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Florida : A Swing Vote Surprise

Cubans no longer hold the key to the presidential election

BY Natasha del ToroOctober 28, 2008
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Natasha del Toro is an independent filmmaker and reporter based in Tampa, Florida.

For decades, the anti-Castro Cuban community in South Florida has been a Republican stronghold, tilting the battleground of Florida and its crucial 27 electoral votes into the GOP camp. But a diverse and fast growing group of non-Cuban Hispanic voters -- who now outnumber Cubans -- could shift the state's balance the other way.

Many pollsters consider this group to be the key to November's election. Hispanics from Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Puerto Rico are moving into the area in droves along the State's I-4 corridor. This 132-mile highway cuts straight across Central Florida, connecting Tampa east to Daytona Beach. These immigrants lean Democrat but tend to be independent-minded about voting, a trait seen in previous elections.

"The I-4 corridor has really been the battleground for previous elections," said Republican Party strategist Angulated Aviles. "And seeing there is such an influx of Hispanics coming into the area, it's going to boil down to Hispanics in the I-4 corridor."

In 2000, Florida Latinos in Central Florida voted for Democratic Presidential nominee Al Gore. However, in the 2004 presidential contest, more than half cast their ballot for George Bush. Two years later, they delivered the vote to President Bush's brother Jeb in the Florida governor's race.

Whether it's because these voters are still learning the ropes of the U.S. political system or because they live within a Hispanic Republican culture, where most Hispanic elected officials in the region are Republican, their voter registration and behavior suggest many of them are still up for grabs, said Aviles.

Political talk show host Fernando Negron says the growing dissatisfaction among Central Florida Latinos with the country's direction and the economy will take more than a few words in "espanol" to win their vote.

"The Republicans did a heck of a job to convince us they were the right candidates in the previous election," said Fernando Negron, a political radio talk show host based in Orlando. Both Bush brothers spoke Spanish on the campaign trail and ran a flurry of Spanish language TV and radio ads.

"They bought the Hispanic vote with language," he said. But Negron, a registered independent, says the growing dissatisfaction among Central Florida Latinos with the country's direction and the economy will take more than a few words in "espanol" to win their vote. "We need some change in this country," says Negron. "People that pay $4 a gallon for gas, people that go to the supermarket, people that pay for a house, a mortgage. It has gone badly to the wrong side of the economic swing."

Negron's attitude reflects a recent Pew Hispanic Research Center nationwide survey, which shows Latinos favoring Democrat Barack Obama for president over Republican John McCain by 66 percent to 23 percent, with pocketbook issues as their top concern.

But in the complicated state of Florida, where Latinos make up around 12 percent of the electorate, recent polls show the margin is much more evenly split, giving McCain a slight lead among Hispanics. A Mason-Dixon poll released in early October showed McCain beating Obama 49 to 44 percent. A Zogby poll released last week shows the candidates in a dead heat.

Fernando Negron is a political radio talk show host based in Orlando.

A massive voter registration drive by the campaigns and nonpartisan groups may help the Democrats, who now have 68,000 more registered voters than Republicans, for the first time ever in Florida. In three of the highest Latino populated counties in Central Florida -- Hillsborough, Orange and Osceola -- Hispanic Democrats outnumber registered Hispanic Republicans by more than 2 to 1. And these three counties account for almost 19 percent of the state's overall Latino vote.

Meanwhile, Florida's Division of Elections reports another third of Florida's Hispanic voters are not registered with any major party. According to Thomas Eldon, who recently conducted a poll for The Miami Herald and The St. Petersburg Times, as much as seven percent of the overall Hispanic vote is undecided.

Dave Beattie, another pollster, puts the number of Hispanic undecided voters as high as 14 percent. The number is constantly in flux, which is one reason the campaigns are paying such close attention and trying to understand this demographic as the election nears.

While liberal on economic and fiscal policies, many of the area's Hispanics are more conservative when it comes their family and religious values, which is another issue at play in iwho they will vote for come November 4.

Damaris Soto, a Tampa-based real estate professional from the Dominican Republic, has voted Democrat in the past, but not this year. Even though Obama attends a Christian church, Soto has concerns about Obama's religious upbringing.

"He grew up Indonesian. He grew up in the Musulman countries and in this philosophy," she said. "That is the way that his mother brought him up. And he's very liberal." Soto says she is also concerned about Obama's level of experience. Still, she isn't sure that she will vote for McCain either. "I will decide in November," she said.

Damaris Soto

Damaris Soto is a Tampa-based real estate professional from the Dominican Republic.

Undecided voters like Soto have caused both campaigns to ramp up their outreach efforts to Hispanic voters throughout the state. The activities include strategic planning meetings, volunteer training, extensive mailings and door-to-door canvassing.

The candidates are also making frequent barnstorming stops in the area. Temo Figueroa, Obama's Latino Vote Director, said the campaign has dedicated an unprecedented $20 million to target Hispanics nationwide.

"A significant portion of that money will go to Florida because of the sheer numbers of Latino voters in the state," said Figueroa. Millions of dollars a week have also been spent on Spanish-language television and radio advertisements. New data released by a group at the University of Wisconsin, which is monitoring national campaign advertisements, show Obama is outspending McCain on television ads in Florida 3-to-1.

The Obama campaign has also set up a national headquarters in Tampa and has around 200 staffers and thousands of volunteers working in the state. Mario Diaz, the Southeast Regional Communications Director for McCain's campaign, said their candidate didn't need to spend as much on ads, because he already has a track record with Hispanics, particularly on issues of immigration, drug trafficking and foreign policy.

Until now, the polls in Florida suggest that could be true. But both candidates will continue appealing to Hispanics, particularly those in Central Florida, hoping to persuade this critical demographic to swing the state their way.

"The person who wins the Tampa media market -- the largest in the state with a population the size of Colorado -- has won the state of Florida in the presidential elections since 1980," said Dave Beattie. "So, obviously, winning here in Florida is pretty predictive of who wins the elections."

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