Now that Florida has been called for Barack Obama by the slimmest of margins, Republicans have to confront the fact that they lost the Sunshine State because of weakness in a key demographic they used to own: Cuban Americans.
Exit polls from Fox News and the Pew Hispanic Center indicate that Cuban-Americans gave Obama 49 percent of their vote, besting Mitt Romney’s 47 percent. A competing exit poll by the Democratic firm of Bendixen & Amandi International gives Romney a 52–48 edge. Either way, Obama did far better among Cubans than he did in 2008, when he won only 35 percent of their votes.
Regardless of which one is most correct, the margin in Florida clearly can be explained by Romney’s collapse in support from perhaps the most anti-Communist voting bloc in the country. Ever since the Bay of Pigs invasion, Cubans have rallied behind Republicans, with every GOP nominee holding huge rallies in Miami and declaring “Cuba libre!” and “Cuba, si; Castro, no!” Ronald Reagan won more than 80 percent of Cuban voters in his two races for the presidency.
Everyone has realized that younger generations of Cuban-Americans would become less conservative since they have no direct memories fleeing the country or of Communist rule there. But there are signs that the Romney-Ryan ticket even lost support among older Cubans.
Democratic operatives told the Miami Herald that they exploited the fact that Paul Ryan had been a long-time supporter of lifting the 50-year-old embargo on direct trade with Havana. “They did their ticket a lot of harm with Cubans, and allowed us to at least get a hearing with them on other economic issues,” an Obama-campaign official said.
Nor did the GOP’s headaches in Florida end with Cubans. Cubans make up a third of Hispanics in Florida, but a full 27 percent of them are Puerto Ricans. Among that group, Romney fared disastrously. He lost Puerto Ricans 83–17 in the Bendixen exit poll.
Sadly, there is even speculation that Romney’s disastrous showing among Puerto Ricans on the mainland helped drag down Governor Luis Fortuño, the promising Republican governor of Puerto Rico. Fortuño had campaigned for Romney in Florida and appeared in Spanish-language ads for him. But he lost his bid for reelection by 15,000 votes to Alejandro Garcia Padilla, a Democrat who had made a big show of having lunch with President Obama during his visit to San Juan in 2011.
Luis Martinez-Fernandez, a history professor at the University of Central Florida, told National Journal that “it was really a bad choice by Fortuño to get so close to people like Romney.”
Many political experts I spoke with said that Romney’s opposition to legislation that would legalize children of illegal aliens didn’t play a big role in his poor showing among Hispanics in Florida. “Cubans have the right to legal residency here as soon as they set foot on U.S. soil, and Puerto Ricans are already full citizens,” one Hispanic businessman told me. He also didn’t perceive much of an advertising effort: “Romney really dropped the ball by not running Spanish-language media until Labor Day and then only half-heartedly.”
“If you want to captivate Hispanics or any other group, you need to start early in the election cycle and you need to focus on issues that are not as divisive,” argued John Quinones, a Puerto Rican Republican. Quinones narrowly lost a GOP primary for Congress in Florida this year in a largely Hispanic district to a right-wing talk-radio host who wound up losing badly to Democratic firebrand Alan Grayson. But he told National Journal he didn’t think the damage was permanent: “I don’t think it was so much about Obama being the right candidate as it was about how Romney was perceived by a lot of Hispanics. Republicans have a lot of work on their hands.”
Florida Republican party chairman Lenny Curry couldn’t agree more. “Our weakness with Hispanics is something we have to address,” he told me. “We’re going to have to figure out if we’re serious about having a relationship with diverse communities. I can’t believe these numbers, and we have to fix them.”