caring for these communities, and a lackluster minority outreach effort by the Romney campaign. It’s clear that the high turnout and huge margins among minorities were the real reason for this loss.

The challenge for the GOP will continue to be more difficult each election cycle and the work ahead is steeply uphill -- but essential -- if we are going to be in a position to compete for the White House in 2016.

But it can be done, as former Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP proved during Bush's eight years in office in Florida. A similar effort needs to take place on a national scale undertaken by party leaders who “get it.”

If these trends don't turn around quickly, we are history.



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