Exit polls showing the powerful Cuban-American community in Florida favored President Obama "“ which would make him the first Democratic nominee in decades to penetrate that Republican Party stronghold -- suggest a seismic political shift in the nation's largest swing state.
Obama's growing appeal among Cuban-Americans, coupled with his overwhelming popularity in the booming Puerto Rican community, signals trouble for the Republican Party and threatens to repaint Florida from purple to blue if the trend continues.
While Republicans are recriminating about the Hispanic vote nationwide, the flagellation is especially painful in Florida, with its bounty of 29 electoral votes.
"It's a huge deal, and it's a very deep and very wide issue that were going to have to address as Republicans," said Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry. "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."
Fox News and the Pew Hispanic Center reported that Cuban-Americans favored Obama 49 to 47 percent. The population has been one of the Republican Party's most loyal constituencies since the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco under President John F. Kennedy. Since Ronald Reagan, presidential candidates have made pilgrimages to Miami to roil crowds with declarations of "Cuba libre!" and "Cuba si! Castro no!" Romney aired an inflammatory Spanish-language ad late right before the election that featured Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro's niece speaking in favor of Obama.
But younger generations harboring less anti-communist fervor are more open to the Democratic Party and approve of Obama's looser restrictions on visiting the island. "For the first time we won a majority of Cuban voters in Florida, a dramatic realignment in that state," Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina said in a phone call with reporters Thursday.
An exit poll by Bendixen & Amandi International, a Democratic polling firm that has worked for Obama, found a slightly different but still significant breakdown of Cuban-American support, with 48 percent for Obama and 52 percent for Romney. "It's a historic figure, an unprecedented figure, a real eye-popping figure when it comes to support for a Democratic candidate," said pollster Fernand Amandi. Obama got 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in 2008.
But Mauricio Claver-Carone, the leading lobbyist for the Cuban-American community in Washington, is skeptical of exit polls showing such a dramatic uptick for the president. For example, the vote for Obama in Miami-Dade, where the Republican vote is mostly Cuban, increased only 4 percentage points over the last election. Claver-Carone also said Romney won several overwhelmingly Cuban-American precincts in Miami, in some cases by large margins.
A Latino Decisions poll in Florida on the eve of the election found Obama's support among Cuban-Americans unchanged from 2008.
"I have a problem with the exit polls," Claver-Carone said, "but it's going to take a few days to crunch all the numbers."
The exit polling in the Puerto-Rican community should concern Republicans even more. Bendixen & Amandi pegged Obama's support at 83 percent, an astonishing number considering that Puerto Ricans have backed Republican candidates in the past. Most of the state's 850,000 Puerto Ricans live in Orlando and Osceola counties, where former Gov. Jeb Bush won handily. Former President George W. Bush only narrowly lost Orange County and won Osceola County in 2004.
Amandi said of Obama's Puerto Rican support: "That's another extraordinary figure and a very troubling sign if you're a Republican strategist looking at these numbers, not only because it's the fastest growing segment of the Hispanic electorate in Florida but because it is a swing vote." Cuban-Americans made up 33 percent of Florida's Hispanic vote, while Puerto Ricans comprised 27 percent, according to the exit poll. "I would not be surprised in 2016 or 2020 if Puerto Ricans supplant Cubans as the leading Hispanic voters in the state of Florida," Amandi said
Some experts on the Puerto Rican vote say Obama's popularity is even influencing politics on the island. Gov. Luis Fortuno, who campaigned for Romney in Florida and appeared in his Spanish-language ads, lost re-election on Tuesday. He was unseated by Alejandro Garcia Padilla, a Democrat, who has appeared with the president in Florida and had lunch with him when he visited San Juan in 2011.
Luis Martinez-Fernandez, a history professor at the University of Central Florida, said Fortuno lost mostly because of opposition to his budget cuts but that Romney also played a role. "It was really a bad choice by Fortuno to get so close to people like Romney," he said.
Eager to prove his conservative credentials during the Republican primary, Romney opposed legislation to legalize children of undocumented workers and suggested that illegal immigration could be solved with "self-deportation." He also waited to invest in Spanish-language media until the last two months before the election and was heavily outspent by Obama.
"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," said Orlando-area county commissioner John Quinones, a Puerto Rican Republican. "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."
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