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3 reasons Obama is leading among Latinos in Florida

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Voters in Miami-Dade County cast ballots in the 2010 midterm election. The changing politics of the large, multiracial Latino voting population there and throughout Florida could turn it into one of the swingiest states this presidential election.

Since last week, different poll results from different sources have indicated that: a) President Obama leads Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by a wide margin (61-31) among Latinos in Florida; b) President Obama leads Republican presidential nominee by a narrower margin (51-44) in Florida.

But the fact that Obama is leading among Latinos there at all still prompts a few surprised reactions. For example, the reaction from one of my editors the other day after he read about the 61-31 results in a poll conducted by Latino Decisions for America's Voice, a national immigrant rights organization: "That was surprising," he remarked, "since Cubans are so overwhelmingly GOP."

Which, in turn, has prompted me - a card-carrying Cuban American who is not from Florida but is nonetheless connected to it by the fibers of a vast immigrant network - to explain a few things.

Florida's reputation in recent elections as the swingingest of swing states has to do in part with the evolving nature of its Latino electorate. Yes, Cubans live there, generations of them, and they have traditionally run conservative for a number of reasons. But the "generations" part is key.

And while Cuban Americans remain the dominant group and those deemed most responsible for Obama's reportedly narrowing lead, according to a new Florida International University/Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald (FIU) poll, they're now part of a much larger Latino electorate in the state.

Here are three reasons Florida's Latino electorate is no longer as solidly right-leaning as it used to be:

1) Younger Cuban Americans are more liberal: This line from a recent Miami Herald story on the FIU/Herald poll about sums up the Cuban American voter picture: 

Take out Cuban voters, and Obama wins Florida Hispanics 64 percent to Romney’s 33 percent, concludes the poll, which has a 3.6 percent error margin.

But start breaking out different components of the Cuban voter bloc, and the picture is more complex. A piece in Politico a few months ago did a good job of explaining what's happening as many younger Cuban Americans develop their own political identities. Far removed from the 1959 Cuban revolution, the Cold War policies that compelled their parents to favor Republican candidates, and the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which soured Cuban immigrants on Democratic then-president John F. Kennedy, many younger Cuban Americans have moved beyond the political traditions of their parents and older relatives.

That story includes perspectives from young Cuban Americans like 32-year-old Anton Fajardo, an Obama supporter with Republican parents:

Together, they represent an ideological shift that is altering Florida’s political landscape and may help decide the presidency. A couple of generations removed from the exile experience of the 1960s, which created lockstep allegiance to the strongly anti-Communist GOP, younger Cubans are brandishing a more independent outlook.

“Any Cuban I know who is over 45 years will vote Republican no matter what,” Fajardo, 32, said in Miami Beach. “I think my peers will vote as I do, whoever they think is the best candidate.”

These age-related Cuban voter stats from the 2008 election are telling:

Obama captured 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote four years ago, more than any Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1996 and 65 percent of support from voters ages 18 to 29.

McCain took 66 percent of the vote from Cubans ages 50 to 64 and 79 percent from those 65 to 74.

2) More Latinos from elsewhere: The Cuban immigrants who carved a Latino stronghold out of South Florida helped pave the way for other transplants from Latin America, among them many with different political histories and leanings. The region is now home to immigrants from throughout South America, Central America and Mexico, along with Puerto Ricans, who are born with U.S. citizenship.

Earlier this year, the polling firm Latino Decisions prepared an analysis of three distinct electorates among Florida's Latino voters: older, more conservative Cubans, younger Cubans who vote more independently, and Puerto Ricans, who tend to vote Democratic.

But Florida's overall Latino electorate is an even more complicated tapestry, the report pointed out:

The three groups we examine here are the largest and most distinct, but by no means are they only Latino groups in Florida. Very large numbers of Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, and Mexican Latinos are spread out across Florida. While the data usually points to these other Latino groups as looking more similar to the Orlando-Tampa results presented here, additional nuances remain.

3) The 1-4 Corridor: The "Orlando-Tampa" region referred to above points to the Interstate 4 corridor, a stretch in the center of Florida that runs from Tampa to Orlando to the Atlantic coast. It's become increasingly valuable political real estate that political candidates work as they would Miami. While different counties along the corridor swing in different directions, many of the Latinos who live there are non-Cubans who tend to skew left; there is a a sizeable community of Puerto Ricans, for example. Here's what UC Irvine political scientist Louis DeSipio said about the area in an interview last month:

Before the 2000 election, the Latino vote in Florida used to go 70 percent to Republicans. Since 2000, it has become competitive. A lot depends on turnout in that part of the state. Kerry did a terrible job, and didn’t get as many Latino votes as he needed there.

And here's how the Washington Independent described the region's role in a shifting electorate in 2008, when Barack Obama was campaigning there:

...many outside observers continue to overestimate the influence of the Cuban population. The fact is that Cubans represent four percent to six percent of Florida’s voting population. They are no longer even the largest Latino group in the state. While many older Cuban-Americans still reliably vote Republican, the Puerto Ricans who live along the I-4 corridor, and vote Democratic, have all but neutralized the perceived Cuban influence in the state.

There's no doubt that Florida remains an outlier among states with strong Latino electorates. The political influence of the first-generation Cubans who helped make Miami what is arguably the nation's most Latino city is still felt. But where Latinos there once leaned as solidly right as California Latinos lean left, it's a wild card now. That's why Florida will be, as always, one of the most interesting places to watch as the election nears.

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