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Hispanic Vote May Decide '06 Races
By Lloyd Dunkelberger
10 January 2004
TALLAHASSEE -- As Florida heads toward its next major election year in 2006, with a gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races on the ballot, political strategists say the success of those campaigns may rise or fall on the candidates' ability to connect with the increasing influential Hispanic voters.
"The Hispanic vote may be the most important swing vote in the state," said Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic strategist and leading authority on the state's Hispanic voters.
Bendixen and other analysts say candidates who are running for office in 2006 may draw many important lessons from the 2004 campaigns, where both Republicans and Democrats can claim they made inroads with Hispanic voters. But both parties face new challenges in 2006.
The state's Hispanic voting bloc, which now accounts for 15 percent of the statewide vote representing roughly 1 million voters, is far from monolithic. It is becoming increasing diverse, with a lessening influence for the once dominant Cuban-American voters.
In the governor's race, Republicans face a difficult task in replacing Gov. Jeb Bush, a bilingual politician who is very popular among Hispanic voters.
Democrats face problems because they will be running without any major Hispanic officeholders, while Republicans can boast of a U.S. senator, congressional members and rising legislative leaders. But strategists from both parties agree no major statewide candidates can afford to ignore Hispanic voters.
"You've got to find ways to campaign and to get your message out to the Hispanic population," said Richard Pinsky, a Republican strategist. "And the ones who do that best are the ones who are going to be successful."
Part of the difficulty of connecting with Hispanic voters is that in addition to the rapid growth of the voting bloc, its composition is also dramatically changing. In the 2004 vote, nonCuban voters may have accounted for at least half of the Hispanic votes cast, in contrast to the 1992 presidential race when Cuban voters accounted for about nine of every 10 votes cast, Bendixen said.
"It's changing so quickly," he said. "That's what makes it so volatile."
Democrats tend to do better among non-Cuban Hispanics, while Cuban voters have been loyal Republican supporters.
President George W. Bush won the Hispanic vote in Florida last year by a 56-44 percent margin over John Kerry, his Democratic challenger, according to the CNN exit poll.
Democrats point to the fact that Kerry did better among Florida Hispanic voters than Al Gore had done four years before. Republicans note that while Bush's overall number slipped slightly, he ran better among non-Cuban Hispanics in Central Florida than he did four years before.
Dario Moreno, a political scientist from Florida International University and another authority on Hispanic voters, said while it is clear that non-Cuban Hispanic voters are growing, what is often overlooked is the well-tested political organization of the Cuban community and its ability to turn out voters.
U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican who is the state's first Cuban-American senator, won 45 percent of his party's primary vote. In contrast, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, a Democrat, was only able to claim 10 percent of his party's primary vote and failed to carry his home county, which has a majority Hispanic population.
"It's not just about numbers," Moreno said. "It's also (political) infrastructure."
Republicans have also done well among Hispanic voters by having Gov. Jeb Bush as the party's top standard-bearer. Bush comes from Miami, speaks flawless Spanish and is married to a native of Mexico.
Bendixen, the Democratic strategist, said the Republicans will have trouble replicating those deep and personal ties when they field new candidates for Bush's office in 2006.
"No one is going to have the appeal that Jeb Bush has, which is a personal appeal and an emotional connection that is very difficult to duplicate," he said.
On the other side, the Democrats may have trouble connecting because they have no major Hispanic officeholders. That's in contrast to the Republicans who now have Martinez, three congressional members and influential legislative leaders like Marco Rubio, R-Miami, who is in line to become state House speaker in November 2006.
"There's a list that's a mile long," Moreno said about the GOP's advantage in Hispanic officeholders.
Florida Democratic Party Chairman Scott Maddox, who may run for governor in 2006 and who is a native of Miami-Dade County with a Hispanic heritage, downplayed the party's lack of major standard-bearers. He said Democrats made gains among Cuban voters in the 2004 elections and will continue to draw more support from Hispanic voters because of the party's position on issues like schools, health care and job creation.
"Those issues naturally favor us," he said.
Other strategists say while Hispanic voters share similar concerns with other Florida voters over issues like jobs and schools, some issues could prove more decisive in winning support in Hispanic communities.
Bendixen said issues like immigration, foreign trade and political developments in South and Central America are likely become more prominent in Florida politics as the Hispanic population continues to expand and diversify.
For instance, Bendixen said he wouldn't be surprised to see more statewide politicians taking trips to South America and commenting on developments in countries like Venezuela.
"Florida politicians have never said much about South America," said Bendixen, who has done political consulting in South and Central America. "There was no need to, there was no constituency. For the first time now in the state of Florida there is a constituency that is very interested in those issues."