News Column

'Cuban Conundrum' Vexes Pollsters

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CALL IT THE CUBAN CONUNDRUM -- a problem for pollsters who find Florida Hispanics are far more Republican than anywhere else in the nation.

It's on full display in the latest Florida International University/Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald poll of likely Hispanic Florida voters showing President Barack Obama clings to a narrow 51-47 percent lead over Republican Mitt Romney.

But nationwide, the poll shows, Obama leads by a far bigger margin among likely Hispanic voters.

The difference in Florida: Cuban voters. Without them, the FIU poll shows, Obama would handily win likely Florida Hispanic voters 65-32 percent.

Not only are Cubans reliable Republican voters -- they're about 70 percent of Miami-Dade's registered Republicans -- but they're also more likely to answer surveys like the FIU poll.

"Cuban-American voters pick up the phone and answer. They want to be heard," said Eduardo Gamarra, an FIU professor of Latin American studies who conducted the poll with his political research firm, the Newlink Group.

The sheer response rate and strong backing for Romney among voters of Cuban ancestry has cropped up in other Florida polls. Together, the polls could be detecting an unrivaled intensity for the Republican ticket that could help keep Obama from a second Florida win -- and therefore a second-term in the White House.

Gamarra, a registered Democrat of Bolivian descent, actually had to scale back the number of Cuban-American respondents in the poll, a process known as "weighting," which he prefers not to do.

Gamarra stopped polling in South Florida all together when he concluded the three-day survey last week in order to reach other Hispanics -- those of Puerto Rican, Mexican and South and Central-American ancestry.

"Polling Florida Hispanics is extremely difficult," Gamarra said. "It's not just a Cuban conundrum, but it's a Florida and Miami-Dade conundrum."

Gamarra weighted the poll to reflect a Cuban response rate of 40 percent because Cubans, though they account for about a third of Hispanic voters in Florida, tend to vote in disproportionately high numbers.

The poll reflects a response rate of 30 percent among Puerto Ricans, who account for an estimated 28 percent of Hispanic voters in Florida and tend to live in Central Florida, where they vote more Democratic.

Thanks to the strong Cuban-American influence, Obama is barely winning on the issues in Florida, according to the poll of 1,100 likely Florida Hispanic voters. A separate poll of national voters sampled 1,000 respondents. The bilingual Florida poll has an error margin of 2.9 percentage points, the national poll of 3.1 percentage points.

Obama beats Romney 51-49 percent in Florida on who's better in managing the economy. The national Obama-Romney numbers on the question: 70-30.

On handling foreign policy or managing immigration, Obama edges Romney 53-47 percent in Florida. The national numbers: 71-29 in Obama's favor.

In Florida, 43 percent want to keep Obamacare intact; 35 percent say scrap it and 22 percent say keep some parts. Nationally, 60 percent want to keep Obamacare intact; 20 percent say scrap it and 20 percent say keep some parts.

Obama does best in Florida when asked who's looking out for Latinos. He beats Romney, 51-43 percent. Nationally, Obama wins: 70-27 percent.

The poll suggests, however, that Romney doesn't have very strong coat-tails in Florida, where Republican Senate candidate Connie Mack IV loses by 10 percentage points among Hispanics to incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

Political observers say that Obama, who did relatively well for a Democrat with second-generation Cuban-American voters in 2008, probably won't be able to repeat the feat.

The Obama campaign, meantime, has responded with messages more tailored toward other Hispanic groups, particularly Puerto Rican voters, by noting in ads that he appointed the first woman of Puerto Rican descent, Sonia Sotomayor, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The tough economy is even tougher on minorities. That includes Hispanics. And voter-registration data show they prefer the "no party affiliation" label.

"The Florida Hispanic electorate is absolutely more diverse and difficult to poll than anywhere else in the nation," said Gary Segura, a Stanford University political science professor and principal of the Latino Decisions polling group.

Segura said that older people tend to be more active voters and willing poll respondents, and so Florida Hispanic polls can lean Republican because Cuban-Americans tend to be older than other Hispanics. Also, Cubans in Florida are more politically active because many fled Fidel Castro's government.

"This is a community that entered the United States as a result of politics," Segura said. "Older Cubans have been fighting the fight for 30 to 40 years. They're going to answer every call. They vote."

Segura's polling firm uses live callers to conduct surveys of Hispanics, not the technology used by Newlink, which employs 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. This poll and a previous survey were predominantly conducted in Spanish.

But robo-polls can under sample cell phones in the United States, where Hispanics and young people tend to be among the most likely to have cell phone-only households. By contrast, older Cuban-Americans are more likely to be well established and have landlines phones that are more easily polled.

However, Cuban Americans in Florida are often missed by one type of survey: Election Day exit polls. That's largely because Cubans tend to vote early, by absentee ballots. So far, for instance, in Miami-Dade 43 percent of the 134,000 absentee ballots cast so far were voted by Republicans, most of whom are Hispanic.

FIU's Gamarra said this robo-poll survey is an indication about the mood of the Hispanic electorate, which dispels the myth of a united Hispanic community.

Cubans have special immigration status, and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. So the issue of immigration doesn't affect them they way it does with other Hispanic groups, who face greater immigration challenges and have more influence in other swing states like Colorado or Nevada.

Gamarra said the poll shows that the Cuban vote isn't just tough for pollsters to deal with. It's tough for Democrats.

"You keep hearing about a liberalization of the vote with younger, second-generation Cubans. But the polls are not showing it," Gamarra said. "Young Cubans are starting to look more Republican than their parents."