Hispanic vote helped drive Democratic success in Florida

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A strong Democratic showing in Florida and nationally was assured in part by the party’s enormous success among Hispanic voters, election exit polls and registration figures show, reports David Royse of the News Service of Florida.

Nationally, President Obama drew 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls, a number that was likely at play in Obama wins over Republican Mitt Romney in a few key swing states, including Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.

The number appears to have been smaller in Florida – possibly around 60 percent for the president among Hispanics according to one poll of early and likely Latino voters last week.

But the huge number of Hispanic voters who registered as Democrats instead of Republicans in Florida this year and their apparent large turnout helped make Florida much closer in the presidential race than expected and likely played into wins by other candidates, such as Democrat Darren Soto, who won a state Senate seat in central Florida.

Hispanics were “absolutely game changers” for the Democratic effort on Tuesday, state party Chairman Rod Smith said Wednesday. “The changing demographic of Florida was never more evident than last week and last night.”

Smith said after Democrats lost several races, including a close governor’s race in 2010, they hired a full time Hispanic outreach coordinator in central Florida, where large numbers of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos were being credited Wednesday with helping Democrats win several races in the area this year.

The Obama team also helped, Smith said.

“They saw very early that was going to be a critical vote in Florida,” he said.

Anyone looking at registration numbers in the state likely saw Tuesday’s results among Hispanics coming, said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. Increasing numbers of Hispanics throughout the last year have been registering mostly as Democrats and independents in Florida, following decades in which much of the state’s Latino population had been Cuban and Republican.

State figures show 644,876 Hispanics registered as Democrats in time for Tuesday’s election, while only 476,488 Hispanics signed up as Republicans. More than a half million Hispanics – more than Republicans – registered with no party affiliation.

That this year Latinos wouldn’t be voting with the GOP was evident in how they were registering. “We saw that, even way back in December,” Lopez said.

Smith said Democrats worked hard to become the home for those voters, particularly in swing areas like central Florida. Soto, who is of Puerto Rican descent, “spent the last two months energizing Hispanic voters,” Smith said.

This year Hispanics in Florida also turned out in larger numbers than four years ago, based on exit polling, Lopez said.

Smith acknowledged that Democrats have to continue to strengthen their appeal in the Latino community because white voters, particularly men, aren’t voting for them.

Nearly 90 percent of Romney supporters were white non-Hispanics, according to the Pew Center, while only 56 percent of Obama’s supporters are white. That, of course, cuts the other way for the GOP – because the Latino population is growing while whites are shrinking as a percentage of the nation’s overall population.

“The Republicans have a … lack of diversity problem,” Pew Research President Andy Kohut recently said on National Public Radio. “The changing face of America is going to represent more of a challenge to the GOP than the Democrats.”

It’s something a few Republicans have acknowledged. If nothing else, from a practical standpoint, the party must reach out to Hispanics if it wants to win future elections, or at least stop alienating them. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose wife is Mexican, has said this several times, as has Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, whose parents came from Cuba.

A perceived hard line by Republicans on how immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants, should be dealt with, is the elephant in the room. But Rubio has argued that Latinos have a much broader interest – general economic issues – than just narrow questions of immigration policy.

After surveying the GOP’s loss on Tuesday, Rubio said again on Wednesday that the GOP must be part of the broader Hispanic electorate.

“The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them.,” Rubio told Roll Call.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.