A kind word of advice for Republican hopeful Mitt Romney: Don't read too much into your impressive victory among Hispanic voters in Florida's primary. You will face an uphill battle to emulate it among Latino voters nationwide.
Romney, the front-runner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, won 53 percent of the Latino vote in the Florida primary. Comparatively, he won 46 percent of the overall vote in the state’s primary.
His wide victory among Florida’s Latinos raised eyebrows nationwide, because Florida is one of the key states with huge Hispanic populations that will figure heavily in who will win in November. The conventional wisdom among pollsters is that — because Latinos nationwide tend to vote heavily Democrat — a Republican candidate needs about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to win the general election.
But there are several reasons to believe that Romney will have a hard time reaching that magic figure unless he makes a dramatic U-turn in the tone — and the message — of his rhetoric on immigration, English-only, and other issues that Latinos care about.
A recent nationwide poll of Hispanic registered voters by the Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan group, showed that if the general election were held today, President Obama would beat Romney by 68 percent to 23 percent of the Hispanic vote. The same poll showed that, among the general population, Obama would beat Romney by only two percentage points.
An earlier ABC-Univision poll showed similar results. Both surveys reflect that the Democrats have held their ground among Latinos nationwide since Obama won 67 percent of the Latino vote in the 2008 election.
In Florida, contrary to the rest of the country, most Hispanic voters are Cuban-Americans or Puerto Ricans who enjoy legal immigration status, and are thus not as concerned about the Republicans’ anti-immigration rhetoric as Mexicans and Central Americans in other parts of the country.
While Cuban-Americans make up 32 percent and Puerto Ricans 28 percent of Florida’s Latino voters, nationwide Cuban-Americans represent only 5 percent and Puerto Ricans 10 percent of the Hispanic vote. The vast majority of Latino voters nationwide are Mexican-Americans.
“Florida is unique,” says Mark H. Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “Demographically, Florida looks very different than other parts of the country when it comes to Latino voters.”
Even in Florida, Republicans are losing ground among Hispanic voters: More Latinos are registering as Democrats than as Republicans, according to voter registration counts. Much like in the 2008 elections, in which Republican hopeful Sen. John McCain won the Florida primary with the backing of the state’s Republican establishment, but later lost Florida in the general election, Romney could find himself winning the state’s primary, but losing Florida in the November elections.
While as recently as 2006 more Hispanics in Florida registered as Republicans than as Democrats, the trend has reversed since 2008. In 2011, the number of Hispanics who were registered as Democrats in Florida outnumbered those registered as Republicans by a record 112,000 voters, according to Pew Hispanic Center figures.
Romney aides counter that Democrats are overstating the demographic differences between Latinos in Florida and elsewhere in the country, because most Hispanics worry about one single issue: jobs. Unemployment among Hispanics is higher than among the general population, and that will hurt Obama, they say.
“The unifying concern among all Hispanic voters is the economy: That’s what the election will be all about,” Romney spokesman Alberto Martinez told me. “Hispanics who are concerned with the economy will support Mitt Romney because they know he is the best person to rebuild the economy that President Obama has spent three and half years destroying.”
My opinion: Unless Romney changes his stands in support of Arizona’s anti-immigration law and stops calling for draconian measures to force the “self-deportation” of millions of undocumented college students and workers —which many fear will lead to abuses against all Latinos — he will lose the Hispanic vote nationwide by a big margin, and will have a hard time winning the election.
The Florida primary results do not change what we said in this column recently: Romney won’t beat Obama, but a worsening of the economy could.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at firstname.lastname@example.org. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.