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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Hispanics' Votes Vary


October 31, 2002
Copyright © 2002 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

For more than two decades, analyzing Hispanic voting patterns in Florida was a simple task. South Florida Cuban-American voters elect Democrats for mayor, but vote Republican in state and national elections. Because a majority of Hispanic voters in the state were of Cuban origin, predicting a statewide election was as easy as adding two and two.

But times change and trends move in step. Today, Cuban-Americans no longer represent an absolute majority of Hispanic voters in Florida. Some experts say it is slightly less than half, while others place it a little higher, particularly when counting voter turnout. It's hard to be precise because Florida no longer lists national origin on its voter registration rolls.

Predicting the Hispanic vote, even less than a week away from the gubernatorial election, is no longer easy. Nobody knows how Puerto Ricans will vote. And the 2000 U.S. Census says close to half a million Puerto Ricans now live in Florida, many of them in Broward or in the I-4 corridor near Orlando. Four years ago, Puerto Ricans in the state voted for Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate. Two years later they reverted to their New York roots and favored Democrat Al Gore for president. They are the big question mark for next Tuesday. Puerto Rican voters in Florida might well decide who wins this election.

Because Puerto Ricans are American citizens by birth, all they have to do to vote in the state is be of legal age and register. This is why the government of Puerto Rico mounted an aggressive media campaign here earlier in the year urging Puerto Ricans to register and in recent weeks asking that they vote.

Sergio Bendixen, a veteran Hispanic pollster, explains that it is hard to predict precisely how the different Hispanic groups would vote in the state because there are no published media polls. No one measures the Hispanic vote in the state, even though it represents between 14 percent and 17 percent of the vote.

Cuban-Americans will vote in overwhelming numbers for Gov. Bush, according to Bendixen. They have done so traditionally, except in 1996 when the community split and gave 40 percent of its vote to President Bill Clinton. But in 1998 and 2000, the Cuban vote returned to the Republican Party. Cuban-Americans, particularly because of their high voter turnout, may represent 8 percent of the voters in next Tuesday's election.

"The big unknown is what will happen in Central Florida," says Bendixen. That is where a majority of Puerto Ricans in the state now live. Most come from New York or Chicago, where they lived for many years. Now they live in Orange County and in Osceola County, where many of them work in the tourist industry.

"Puerto Ricans may well decide the election," he adds. "It depends on their turnout on Election Day." For Bill McBride to win the Hispanic vote in the state, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos must vote in a bloc for the Democrat and must do so in massive numbers. This is something that neither Bendixen nor other analysts are willing to predict.

The president has campaigned hard for the Hispanic vote in Florida and across the nation. Democrats have taken it for granted.

A consultant close to the McBride campaign complains that a week before the election, the Democratic candidate did not have Spanish-language commercials targeting the Hispanic vote on the air. The Democratic Party will do so this week, he said, but McBride did not have money to lure Hispanic voters as Gov. Bush has been doing for months. "And this may be very costly for McBride," he said.

Earlier this week the lack of coherence of the McBride Hispanic campaign was evident when he was scheduled to open a campaign office in Hialeah. He was guaranteed a friendly welcome. Mayor Raul Martinez is a loyal supporter. McBride should have been at the ceremony, but a last-minute change in his itinerary kept him away.

An event that had been programmed to attain visibility among Spanish-speaking voters and television viewers became a story where journalists analyzed why Democrats had waited until a week before the election to open a campaign office in Hialeah and then have the candidate not turn up. The made-for-television media event left a less-than-favorable McBride message.

Republicans have a solid Cuban-American voter base. McBride cannot ignore other Hispanic voting blocs in the state if he hopes to become Florida's next governor.

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