Despite Florida Primary Win, Mitt Romney Faces Uphill Battle for Hispanic Vote

Republican hopeful Mitt Romney beat leading GOP contender Newt Gingrich in a landslide primary election victory in Florida on Tuesday, winning by large margins in key Latino strongholds. Romney trounced Gingrich 46.4 percent to 31.9 percent in the GOP primary, with Romney claiming 53 percent of the Hispanic vote against Gingrich’s 14 percent. Rick Santorum came in fourth with 13.4 percent and Ron Paul polled a distant fourth with 7 percent, with both men polling less than 10 percent of the Latino vote.

Romney’s win gives his campaign much needed momentum following his stunning defeat in last week’s South Carolina primary. But whether Romney, if nominated, can steal some of the Hispanic vote away from Obama in the general election remains to be seen.

Romney defeated Gingrich in most of Florida’s south and central counties, where the Hispanic population is mostly concentrated. In cities with 25 percent or higher Latino populations, including Orlando, Fort Myers, Tampa, and Miami, which is over 70 percent Hispanic, Romney also won. Gingrich’s wins were mostly concentrated in majority white counties in northern Florida, indicating weak support for Gingrich among Florida minorities.

In the lead up to Tuesday’s vote, both Romney and Gingrich campaigned hard to win the votes of Cuban-Americans, who constitute 600,000 of the Florida electorate. Both men repeated their endorsement of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, with Gingrich touting his prominent role in the passage of the Cuba-embargo strengthening 1996 Helms-Burton law, which is popular among conservative Cuban-Americans that oppose Cuba's communist regime. But in the January 23 and 28 debates, both men sparred on illegal immigration, border control, and the housing crisis, with Romney deflecting many of Gingrich’s attacks and turning them back against Gingrich. Throughout the Florida campaign, Gingrich stayed on the attack, launching an aggressive Spanish-language media campaign that labeled Romney as “anti-immigrant” for his stances on the DREAM Act and self-deportation. Many of Gingrich’s attacks, however, were deflated by Latino Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla), who came to Romney’s defense, calling the attacks “inflammatory.”

In terms of Florida’s Latino vote, the primary election was a major victory for Romney. Romney polled just 14 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2008 Republican presidential primary against Sen. John McCain, and his out-sized win on Tuesday displayed how far his campaign has progressed since then. It showed that Romney’s campaign has the potential to cut across ethnic lines and mobilize a diverse range of voters on key issues, including jobs and the economy. Romney polled well in areas where unemployment and foreclosure rates are high, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Lee, Osceola, Polk, and Hillsborough counties. Romney even won in Bay County, a Tea Party stronghold that analysts predicted would go to either Gingrich or Paul. 

Despite his win in Florida, Romney will face an uphill battle for Latino votes if he becomes the Republican presidential nominee. He’ll be up against Obama, who, despite the high number of deportations of illegal immigrants during his tenure, remains popular among Hispanics. In 2008, Obama picked up 57 percent of the Florida Hispanic vote, and 67 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide.

Florida, considered a battleground state in the 2012 presidential election, is home to the third largest Hispanic population in the country. Hispanic voters make up 13 percent of the electorate, but they only constitute 11 percent of registered Florida Republicans. This means that Romney’s most reliable pool of Hispanic voters makes up just 4 percent of the state’s total electorate of 11.2 million voters. And with Romney attracting only half of potential Republican Hispanic voters in Tuesday’s primary, it is uncertain if he’ll do much better the second time around in November. 

Sharp increases in Democratic voter registration could make it hard for Romney to win the Florida Hispanic vote in the general election. Since 2006, the Republican footprint in Florida’s Latino community has barely grown, adding only 38,000 additional registered Hispanic voters between 2006 and 2012, reaching a total of 452,000 registered Latino voters this year. Democrats, however, added 195,000 Hispanic voters to their ranks, going from 369,000 in 2006 to 564,000 registered Latino voters in 2012. With the Democratic Party working hard to mobilize the Hispanic community, this makes Florida Hispanics more likely to vote for Obama in November.

As the primary campaign moves to Nevada, Romney’s showing among Latinos in Florida is by no means indicative of how he will likely poll among Latinos in the Silver State. 

Latinos constitute 13.5 percent of Nevada voters, but just 3 percent of registered Republicans. This is because Hispanics in Nevada are overwhelmingly Democrat, with 76 percent of Latinos in 2008 voting for Obama. Romney's hard-right stance on immigration and his opposition to amnesty, no matter how long an undocumented immigrant has been in the U.S., will therefore be a turn off to many Hispanics. Romney's promise to veto the DREAM Act, which would legalize undocumented youth if they go to college or join the military, is equally unlikely to endear him to many Latinos. 

Nor does Romney’s win in Florida indicate his potential performance among the larger Hispanic community in other parts of the country. For example, McCain, Romney's former presidential primary competitor, also did well among Florida Hispanics, but he lost the national Hispanic vote. In the 2008 general election, McCain polled just 31 percent of the Latino vote nationwide. Romney, who is running on a social-conservative platform that is even further right than McCain's, will face an uphill battle for Hispanic votes as his campaign moves to Nevada and other leading Hispanic states, including Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and California.

As the election season continues, Florida will play front and center in the Republican bid to take back the White House. But if Romney is the eventual Republican candidate, he will have to broaden his message to attract significant numbers of Democratic Latinos in the Sunshine State. Wooing some of these voters will be essential if Romney goes toe to toe with Obama in Florida and beyond in November.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Bryan Finlayson

Bryan is a former newspaper reporter and freelance journalist. He holds a B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in international relations.

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