Why the 2012 Hispanic Vote Doesn’t Matter … Yet

BY Ray Suarez  January 30, 2012 at 3:36 PM EDT

When it comes to politics, I know a lot about The Decade of the Hispanic. I’ve been lucky enough to cover three of them. For as long as I’ve been a reporter, the Hispanic vote has been the next big thing. Certainly, with every passing year, the potential and the reality of that vote’s size grows.

So it’s understandable that in this primary season, much attention has been directed toward the Hispanic vote in the days before the Florida primary. There hasn’t been much to say until now as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are not hotbeds of Latino settlement in the United States.

And so it begins: What will Republicans say to appeal to Latino voters? Which way will they vote? Will Latino strategies offer a foretaste of campaigns to come when the primary calendar moves west? What will the candidates say about this country’s Cuba policy? All very interesting, to be sure, but not determinative of anything much. There’s plenty to say about the Latino vote in 2012 … just not yet.

hfl.jpg The vast majority of Latinos in the United States are Mexican-American or Mexican-born. Florida is an outlier in those terms. The state is home to a sizable Latino population, of course, of just over 4 million people, more than a fifth of all Floridians.

Among Latinos across the country, immigration policy is an issue of vital interest. In Republican primaries, and particularly in the Florida Republican primary, immigration policy is an issue of strongly symbolic power but of little direct impact. The vast majority of Latinos in Florida are drawn from two groups with a less direct interest in current debates over immigration.

Cubans have an immigration policy all their own, commonly called “wet-foot, dry-foot,” giving people who make it from the Communist island immediate legal status if they make it to dry land. If intercepted at sea, Cubans are sent home. Those who stand on terra firma in Florida don’t have to worry about deportation, a path to citizenship, permanent resident status, or any of the other arcane but vitally important moving parts of immigration law. There are about a million ethnic Cubans, immigrant and native-born, in Florida. A quarter of Cubans nationwide are not even naturalized citizens, and thus ineligible to vote.

The other major Latino group calling Florida home is Puerto Rican, mainland and island born. The 2010 Census counted 850,000 Puerto Ricans in Florida. For all the talk about immigration in Florida during the nationally televised debates, it doesn’t matter to Puerto Ricans in a direct way either. Moving from Puerto Rico to the United States mainland, in legal terms, is about as complicated as moving from New Jersey to Illinois. Made American citizens by an act of Congress in 1917, and born American citizens ever since, Puerto Ricans “emigrate” by getting on an airplane. They don’t have to ask permission, or even tell anyone besides the U.S. Postal Service that they’ve arrived.

The tone of the immigration debate matters in Florida. Immigration policy itself? Not as much as you might think. Presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich argue over immigration at the Republican debates for the benefit of much-wider groups of voters. Alienating likely voters both in Florida and other coming primary and caucus states with a policy designed to win 10 percent of one state’s vote would be nothing less than campaign malpractice.

In this young election season, Latinos across the country, including in Florida, have been telling public opinion researchers the economy is their No. 1 issue, and it’s no wonder. Maybe you saw the numbers coming from the Pew Research Center in recent months indicating Latino families lost two-thirds of their accumulated wealth in the last few years, mostly because family assets were heavily concentrated in real estate.

So candidate messaging on a cratering housing market, rampant repossessions, and the heavy exposure to discretionary spending by the rest of the country have had much more resonance in Florida than immigration. The issues that have challenged Floridians — empty resorts, foreclosures and joblessness — mean Latino issues are Florida issues and Florida issues are Latino issues.

unemployment in floridaBut the real impediment to a heavy impact of Latinos on the Florida outcome is mathematical, not philosophical. In national elections, two out of three Latinos vote for Democrats. No national poll taken so far this season has indicated that is likely to change a great deal in 2012. Of the expected 2 million primary ballots to be cast by Florida Republicans, some 200,000 are expected to be cast by Latinos. Various polls show Mitt Romney with a 10-24 percent lead among Florida Latinos. If the momentum of statewide polls is any guide, Romney has moved solidly ahead of Gingrich.

At the risk of stating the obvious, 10 to 24 percent of 10 percent isn’t very much … 1 to 3 percent of the overall Florida vote. If the margin of victory is much more than 3 percent, how much will the Latino vote have mattered? The more middle class and affluent slice of Florida’s Latino voters look like they’re going to vote like other more middle class and affluent Republican voters. With an ethnic/national origin profile among Latinos vastly different from all the other major areas of Latino settlement, will Florida’s Republican primary tell us much that matters for Nevada, Arizona or California?

Before the striking changes of the last two decades, the political profile of Florida was heavily influenced by exile politics and the arguments among Cuban-Americans. Cubans still matter; they are influential leaders of major Florida institutions and major office-holders. However, it’s been a while since Cubans were even a majority of Latinos in Florida. As the post-revolutionary refugee generations age and younger and more heavily Florida-born Cubans move to the fore, those old formulas about exile politics and Florida politics will become less and less important.

Candidate appearances at famous Little Havana restaurants, thundering denunciations of the Castro brothers, ads with the candidates dropping a little Spanish, the anointing of candidates by anti-Communist leaders in Miami. It’s all fun to cover, all interesting, all catnip for political junkies but less likely to shape the rest of the race in the Republican primaries, and the fall campaign than the Hispanic unemployment rate in October.

Also see: Voter Snapshot: Florida Hispanics in Spotlight Before GOP Primary