Hispanics Poised to Transform Florida Political Landscape

By: Christian Ulvert

“How do you say delicious in Cuban?”
That’s the question asked by Herman Cain during a campaign stop at Miami’s landmark
Versailles restaurant. Putting aside Cain’s absurd question for a moment and looking at the more important one: why do candidates make the pilgrimage to South Florida during election season to sip Café Cubano, eat delicious arepas (Venezuelan sandwiches) and munch on black beans and rice? A quick look at the numbers proves that it’s not for the delicious food. Instead, simply looking at the numbers reveals a picture of the growing clout among Hispanics in Florida, which is poised to set the state and national political scene for decades to come.
The 2012 election cycle is well underway, with Florida’s GOP Presidential Primary taking center stage over the last two weeks. The takeaway from the GOP’s primary is that Hispanics will be themost courted voting block this year, and for good reason. Anyone who disagrees needs to only look at the barrage of Spanish-language campaign advertising from Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in the closing weeks of Florida’s GOP Presidential Preference Primary.
There’s no question that Hispanics will play a decisive role in many races throughout Florida. The number of registered Hispanic voters continues to increase, with Democrats seeing the largest gain in the last six years. In looking at the numbers, Republicans held the advantage in 2006 among registered Hispanic voters. But heading into 2012, that number has changed drastically, with Democrats taking the lead by more than 100,000 registered Hispanic voters. While the Republican Party of Florida has drawn some attention to the registration gap between the two leading parties in recent weeks, they should be paying close attention to how they are losing much needed ground among Florida Hispanics.
In fact, Republican leaders like U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and former Governor Jeb Bush have publicly expressed their discontent with the rhetoric embraced by the leading GOP presidential candidates during the Florida primary. These concerns are valid. Republican leaders are likely analyzing the numbers and watching the GOPs hold in Florida slip away as Democrats begin to more effectively communicate with Hispanic voters by embracing their values and shared beliefs.
The last six years show Florida Democrats have a reason to look forward to the next decade. Since 2006, Democrats in Florida have seen a surge of close 200,000 registered Hispanics, compared to the GOPs less than 40,000. This gap will prove to be problematic for the ruling party in Florida as the number of Hispanic voters registering with the Democratic Party rises.
Many of my counterparts in the Republican Party will give reasons that the surge was because of President Obama’s 2008 successful voter registration efforts. However, after 2008, Democrats continued to see steady gains among registered Hispanic Democrats – debunking this GOP myth. And with the increased anti-Hispanic rhetoric coming from the leading Republican presidential candidates only likely to worsen as the campaigns battle for votes in less than friendly Hispanic areas, the Republican leadership has reason to worry. The bottom line: President Obama continues to receive broad approval from Hispanics in Florida, and throughout the country.
Notwithstanding the current reapportionment efforts underway, Florida Democrats are poised to make substantial gains over the next decade particularly, in statewide races where Democrats will see the greatest positive impact from the growth in Hispanic population.
An interesting impact on district races, such as congressional and legislativecampaigns, is the lag time for Hispanics to register to vote due to the time frame for the naturalization process. Hispanics who arrived in the last five to eight years are most likely in the process of receiving their citizenship and registering to vote. So over the next three election cycles, it will be these newly registered Hispanic voters who will have the largest impact on Florida’s political landscape, and the numbers show some positive signs for Florida Democrats.
Additionally, Hispanic families are migrating to other parts of the state. Since 2006, the crucial I-4 Corridor has seen rapid growth in Hispanic voters. And this should be particularly troubling for the Republican Party, who has a seen a loss in Hispanic voters in Orange and Osceola counties. This is in contrast to Democrats seeing Hispanic voters grow in areas like Seminole and Pasco counties.
So as discussions take place about the next decade in Florida politics, the GOP has a lot to worry about, based on the growing role Hispanic voters will play in elections. And based on the last two weeks of campaigning by Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, they cannot denythat Hispanics are the most important constituency in the next decade.  A note of caution: registration alone does not translate to votes; so, Democrats have to continue to engage Hispanic voters and embrace our similar values and beliefs to effectively reshape Florida’s political landscape.
But, Democrats would much rather be in their position with Hispanics than that of the GOP.