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Spotlight On Florida: Immigration, Latino Voters and the 2012 Elections

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September 2012 | Click here to download PDF

With polling that shows Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in a virtual tie, Florida may be the most hotly contested state in the presidential election. To understand what will happen there this November, it’s necessary to get to know Florida’s large, growing, and diversifying bloc of Latino voters.

While Florida’s Latino community has long been dominated by relatively conservative Cuban Americans in South Florida, that is changing. Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions described three different Latino electorates in Florida:

1)    First-generation Cuban-American voters in South Florida, who are moderate or conservative Republicans in the mold of Mario Diaz-Balart or Marco Rubio;

2)    Younger native-born Cuban-Americans in South Florida, who may be more liberal than their parents; and

3)    Puerto Ricans and other Latinos from a rapidly growing Latino community in Central Florida, along the I-4 corridor, who tend to vote for Democrats.

Florida Latinos have moved from being reliably Republican to swing voters.  In 2008, their strong support for Barack Obama—he won 57% of the Latino vote to John McCain’s 42%–helped hand him the state’s electoral votes.  In 2012, with tight presidential race and Senate races, the President is polling with a similar margin over Mitt Romney—53% to 37%–with 10% of Latinos in Florida undecided.

Not only is the Latino vote margin important, but mobilization is key as well.  This cycle, Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) has actively implemented new voting restrictions—and a well-publicized “purge” of the voter rolls—that disproportionately impact minority voters.  If these efforts are successful in intimidating Latino citizens and depressing turnout, they could have a decisive impact on the races.

Polling of Latino Voters in Florida

Unless otherwise indicated, all findings are from a June 2012 Latino Decisions/America’s Voice poll of 400 Latino voters in Florida (part of a poll of 2,000 Latino voters across five battleground states). Full poll results for all states can be found here, and further analysis can be found here.

  • While Florida’s Latinos are often assumed to be conservatives, a majority favor Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, with 53% saying they will most likely vote for Obama, 37% planning to vote for Romney, and 10% undecided.
  • An earlier (January 2012) Latino Decisions poll of Latinos in Florida broke down this preference further, finding that a strong majority of foreign-born Cuban voters supported Mitt Romney (63%), but Barack Obama won more support from both U.S.-born Cubans (50% to Romney’s 36%) and Latinos in central Florida (61% to Romney’s 29%).
  • When asked to name the most important issues facing Latinos that the President and Congress should address, immigration ranked alongside jobs and the economy as the top issues. Immigration was named by 39% of respondents; the economy was named by 35%; and jobs were named by 21% of Latino voters.
  • Many pundits assume that the immigration issue is less important to Latinos in Florida than in other states, because the large populations of Cubans and Puerto Ricans living there do not have to deal as much with our broken immigration system.  However, a substantial proportion of Florida Latinos do feel a personal connection to the immigration issue: 45% of Latino voters know someone who is undocumented. Furthermore, Florida Latinos are alienated by attacks on immigrants. Fifty-seven percent say that Mitt Romney’s opposition to the DREAM Act and support for self-deportation makes them less enthusiastic about voting for him, and 43% say that even if a candidate had a plan for the economy they supported, they would be less likely to vote for him if he said that “illegal immigrants are a threat to America” and attacked “amnesty.”

Florida Latinos By The Numbers


Latinos in Florida (2010 Census)


Growth in Latino Population, 2000-2010 (2010 Census)


Latino Proportion of Eligible Voters (projection via William Frey/Ruy Teixeira, 2012)


Latino Proportion of Registered Voters (projection via Latino Decisions, 2012)


Competitive 2012 Senate Race

Incumbent: Bill Nelson (D), elected 2000

Latino % of Population 17.7%
Candidates Bill Nelson (D), incumbent

vs. Connie Mack IV (R), U.S. CongressmanCompetitiveness RatingLean D (as of 8/21) (Cook Political Report); 12th most likely to flip parties among all Senate races (National Journal)Immigration In The RaceDemocratic incumbent Bill Nelson is a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, the DREAM Act, and immigrant rights.

Republican congressman Connie Mack IV will face Nelson, having beaten former interim Senator George LeMieux and other candidates for the Republican nomination. In the House, Mack does not have a high profile on immigration, but he did support the infamous 2005 “Sensenbrenner bill.”  In 2010, when SB 1070 passed in Arizona, Mack initially spoke out against the bill, but reversed his position after the Arizona legislature made some minor tweaks.PollingLatinos

Nelson: 50%

Mack: 32%

Undecided: 18%

(Latino Decisions, June 2012; see polling details in previous section)



Nelson: 45%

Mack: 38%

Undecided: 17%

(Public Policy Polling, September 2012)


Competitive 2012 House Races*

House  District

Latino Pop %




Immigration in the Race

FL-2—Southerland (R)


Al Lawson, former state senator (D) vs. Steve Southerland, incumbent (R)

Lean R (Cook); 61st most likely to flip (NJ)

No relevant developments at this time.



Alan Grayson, former Congressman (D) vs Todd Long, talk show host (R)

D toss-up (Cook); 70th most likely to flip (NJ)

National Journal wrote that the district is Democratic enough that it was unlikely to be competitive (it’s the most heavily Latino district north of Miami), unless Republicans nominated a Puerto Rican candidate. While 2 Puerto Ricans ran for the GOP nomination, Long—who traveled to Arizona during the campaign to show solidarity with that state’s law—won it.

FL-10—Webster (R)


Val Demings, former sheriff vs. Dan Webster, incumbent

Likely R (Cook); 74th most likely to flip (NJ)

The district has grown less Latino due to redistricting, but it’s expected to get more diverse with time.

FL-16—Buchanan (R)


Keith Fitzgerald, former state legislator (D) vs. Vern Buchanan, incumbent (R)

Likely R (Cook); 47th most likely to flip (NJ)

Rep. Buchanan has attacked the Obama Administration for using its authority to undo court orders and keep immigrants in same-sex marriages from being deported.

FL-18—West (R)


Patrick Murphy, businessman (D) vs. Allen West, incumbent (R)

R toss-up (Cook); 23rd most likely to flip (NJ)

Rep. West has made inflammatory remarks about immigrants (as well as many other groups) during his House term and previous campaign.



Lois Frankel, former mayor (D) vs. Adam Hasner, former state representative (R)

Lean D (Cook); 62nd most likely to flip (NJ)

After this district was redrawn to lean Democratic, Rep. Allen West (R) left to run in the 18th. Hasner ran in the Republican primary for Nelson’s Senate seat, and positioned himself as the toughest anti-immigrant voice in the state legislature.

FL-26—Rivera (R)


Joe Garcia, Miami-Dade Democratic Chair (D) vs. David Rivera (R), incumbent

Lean R (Cook); 44th most likely to flip (NJ)

Rivera is a political ally of Marco Rubio’s who has been under ethics investigations. In 2012 he introduced the “STARS Act,” a severely restricted alternative to the DREAM Act, and a bill giving legal status to undocumented immigrants in the military. Joe Garcia, the Democratic nominee, ran for Congress in 2010 as a pro-immigrant champion and attacked Rivera for dodging questions about Arizona’s immigration law. During the primary, a Democratic candidate named Justin Lamar Sternad sent out mailers with President Obama’s campaign logo espousing a hardline immigration message. ; after losing the primary, it was revealed that he was funded by Rivera and is currently under federal investigation.

*Florida gained two new congressional seats after the 2010 Census, thanks in part to the growth of the state’s Latino population (which contributed 55% of the state’s population growth since 2000).  Instead of redrawing the map to account for increased Latino influence throughout the state, the Republican-led legislature drew two new Latino-heavy districts (one in the rapidly growing and Democratic-leaning I-4 corridor) and left many of the other seats largely insulated from demographic change. Thus, 19 of Florida’s 26 congressional districts are “not competitive” this cycle. (“Competitive” districts are defined as districts that are rated “Lean” or “Toss-Up” in Cook Political Report ratings OR are listed among National Journal’s top 75 House races to watch.)


Previous Election Data

Election Overall Result Latino Result Latino % of Electorate Latino Contribution
2010 Florida Senate

Rubio (R) 49%-

Crist (I) 30% –

Meek (D) 20%

(CNN)Rubio 62% –

Meek 20% –

Crist 18%

(Latino Decisions)11%

(Latino Decisions)2.6% to Rubio

(Latino Decisions)2010 Florida GovernorRick Scott (R) 49% – Alex Sink (D) 48% (CNN)Scott 51% –

Sink 48% (Latino Decisions)11%

(Latino Decisions).32% to Scott

(Latino Decisions)2010 Florida U.S. House RacesRepublicans 55.6%-Democrats 38.1% (Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives)Republicans 61%-Democrats 39%

(Latino Decisions)11%

(Latino Decisions)2.4% to Republicans (Latino Decisions)2008 Florida Presidential ResultsObama 51% –

McCain 48% (CNN)Obama 57% –

McCain 42%


(2008 U.S. Census)2.3% to Obama

(2008 Census)2008 Florida U.S. House RacesRepublicans 49.92%-Democrats 47.65% (Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives)Not available15.43%

(2008 U.S. Census)Not available


Why Latino Turnout Matters In Florida

In June 2012, Latino Decisions and America’s Voice Education Fund unveiled a new online tool, LatinoVoteMap.org, an interactive map that allows users to simulate different outcomes in the 2012 election by adjusting Latino turnout levels and candidate support.

NOTE: The Latino Vote Map is updated regularly with the most recent polling and registration data, so projections and estimates are subject to change, and the scenarios discussed here for the Latino vote may not lead to the same projections for the statewide vote. Double-check the projection for any scenario discussed here by clicking on Florida, then moving the sliders above the map until the bottom two numbers in the box match the numbers in the screenshot provided. This section is based on the September 4th update to the map.

The Latino Vote Map currently labels Florida a “virtual tie” in the general election—but one that leans slightly toward Obama. The median estimate for Latino turnout in Florida, based on registration and Census data, is 16.8% percent of the electorate. If Romney gets the 37% of Florida Latino votes in November that he got in the Latino Decisions poll in May, and 16.8% of Florida voters are Latinos, Obama will win 47.3% of all votes in the state, with Romney winning 46.3%:

However, as Latino Decisions’ Matt Barreto has written, “even small fluctuations in the Latino vote have a profound impact on the presidential election results” in Florida.  In August, Barreto named Florida as a “Tier 1” Latino vote state along with Colorado and Nevada, explaining: “In each of these states, if Latino voter turnout decreases, Barack Obama loses his lead to Mitt Romney.  Or, if turnout stays at expected levels but Romney gains 10-15 points among Latino voters he wins all three of these key battlegrounds and their combined 44 electoral college votes.  There is absolutely no question Latinos will be influential in these three states.”

Of the two variables—GOP vote share among Latinos, and Latino turnout—it appears much more likely that turnout will be a problem for Democrats in Florida. Governor Rick Scott’s (R) efforts to “purge” the voter rolls (ostensibly in response to fears of non-citizens voting, which is a nonexistent problem) are likely to result in citizens being mistakenly prevented from voting, especially naturalized citizens. Furthermore, citizens who feel their rights are under attack may feel intimidated out of voting, depressing turnout among Latinos even without actually preventing them from voting. Even if Romney is not able to improve on his current level of support among Latinos and gets 37% of the Florida Latino vote, if the Latino share of the Florida electorate falls to 12%, Romney would pull even with Obama in the state (46.9% apiece):

Visit LatinoVoteMap.org to see for yourself how Latino voters are poised to influence the 2012 elections in Florida and beyond.