In record numbers, Florida Hispanics backed President Obama and other Democratic candidates in Tuesday's election, highlighting a source of future growth for one party while signaling big problems for Republicans.
"Latinos in Florida flexed their muscles and we saw it [Tuesday]," said Alvaro Fernandez, director of the Miami Progressive Project, a nonpartisan voter-registration group.
Obama pulled 60 percent of Florida's Hispanic vote, up from the 57 percent he won in 2008, according to exit polls.
Nationally, the president won an estimated 71 percent of the Latino vote.
Within the state's Latino community, Obama got overwhelming support from Puerto Ricans, Florida's second-largest Hispanic group. They voted for the president over Republican challenger Mitt Romney by a 83-17 percent margin, according to one exit poll.
But Democrats also got a boost this year by increasing their share of votes from the state's largest Hispanic bloc, Cuban-Americans, who have traditionally gone GOP, the poll showed.
According to those figures, released Thursday by Miami's Bendixen & Amandi International, 48 percent of Florida's Cuban-Americans backed Obama, while challenger Romney got the rest.
That's a Democratic gain of 13 points among Cuban-Americans over 2008, according to pollster Fernand Amandi, and represents what he called "a sea change."
"The dam has finally burst in the long-awaited Cuban shift," Amandi said. "This is a remarkable change.
On Election Day, Cuban-American voters gave the president 53 percent of their votes, compared with 47 percent who chose Romney. Yet Romney still won the overall Cuban-American vote thanks to voters who had cast absentee and early in-person ballots, according to the survey of 4,866 voters conducted by Bendixen & Amandi.
The shifting tide among Cuban-American voters is being propelled by two factors: youth and immigration, said Amandi. Young Cuban-Americans born and raised here are not sure-bet Republican voters as their staunchly anti-Castro elders were, he said.
And Cubans who arrived in the U.S. in the past few years also tend to be less Republican.
That change may have helped Democrat Joe Garcia unseat U.S. Rep. David Rivera in the Congressional 26th District that includes Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Garcia got 54 percent of the vote to 42.9 percent for Rivera.
At least some of Garcia's margin of victory can be explained by the scandals currently engulfing Rivera. He remains the target of two federal investigations.
As Republicans regroup in the election's aftermath, their approach to wooing Hispanic voters will have to be revamped, said Eddie Fernandez, an attorney with Shutts & Bowen in Orlando who is active in conservative politics.
"I think Republicans' view of Hispanics, and I am going to say maybe women and other minorities as well, is as someone you need to outreach to during an election year, rather than groups that are integral to the party," he said. "That's what needs to change."
In Hollywood, Americo Vargas, a 70-year-old retired truck driver born in the Dominican Republic, said he did not trust Republicans to represent him."The way I see it Republicans are against Hispanics," he said. "Romney said 47 percent [of Americans] want a handout. I think he meant us."
Obama racked up big margins with all Hispanic blocs in Florida, according to the Bendixen & Amandi poll. It found that Obama took 79 percent of the South American vote, including 80 percent of Colombians, 82 percent of Peruvians, 79 percent of Ecuadorians, and 76 percent of Venezuelans, 75 percent of Argentinians and 92 percent of Brazilians.
Among Central Americans, including those from Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, 74 percent voted for Obama, the pollsters found. The percentage of Mexicans in Florida who favored Obama was 66, Dominicans, 81.
Angie Ortega, who moved to Pembroke Pines from Puerto Rico in 2010, is part of the new wave of Hispanic voters changing Florida's political profile. Ortega said she voted for Obama because she believes he is the best candidate with the best ideas for helping people like herself.
"I thought the president needs to finish what he started and he deserves a second chance," said Ortega, 45, a behavior specialist who works with the handicapped. "If Obama does the great job he says he is going to do I will remain a Democrat. But if he doesn't, I may vote for the Republican the next time."
That may be heartening to Florida Republican leaders like U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov.Jeb Bush, who have urged the party to back immigration reform.
In a statement on Wednesday Rubio, himself a Cuban-American, praised Romney's bid for the White House but stressed the need for the party to take a new direction.
"The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them," Rubio said.
Bendixen & Amandi International is a Miami-based consulting firm which produced Obama's Spanish-language ads. The exit poll of 4,866 Hispanic voters was conducted on Election Day, during early in-person voting and by phone of those who cast absentee ballots in six counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Orange, Osceola and Hillsborough. Polling was conducted independently of the Obama campaign, the firm said.
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