Was the decisive factor in last year's presidential election the U.S. Supreme Court, the Clinton scandals, the debates, or a little shipwrecked boy who was seized from his Miami relatives one year ago by federal agents?
Approved by the Clinton Administration's Justice Department, the raid on April 22, 2000, to take custody of Elián González was emotional and dramatic—and so was its impact on Cuban-American voters. In the view of Miami-based pollster Sergio Bendixen, "It was humiliating to Cuban-Americans, and the 2000 election was payback."
They called it el voto castigo, or "the punishment vote." Whom did Cuban-American voters punish? Democratic nominee Al Gore and his fellow Democrats. "The Democrats first lost tremendous support among Cuban-Americans in the 1960s because of the Bay of Pigs," Bendixen noted. "But since the middle 1980s, the Democratic Party had been gaining with Cuban-American voters, from the teens [in terms of percentage of the Cuban-American vote] to the low 20s to the mid-30s. The Elián González saga reversed that pattern in a dramatic way."
Bendixen estimates that President Clinton got 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida in 1996. In 2000, Gore drew less than 20 percent. Look at the vote in Hialeah, Fla., a predominantly Cuban-American suburb of Miami. In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole outpolled Clinton in Hialeah by about 10,000 votes. In 2000, George W. Bush got nearly 25,000 more votes than Gore.
Statewide, Bendixen estimates that Bush got 50,000 more Cuban-American votes than Dole had received. That's a hundred times greater than Bush's certified margin of victory in Florida.
Wait a minute. Why did Cuban-American voters punish Gore? Didn't the Vice President break ranks with Clinton in the González case? Gore urged Congress to grant permanent residency status to Elián and his Cuban family. A few days after the raid, Gore said, "I thought it should have gone to a family court," echoing the sentiments of most Cuban-Americans.
That turned out to be a low point of the Gore campaign. "He could not have done any worse," according to Bendixen. "He turned off a great number of voters nationally because they considered him to be pandering to the Cuban-American community, and he didn't gain any Cuban-American support."
Most Americans agreed with the Clinton policy. They wanted Elián reunited with his father. Did the Democrats gain any votes in Florida by handling the issue the way most voters wanted? Possibly. About a third of Florida's Hispanic vote is non-Cuban. And non-Cuban Hispanics often resent Cuban-American influence.
"There is a competition in Miami, as there is in New York and Los Angeles, between different ethnic groups within the Hispanic community," Bendixen noted. "In Miami, for example, the Colombians and Nicaraguans, and sometimes even the Hondurans and the Mexicans, tend to vote the opposite of Cuban-Americans. In 2000, we saw an increase in support for the Democratic candidate among non-Cuban Hispanics."
African-Americans in Florida also feel intensely competitive with Cuban-Americans. Claims of polling-place discrimination notwithstanding, African-American turnout in Florida was up sharply in 2000. And black support for Gore was even more solid than it had been for Clinton in 1996.
Republicans are counting on the González issue to fade for all voters except Cuban-Americans, who cared most about it. "I think it will have a lasting impact on the Cuban-American vote because it was such an emotional situation," Bendixen said. "It will take a long time for Democrats to regain the confidence and support of Cuban-American voters." Resentment over the Bay of Pigs invasion continues among Cuban-Americans 40 years later.
Cuban-Americans are the one bright spot for Republicans in their party's generally poor prospects among Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing minority. According to The Washington Post, Bush advisers calculated that if minorities vote for the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate at the same rates as they did in 2000, President Bush would lose his re-election bid by 3.5 million votes, because of the continuing growth in minority populations.
So the President has been working assiduously to court Hispanic voters. So far, he has taken two trips abroad, the first to Mexico and the second to last weekend's Summit of the Americas. At the summit in Quebec City, Bush pitched his argument for free trade in the Western Hemisphere directly to Hispanics: "Many Americans trace their heritage to other parts of the Americas, which enriches our culture. Many American businesses are finding growth and trade in the Americas, which expands our economy."
It will be a setback for the Administration if Antonio Villaraigosa wins the June 5 runoff election for mayor of Los Angeles. That would catapult the young, charismatic Democrat to prominence as one of the country's leading Hispanic voices.
Even in Florida, there is no reason for Democrats to feel discouraged, despite their setback among Cuban-Americans. Democratic Senate candidate Bill Nelson carried Florida easily last year, even though his support among Cuban-Americans was not much higher than Gore's. Moreover, Democrats now have their own deeply emotional issue to compete with the memory of little Elián: the memory of the Florida recount.