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ESTHER CEPEDA: Florida's Latino vote is up for grabs

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO

All eyes are on Florida because it's the first primary where Latino voters can have a significant impact on the presidential contest. Expect it to offer meaningful predictions for future elections because the Latino vote in Florida is evolving quickly.Conventional wisdom says that Florida's Hispanic Republican vote is composed of conservative Cuban-Americans. But during a telephone briefing on the upcoming vote, Gary Segura, a professor of political science at Stanford University and co-founder of the Hispanic opinion tracker Latino Decisions, said, "The Cuban share of Florida's Latino population has declined even as the Latino population has grown. And the younger generations of Cuban-Americans are simply less Republican than their parents and grandparents."

"Cubans are only 3 percent of the Latino population nationwide," Segura continued. "There is only one place where they matter, and that is in Florida politics. But I think that the days of Cuban exceptionalism and the days of Florida exceptionalism are waning."

According to statistics from the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics make up 13.1 percent of the state's registered voters. But unlike in 2006, when a plurality of them were registered Republicans, they are now slightly more likely to be Democrats -- a trend that started in 2008. Today, more Hispanics in Florida are registered as Democrats (564,500) than as Republicans (452,600), according to Pew.

Perhaps the winds of change began blowing after the last comprehensive immigration reform bill failed in 2007 -- the time when many Hispanics believe the anti-illegal immigrant fury in this country completed its degradation into a general anti-Latino bias.

Whether that tipped the balance or not, one can no longer say that Florida's Hispanics stand outside the mainstream of popular Latino opinion on immigration simply because Cubans have favorable federal protections that ease their path to citizenship. In the nation as a whole, 59 percent of eligible Hispanic voters are Mexican and are believed to care more about "border issues."

A Univision/ABC/Latino Decisions poll released Wednesday shows that Hispanics may be on the same page: Both Latinos nationwide and those in Florida said immigration was the most important issue facing the Latino community that Congress and the president should address. A near-identical 43 percent of Hispanic Floridians felt that way compared to 46 percent of the national Hispanic sample.

According to Maria del Rosario Rodriguez, co-founder of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, who also participated in the Florida primary briefing, this change is due in no small part to rising immigrant diversity. "Cubans came in the '50s with another wave in the '80s, but, going back to Gary's point, increasingly in terms of the political and electoral landscape, other Latinos are gaining ground in population," she said.

Indeed, the Pew Hispanic Center noted that while 32 percent of Hispanic eligible voters in Florida are Cuban, close on their heels are the 28 percent who are Puerto Rican and 9 percent who are of Mexican origin -- and they're less likely to be native-born citizens than Hispanic voters nationwide.

"In voter share, Puerto Ricans doubled in the last year and Mexicans are showing how increasingly diverse populations are coming in," Rodriguez said. "The different nuances are that Cubans and Puerto Ricans have different views on who are immigrants and who are exiles, but there is a continuum of identification around the immigrant experience, and that includes 3 million immigrants and 200,000 DREAM Act eligible students."

Segura added that although Puerto Ricans don't face citizenship barriers, they are very sensitive to those who do.

So there it is -- Florida now better reflects the rest of America and is expected to diversify even further.

All that being said, the Univision/ABC/Latino Decisions poll put President Obama's approval ratings among Florida's Hispanic voters at 60 percent "somewhat" or "very" favorable. That the Republican candidates' harsh tone on immigration isn't helping them with Latino voters goes without saying -- favorable impressions for Mitt Romney trail at 40 percent, for Newt Gingrich 33 percent, Ron Paul 26 percent and Rick Santorum 22 percent.

In other words, Florida's Hispanic Republican voters may give Romney a boost next week, but given Florida's Latino flip to the Democrats' side -- and the state's 457,000 additional Hispanic voters who consider themselves independent of the two parties -- the numbers show that this is still anyone's race.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.