Mitt Romney is closing the gap on President Barack Obama among likely Hispanic Florida voters, a majority of whom say they're not better off than four years ago, according to a new Florida International University/Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald poll.
Obama is ahead of Romney 51-44 percent among Hispanics, a relatively narrow lead that could spell trouble for a Democratic campaign that's counting on minority support as non-Hispanic white voters flock to the Republican ticket in droves.
In the rest of the country, however, it's a different story for Obama when it comes to likely Hispanic voters.
The president wallops Romney 66-31 percent overall across the U.S., according to the poll's national survey of 1,000 likely Hispanic voters. It was taken Oct. 10-11 along with the 720-voter poll in Florida.
The difference here: Cuban-American voters, who are overwhelmingly Republican and who appear to be increasingly excited about Romney's campaign.
"What's remarkable is the demographic split in Florida: Puerto Rican and Dominican and other Hispanic voters trust Obama. Cubans just don't," said Eduardo Gamarra, an FIU professor of Latin American studies who conducted the poll with his political research firm, the Newlink Group.
In the national and Florida surveys, Cuban voters consistently gave Obama low marks on handling the economy, immigration and foreign policy. Puerto Rican and Dominican voters said the opposite.
Momentum from Cuban voters could help other Republican candidates on the Florida ballot, particularly in South Florida.
Take out Cuban voters, and Obama wins Florida Hispanics 64 percent to Romney's 33 percent, according to the poll, which has a 3.6 percent error margin.
Overall, 54 percent of Florida Hispanics said they were not better off than four years ago, compared to 46 percent who said they were. That's not just a reflection of Cuban sentiment; it's an indication of Florida's unemployment rate, which is higher than the nation's. And Hispanic unemployment is higher still. The number of Hispanic children living in poverty now exceeds the number of non-Hispanic white children, even though Hispanics are a minority.
Nevertheless, Obama edges Romney 51-48 percent over who would better at fixing the economy. He also pulls ahead of Romney 53-47 percent over handling foreign policy and 55-44 percent concerning immigration.
Asked if Obama had "fulfilled his promises to the U.S. Hispanic community," 51 percent said no.
That could be a legacy of Obama's 2008 pledge to pass the pro-immigrant DREAM Act in his first term. It failed in the U.S. Senate thanks to a Republican filibuster.
The nation's most-influential Spanish-language TV personality, Univision's Jorge Ramos, made Obama's failure a major issue last month during a nationally-televised forum at the University of Miami.
"A promise is a promise, and with all due respect," Ramos said, "you didn't keep that promise."
Obama seemed to agree later when asked what his biggest failure was: "Well, Jorge as you remind me, my biggest failure has been comprehensive immigration reform."
The Obama lead is far bigger in the national poll of Hispanic voters -- and would be bigger in Florida were it not for Cuban voters like Lazaro Sierra, a 73-year-old Republican who came to the U.S. four decades ago.
"I'm going to vote for the Republican Party: Mitt Romney," said Sierra, who lives in Miami's Shenandoah neighborhood. "I like his career path, and what he's proposing is better than Obama. In four years he hasn't done anything. On the contrary, there are more people without work, we're still in debt. To me, he hasn't done anything worthwhile."
Another poll respondent, Marcelino Gracia, who fled Cuba 48 years ago, is a Democrat backing Obama.
Gracia, of Coral Gables, said he has always favored Democrats' economic policies and particularly agrees with Obama's plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2014.
"They'll save $800 billion a year that we could use here," he said. Otherwise, Gracia said, "they'll be killing Americans for no reason."
The poll found nearly 5 percent of Florida Hispanic voters are undecided. Candidate Gary Johnson, a Libertarian, received less than 1 percent of respondents' support.
Most polls of Floridians are showing a dwindling number of undecided voters as the Oct. 27 early voting date draws near.
Cubans account for a little more than a third of registered Florida Hispanic voters, but can account to 40 to nearly 50 percent of the actual Hispanic vote, pollsters say. About 47 percent of respondents in this poll were Cuban.
Gamarra, a registered Democrat of Bolivian descent, said he didn't want to adjust -- or "weight" -- the sample to bring down the number of Cuban voters. He points out that there is no concrete data available that definitively shows how many Hispanic voters are, say, Cuban or Puerto Rican.
However, there is clear data showing the breakdown of overall Hispanic voters by party in Florida. Hispanics account for about 14 percent of the active registered voters in the state, 38 percent are Democrat, 30 percent are Republican and 32 percent are independent -- mainly no-party-affiliation voters.
If the poll were weighted to purely reflect registration only Obama would lead Romney by 10 points, 53-43 percent.
The Newlink poll is the first-ever attempt to survey Florida's diverse population of Hispanic voters by using Interactive Voice Response technology -- known as "robo-polling" -- in which people essentially cast their vote by using their telephone keypads in response to pre-recorded questions.
Newlink and Gamarra have used the technology to poll throughout Latin America since 2004.
Robo-polling has become relatively common in Florida and the nation overall, used by firms like SurveyUSA, Rasmussen Reports and Public Policy Polling. Many of them do not poll in Spanish. This survey gave respondents the option, and surveyed 80 percent of Florida respondents in Spanish.
Because robo-polling does not include cell phones, critics say, it can miss younger and more liberal-leaning voters.
Polling Florida Hispanics is a particular challenge, Gamarra said, because of its dynamic population: Republican-leaning Cubans in South Florida, Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans in Central Florida and a mishmash of South and Central Americans throughout the state.
Nationwide, voters of Mexican descent dominate the Hispanic electorate.
This poll of likely voters -- those who say they're sure to cast a ballot -- differs sharply from a poll two weeks ago of registered Hispanic voters that was sponsored by America's Voice, a liberal-leaning immigration advocacy group. That survey showed Obama leading in Florida by 30 points.
In addition to surveying registered voters only, the America's Voice survey conducted by Latino Decisions used live callers instead of robo-polling technology.
However, a poll conducted last week for The Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald and The Tampa Bay Times by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research showed Romney and Obama virtually tied among likely Hispanic voters in Florida. That survey used live callers, but it had such a small sample size of Hispanics that the error margin is large enough to render the exact head-to-head numbers statistically insignificant.
Still, the Herald/Times poll of all likely Florida voters showed an 8-point shift in Romney's favor in a month, thanks largely to his strong debate performance against Obama. Hispanic voters shifted 11 points.
Non-Hispanic white voters favor Romney by double-digits, which is particularly troubling for Obama because they comprise more than two-thirds of the state's electorate.
Despite the poor poll numbers, though, the Obama campaign insisted it's doing well and said that polls of likely voters fail to adequately survey infrequent and young voters -- keys to Obama's victory in 2008. Election Day exit polls showed Obama won 57 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida; John McCain garnered 42 percent.
But Republican pollsters say that number underestimated the sizable number of Hispanic Republicans who voted early by absentee ballot, particularly in Miami-Dade -- the state's largest county, where 72 percent of the GOP is Hispanic.
As the country's largest battleground state, Florida's Hispanics play an outsized role in picking the president.
"The Hispanic vote in Florida is powerful. We can decide elections," said Sierra, the Cuban-American voter from Shenandoah, who noted the influx of candidates who pour through the state.
"Everyone comes here, says " Viva Cuba libre,' eats a croqueta, a guava pastry and drinks coffee."
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