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Orlando Sentinel

In Poll, Central Florida's Hispanics Favor Gov. Bush

By Mark Silva


'The population in the state is no longer just Cubans, but also Puerto Ricans and others.'

Neil Newhouse, pollster for Gov. Jeb Bush

MAY 27, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush holds an advantage over Democratic rivals among Hispanic voters in Central Florida, according to his campaign's polling of the region crucial to his re-election.

This could provide an important re-election base for Bush, who already enjoys overwhelming support among the Republican-rich Cuban-American community of South Florida.

Both state and national Republican parties are attempting to build that base, with political analysts reading gains for the GOP in the U.S. Justice Department's move to make polling places more accessible for Spanish-speaking voters in Orange and Osceola counties.

The Bush campaign's survey in the critical "Interstate 4 corridor" of Central Florida focused for the first time on Hispanics not of Cuban origin. The Democratic Party was more popular than the GOP among those surveyed, yet most thought Bush is "a different" kind of Republican.

"These voters are critical in a very swing area of the state," said Neil Newhouse, a Virginia-based Bush-campaign pollster. Bush "has a personal appeal among Hispanics that seems to overcome traditional partisan anchors. He seems to connect much better with these voters than the average Republican."

Bush's own popularity -- 60 percent of Hispanics surveyed approve of the job he is doing -- is one factor in his apparent lead among these voters.

Three-quarters of those surveyed were aware the governor speaks Spanish, Newhouse noted, and most knew his wife, Columba, is Mexican.

A widespread unfavorable view of his leading Democratic rival, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, is another factor.

In addition, Reno's chief challenger among Democrats, Tampa-area attorney Bill McBride, remains largely unknown among Hispanics.

Democrats are counting on this fast-growing voting bloc to give their nominee an edge against Bush in November, the state party focusing much of its "outreach" to new voters this year on Hispanics.

"In the past, too many candidates have taken the community for granted," said Mo Elleithee, Reno campaign manager. "Janet is not only making an effort to reach out to them in her campaign, but also make it clear that they will have a role in her administration."

Race will 'tighten up'

Bush may have a name-brand appeal today, Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Banfill said, but as his candidates start debating issues, Hispanic voters will take notice: "When the campaign is engaged, and people are given a choice between what Gov. Bush has to offer and what our candidate has to offer, then this race will begin to tighten up."

Yet this bloc offers fertile ground for Florida's bilingual governor -- who voices his own appeals in Spanish-language TV ads -- his campaign counting on 12 percent to 14 percent of the vote coming from Hispanics, with Cuban-Americans accounting for just half.

In addition, the Republican National Committee and Bush administration in Washington have set out to claim a greater share of the nationwide Hispanic vote, which Democrats have long claimed.

The party is airing a monthly television show on Spanish-language stations in select markets, including Orlando. And now Justice is threatening both Orange and Osceola counties with lawsuits regarding their lack of assistance for Hispanic voters at polling places in 2000.

GOP makes Hispanic inroads

The president "has made improving his standing among Hispanic voters a priority," said Dario Moreno, a political scientist at Florida International University in Miami. While the Justice lawsuits may not be political, Moreno said, "The political effect is what's interesting."

Nationally, GOP efforts appear to be yielding results.

The New Democratic Network, an assembly of moderate congressmen, released a survey last week showing the president's approval among Hispanics has grown from 38 percent in November 2000 to 76 percent in May.

Democrat Al Gore carried nearly two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in 2000, but the Democratic survey by Coral Gables pollster Sergio Bendixen shows President Bush and Gore might split the vote in a match today.

Hispanics account for 11 percent of the fast-growing population in a swath of Central Florida ranging from Tampa Bay to Daytona Beach -- as much as 18 percent in Tampa's Hillsborough County, nearly 19 percent in Orange and 29 percent in Osceola.

These voters traditionally have given Democrats an edge on Election Day -- Gore carried Orange County in 2000, the first time a Democrat claimed Orange since Franklin Roosevelt.

"We're not approaching the state as a monolith," Newhouse said. "The population in the state is no longer just Cubans, but also Puerto Ricans and others. We decided to take a real good, hard look at the growing, non-Cuban Hispanic voter."

In its unprecedented, targeted survey of Hispanics in the Orlando and Tampa "media markets" -- counties along I-4 from Tampa to Daytona -- the governor's campaign found that the most likely voters identify themselves in threes: 31 percent Democratic, 29 percent Republican, 27 percent independent -- but the independents strongly lean Democratic.

Alexandria, Va.-based Public Opinion Strategies interviewed 400 likely voters April 17-21.

Among them, 61 percent were Puerto Rican, 12 percent of Mexican origin, 7 percent Colombian, 4 percent Dominican, 7 percent other South Americans, and 10 percent other Hispanics.

The results carry a possible margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Education is top concern

The I-4 survey found:

  • Education ranked as the No. 1 concern, as it did among all voters, with crime ranking second, the economy third.
  • More Hispanics held a favorable impression of the Democratic Party -- 59 percent of those surveyed -- while 47 percent held a favorable impression of the Republican Party.
  • Yet 71 percent held a favorable impression of Gov. Bush, 17 percent unfavorable, while 44 percent viewed Reno favorably, 32 percent unfavorably.
  • McBride was largely unknown: 71 percent never had heard of him, while 12 percent had a favorable impression, 3 percent unfavorable.
  • In a match-up of Bush against Reno: 51 percent supported Bush, 23 percent Reno, with the rest leaning toward one or undecided. In another match-up, Bush got 50 percent, McBride 18 percent.
  • Most thought Bush is committed to improving education -- 69 percent. And many said he understands the needs of Central Florida's Hispanic community -- 60 percent.
  • Asked whether Bush "is different from most Republicans when it comes to Latino/Hispanic issues," 57 percent said yes. Most -- 76 percent -- were aware that Bush speaks Spanish.

Governor hits road for votes

"I don't think [Bush] is in much danger of losing," said Miranda Luis, a retired state health officer in Tampa who lived for most of his life in Puerto Rico. "I don't see the opposing candidates making much headway."

Bush has campaigned for the Hispanic vote, joining Puerto Rican activists at a recent luncheon at Brisas del Caribe, an Orlando eatery.

Among them was John Quinones, a lawyer running for the Legislature.

"I think what people like about the Republican Party is it provides the opportunity for you to succeed," said Quinones, who moved from Puerto Rico to Orlando 14 years ago.

Reno also has campaigned for the vote.

Last month, Reno walked through Hunter's Creek, an upscale new development in south Orange County, with several Hispanic students from Cypress Creek High School. They met Graziella Figueroa, who moved from New Jersey a year ago.

"I have one big question: the school problem," said Figueroa, complaining of a lack of after-school tutoring for a child with a reading problem.

Hearing Reno explain that she will "go out to the people and persuade the people" to spend more money on education if necessary, Figueroa said Reno has her vote.

"Oh, yes," she said. "Definitely."

McBride, too, has campaigned throughout the I-4 corridor, which his campaign counts on to provide nearly 40 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary Sept. 10.

But while McBride and Reno compete for the Democratic votes of Hispanics in their primary contest, Bush, already comfortable with his Republican base, is targeting the very same Democrats in November.

"The incumbency and the lack of a primary gives him the luxury of focusing on swing voters from the get-go," Bush pollster Newhouse said. "That's an extreme advantage."

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