Surprise Voting

11.09.12

Obama’s Strong Support Among Cuban Americans Underlines Demographic Shift

It appears the president won or almost won the Cuban-American vote, which reveals a diminished affinity for the GOP and underscores the perils of the party’s anti-immigration stance—and its need to reach out aggressively.

The depth, if not dimensions, of President Obama’s reelection victory is slowly resonating, even in Republican circles.

After all the partisan spinning, it is clear that the combination of the Obama campaign’s ground game and demographic evolutions in our nation were decisive for his victory and bode well for the Democrats in the future.

One broad measure of this recognition is this: conservatives are arguing that the man they once dismissed as a failed socialist president is now grimly touted as a rare political talent with an unparalleled ability to inspire. These compliments come with a base alloy of consultant self-interest—once Obama is no longer on the ticket, they say, Republicans will be back in fighting form. There’s no need to change policies.

There are a lot of demographic shifts you can point to by way of saying that the GOP has a lot of ’splaining to do. After all, Americans today are more racially diverse and more likely to live in cities than the past.  These are not conservative sweet spots.

But if you want one fact to slam home the deeper shift beneath this election, you can just say this: it looks like President Obama won the Cuban-American vote.

Florida’s final votes are still being counted, but some exit polls show Obama narrowly won the Sunshine State’s Cuban vote. The Pew Hispanic Center found that Obama won Cuban Americans in Florida by 48 to 47.  So did Fox News’s exit-poll numbers and the Obama-associated One Florida—numbers Obama campaign manager Jim Messina quoted in a post-election interview. The Miami Herald found Romney narrowly won the Cuban-American vote, while local pollster Sergio Bendixen set the margin at 52-48.

But that’s almost beside the point. Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis, it looks like Democrats picked the Republican Cuban lock in Florida. This is not just demographic data, it has the sweep of history behind it.

The Cuban-American community in Florida has been staunchly conservative—for completely rational reasons—since communist dictator Fidel Castro took over in 1959. And the Cuban-American community in Florida has been a core part of the Republican Party’s electoral outreach in the Hispanic community since then. Sen. Marco Rubio and newly elected Texas Sen. Ted Cruz are both of Cuban descent.

Republicans’ historic confidence in receiving the Cuban-American vote led to this pre-election spin I received from one Florida Republican operative in early November:  “We’re winning 71% of Cuban-Americans in Florida. they’ve fled Obama.”

Not so much. The data details seemed impressive but they were not even a castle made of sand.

One measure of the shifting sentiment was that Cuban-American Congressman David Rivera—a close ally of Rubio’s who was hobbled considerably by ethics investigations—lost a seat that was drawn to be safely Republican and decidedly Cuban-American. But that was just one indicator.

The larger problem is that Mitt Romney received just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide—compared with the high-water mark of 44 percent that George W. Bush got in 2004. The traditionally conservative Cuban-American population in Florida was supposed to be an electoral bulwark for the state’s delegates, but immigration shifts meant that non-Cuban Hispanic voters became a majority of the state’s registered Hispanic voters back in 2006. Orlando’s Orange County—located at the end of the famously swing I-4 corridor—was a good example. Obama won the district by 20 points, reflecting in part the unnecessary alienation of Hispanic voters, especially by Romney.

“It is a sign that the younger Cuban-American voters are voting on more than just the Cuban issue,” said Florida GOP operative and Rubio campaign manager Jose Mallea.  “There’s just not the affinity for the Republican Party of their parents’ generation.” Not that Mallea sees an inevitably dark future. “This is a community that is very entrepreneurial .… But going beyond Spanish-speaking Cuban Americans, the second or third generation, they watch the same news as everyone else—CNN, CBS, ABC—and that’s consistent with the momentum that Obama had across the board.”

'It is a sign that the younger Cuban-American voters are voting on more than just the Cuban issue.'

In other words, not only is assimilation working in America, but with younger voters in this community, generational change is combining with the policy choices of the GOP to create a connection problem where there once was congruence. The controversial Arizona immigration law clearly hurt Republican outreach in Colorado and New Mexico, but even though the policy was distant to Florida Hispanics, it had an impact.  “Initially, the Arizona law barely made a ripple here in 2010,” said Mallea. “But when the extreme language, some of the ugly rhetoric surrounding it made it seem like an anti-Hispanic law, rather than anti-illegal immigrant, Cuban Americans start to take that personally.”

The policy alienation under Romney didn’t help. Cynically trying to play to the base on this issue during the primaries in 2008 and 2012—including vocally opposing the Bush-McCain-Kennedy comprehensive immigration bill—left Romney with a fresh inability to connect with the community this election.

But the Hispanic community in the United States is not a monolith, and the deeper dynamic might be that youth voted for Obama easily. “They changed the electorate,” acknowledges one Florida GOP operative. “The college student whose father happens to be a Cuban American—does that make them representative of the Cuban community here in Florida?”

It does, at least in terms of election demographics. Trying to play the exit-poll refs and push back the rising tide won’t work. Republicans will need to reflect on the lessons of this election and not simply give up on youth or the non-Cuban Hispanic vote. Whether it is Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Nevada’s Brian Sandoval, the GOP needs to reach out aggressively with a sense of conviction, not just expediency. The ethnic algebra in Florida is changing. And we keep learning, as goes Florida, so goes the nation.