Crucial, but diverse, voting demographic plays key electoral role.
Cuban-Americans can impact GOP primaries, but larger Hispanic population will again determine next President.
Florida’s Latino community has long been a powerful force in state politics, constituting 13% of registered voters. Every four years they are a force in national elections as well, and the Latino vote is a huge factor in Florida’s “swing state” status. Latinos constituted 14% of Florida voters in 2008, with a majority voting for Democrat Barack Obama after supporting Republican George W. Bush in 2004.
Cuban Americans have historically dominated the political scene, and mostly turned out for the GOP. But the Latino population in Florida is diversifying as rapidly as it is growing; today, only 32% of all registered Latino voters in Florida are Cuban, and of those, the second generation is trending more and more Democratic. (For more about the Latino electorate in Florida, please see this profile from the NALEO Educational Fund and recent polling and analysis from Latino Decisions.)
Conventional wisdom has held that immigration is less an issue for Latino voters in Florida than in other states. While that may be true in a Republican primary, demographic realities make it less and less true in a general election, where Cuban voters make up only 5% of the electorate. In the general election, anti-immigrant positioning will come back to haunt the Republican nominee, not only in Florida but other swing states.
Read on for key developments in Florida immigration politics over recent years.
- January 2008: Romney wins whites in Florida primary, but Latinos hand McCain the state. John McCain won the Florida presidential primary on his way to securing the Republican nomination—despite narrowly losing white voters to Mitt Romney. While Mitt Romney beat McCain among white voters 34%-33%, McCain’s relationship with Latino voters put him over the top. McCain won 54% of the Latino vote while Romney, pushing an anti-immigrant agenda, won only 14%. (Third-place candidate Rudy Giuliani also beat Romney with Florida Latinos.)
- November 2008: Barack Obama wins over Florida’s Latinos, cementing Florida’s swing state status. While Latino voters in Florida preferred George W. Bush in 2004 (with 56% voting for him and 44% for John Kerry), the 2008 election saw a huge swing toward the Democrats, with 57% supporting Barack Obama and only 42% supporting John McCain. In a state where Obama’s margin of victory among all voters was narrow—two and a half percent—his strong Latino showing contributed 2.1% to his statewide support over McCain, and helped provide the margin needed to beat him.
- November 2008: Florida Cuban American House Members stay strong on immigration and beat back tough challengers. Republican Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Lincoln Diaz-Balart faced serious races for the first time in their Congressional careers in 2008, as the growth of Miami’s non-Cuban Latino population led the Democratic Party to target their seats. However, their strong pro-immigrant records helped them fend off their challengers.
- April 2010: Census documents fact that Florida’s Latino population is diversifying and growing rapidly, netting the state two more seats in Congress. The 2010 Census showed that Florida’s Latino population had grown from 2.7 million to 4.2 million over the past decade—an increase of 57%. While some of this growth came from the state’s Cuban population, which grew 46% to 1.2 million and retained its status as the largest Latino group in the state, the non-Cuban Latino population (including Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and Colombians) increased even more—by 63%. According to NALEO, Latino growth accounted for 55% of Florida’s overall population growth—which was enough to give the state two more seats in Congress starting in 2012, as the Census Bureau announced in late 2010.
- August 2010: Low turnout from a betrayed Latino electorate decides GOP gubernatorial primary. During most of the GOP gubernatorial primary campaign, Florida Secretary of State (and frontrunner) Bill McCollum refused to pander to anti-immigrant views, while opponent Rick Scott attacked McCollum for being “soft” on immigration. But just days before the primary, McCollum unveiled an Arizona-style anti-immigration bill he planned to push the legislature to sign that fall. Frustrated McCollum supporters in the Latino stronghold of Miami-Dade County stayed home, leading to a countywide turnout rate almost 25% lower than the rest of the state’s—and a very narrow victory for Scott.
- November 2010: Not talking about immigration helps Republican Marco Rubio win a Senate seat, and Democrat Alex Sink lose a governorship. While Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio emphasized his Cuban American heritage to appeal to Latino voters, he was much quieter about his hardline anti-immigration views. Rubio succeeded in winning the Cuban American vote (78% of the state’s Cuban American voters supported him) and the election, but won only 40% of the non-Cuban Latino vote. Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink failed to educate Latino voters about her opponent’s extreme position, and lost. That year, successful Democrats in other close races like Harry Reid in Nevada and Michael Bennet in Colorado held up their positions on immigration to tell Latino voters that they are on their side, and received crucial support from the community.
- November 2010: Florida’s Latino turnout driven by feeling that community is under attack; Florida Latinos united in seeing DREAM Act as urgent priority. In an election eve poll conducted by Latino Decisions, 40% of Latino voters said that they were voting in order to support the Latino community—more than said they were turning out to support the candidates. Two-thirds of Latinos said that anti-immigrant or anti-Latino sentiment in the 2010 campaign had been an important factor in influencing their decision to vote (and who to vote for), and 26% said it was “the most important” factor. Only 6% of Latino voters said they had not seen anti-immigrant or anti-Latino sentiment in the campaign.
The need for immigration reform and the DREAM Act was also a significant factor in their voting decisions—54% of Latino voters said that immigration was either “the most important factor” or “one of the most important factors” in deciding their votes, and 72% of Latino voters, including 66% of Republicans, said it was “extremely important” or “very important” for Congress and the President to work together to pass the DREAM Act.
- December 2010: Florida’s Cuban American House Members champion the DREAM Act, while LeMieux and Rubio turn their backs. In the “lame duck session” of Congress in December 2010, both the House and Senate took up the DREAM Act, a bill which would allow undocumented young people to obtain legal status after two years of college or military service. Florida’s Cuban American House members, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Díaz-Balart, and Lincoln Díaz-Balart (who was retiring before the next Congress), had all cosponsored the DREAM Act. They were three of only eight House Republicans to join 208 House Democrats in passing the bill out of the lower chamber. When it reached the Senate, however, interim Florida Senator George LeMieux held the Republican Party line and voted against DREAM—and his successor, Senator-elect Marco Rubio, also declared his oppositionto the bill.With this, LeMieux and incoming Senator Rubio became the first senators from Florida to oppose a legalization bill in recent memory. Their Republican predecessor, Senator Mel Martinez, had voted for comprehensive immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, and an earlier version of the DREAM Act in 2007, along with current Democratic Senator Bill Nelson. Former Democratic Senator Bob Graham had co-sponsored early versions of the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform bills in the early 2000s.
- January 2011: A Jeb Bush-led Latino outreach conference inspires a debate in the press about whether the GOP can win them over by simply changing its rhetoric on immigration, or if the Party needs to change its policy positions as well. The Hispanic Leadership Network, a Republican-affiliated group, advertised its inaugural conference in Miami as an “opportunity for center-right leaders to speak with—and more importantly listen to—the Hispanic community,” as co-chair Jeb Bush said. At the conference, however, most speakers seemed to quickly agree with one of Bush’s opening remarks: that the first “rule” of GOP outreach to Latinos was to fix their “tone” and “bring people to our cause rather than reject them.”Latino columnist Ruben Navarrette was the only speaker to contradict this, suggesting that “the problem is not the tone. It is the message itself.” But his inconvenient truth was echoed in the press by Latino Republicans: Alfonso Aguilar said that “It is more than a tone issue. It is a tone and policy issue,” and Juan Zapata wrote in the Miami Herald that Republicans need to make “a real commitment to dealing with the immigration issue head on and in an honest manner, as opposed to hiding behind ‘border security’ or clever rhetoric” and that “when trying to win Hispanic votes, actions will go a lot farther than words.” Bush’s emphasis on changing tone over policy would continue to spread among Republicans emphasizing the importance of the Latino vote, including Marco Rubio.
- May 2011: Arizona-style bills fail in both chambers of Florida legislature, after Hispanic GOP lawmakers pull their support. When immigration enforcement bills modeled on Arizona’s SB 1070 passed out of committee in both the Florida House and Senate in April, it looked likely that an immigration bill would become law that year—especially because House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera supported the House bill, and State Senator Anitere Flores was a sponsor of the Senate one. Thanks to pressure from the business community, organizing from the We Are Florida coalition and other advocates, and a Spanish language radio ad campaign highlighting these legislators’ role in advancing the bills, Lopez-Cantera and Flores ultimately pulled their support from the bill, joining Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and other Cuban politicians in opposition to it. While a modified version ultimately passed in the Senate, the House GOP didn’t have the votes to bring it to the floor, and the bills died at the end of the session.
- October 2011: Rubio’s embarrassing poll showing caps a bumpy first year in office. While pundits seem more excited about a potential Rubio vice president candidacy than they do about any of the current Republican presidential contenders, evidence began to mount that Rubio wouldn’t actually help the party win over many Latinos as long as he continued to oppose comprehensive reform and the DREAM Act and support enforcement bills like mandatory E-Verify. Republican pollster Resurgent Republic conducted a poll in October that showed that while Latinos outside of Florida weren’t familiar enough with Rubio to have an opinion on him, Latinos inside Florida—Cubans and non-Cubans alike–had a less favorable view of him than they did of President Obama. Furthermore, Rubio’s favorability among non-Cuban Latinos had sunk to 42%. Such polling seemed to confirm the assessment made by conservative columnist Ruben Navarrette, who said in March that “Marco Rubio is the Republican Party’s Superman. And, the immigration issue, if not handled correctly, is his kryptonite.” In July Navarrette observed that this was in fact happening: “Rubio is becoming persona non grata with Latinos outside of the Cuban-American community.”
Gingrich and Romney both aired Spanish-language ads in Florida in January, but Gingrich’s was the only one to mention immigration, calling Romney “the most anti-immigrant of the candidates.” This set off a round of pushback from Romney supporters and others in the state, including Sen. Marco Rubio, who felt that Gingrich’s accusation was unfair. Romney responded by saying he is not anti-immigrant, because his father was born in Mexico and Romney is “pro-legal immigration.” But as Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer put it, “Romney’s argument that he is not ‘anti-immigration,’ but ‘pro-legal immigration,’ is deceiving. There is no realistic way of achieving ‘self-deportation’ of 11 million people without turning America into a police state.”
If Romney does win the Latino vote in the primary, it will mean very little for his chances in the general election. Victoria DeFrancesco Soto of Latino Decisions explains it this way: “The answer to Gingrich’s Florida Latino slump [and Romney’s rise] is simple – Cuban-Americans. This group makes up a little more than half of the Latino electorate in Florida and this group by and large is not personally affected by immigration because of their legal status. This is not to say that Cuban-Americans do not support immigration reform or the DREAM Act, they simply are not as personally affected by the issue as Mexican immigrants. In the latest Univision-ABC-Latino Decisions poll, 36% of Cuban-American voters indicated immigration was the most important issue facing the Latino community, while half of Mexican-American voters named immigration their top concern.”
- January 2012: Mitt and Newt battle it out over immigration during the Florida primary. Newt Gingrich’s position on immigration is extreme compared to pro-reform Florida Republicans like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Jeb Bush, and Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, but is slightly less hardline than Romney’s. In debates throughout the 2012 primary campaign, Mitt Romney took an extremist position and flaunted the endorsement of anti-immigrant “leaders” like Kris Kobach.
- January 2012: Romney may win the Cuban vote in the Florida primary, but the general election is an entirely different animal. In Florida, Romney has won the endorsements of several key Latino leaders in the state—former Sen. Mel Martinez, former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and current Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen—but conspicuously lacks an endorsement from Jeb Bush. Bush decided to remain neutral in the primary, and said publicly that he disagrees with Romney’s positions on immigration but it wasn’t a factor in his decision. However, two days before the primary, the New York Times reported that Governor Bush had privately implored Romney to change his tone and positions to avoid a meltdown with Hispanic voters in the general election.Bush may have been looking at numbers from a recent Univision/ABC/Latino Decisions poll, which found that nationwide, only 25% of Latino voters said they would vote for Romney, while 67% were planning to vote for President Obama. This is far from the 40% threshold most pundits believe Romney would need to be competitive with Obama in swing states with large Latino populations.
Although Latino Decisions showed Romney winning support from 40% of Florida Latinos in a general election match-up with Obama, this is heavily skewed by strong support from the conservative Cuban community. Nationwide, Cubans comprise only 5% of the Latino electorate, while Mexicans make up 59%, proving that a win in the Florida primary has little bearing on Romney’s competiveness with Latino voters in the general election
Before settling on a hardline anti-immigration campaign strategy, Romney should have checked with his friend Meg Whitman, who once did the same during a primary battle, only to rue the day once she found herself in a general election match-up. Like Romney, Whitman flaunted tough positions and endorsements from anti-immigrant leaders during the Republican primary, then found herself needing to appeal to the Latino vote to win the general election. When she lost Latinos to Jerry Brown 86%-13%–costing her the election—Whitman discovered Latinos hadn’t forgotten or forgiven her anti-immigrant antics in the primary campaign. Romney could have learned this lesson the easy way, but it looks like he’s determined to find it out for himself.