Where Does Cuban Voters’ Support for Obama Leave Rubio?

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The idea that Florida Senator Marco Rubio would help Mitt Romney salvage some of the Latino electorate was always one of the Republican Party’s more half-baked strategies in 2012. Obama won 71% of the Hispanic vote; Romney got an abysmal 27%. Despite his best efforts, Rubio is a Cuban-American, which counts for a lot on his humid home turf of South Florida but muy poco in the arid Southwest. That’s where the lion’s share of U.S. Latinos reside and where groups like Mexican-Americans, the largest Hispanic bloc, often resent the preferential immigration treatment that Washington gives Cubans fleeing the Castro dictatorship.

But now the GOP has to wonder how much long-term clout Rubio, a rising conservative star and a top prospect for the 2016 presidential nomination, has with even Cuban voters. Exit polling by the Miami-based Bendixen & Armandi International, a Democratic-leaning firm, shows Obama winning 48% of Florida’s Cuban-American electorate—the Republicans’ only reliable Latino group. That would be a record for a Democratic presidential candidate and a remarkable 13-point jump for Obama, whose 35% share in 2008, which tied former President Bill Clinton’s 1996 take, was the most a Dem had ever pulled. Many conservatives in Miami’s Cuban community dispute Bendixen’s findings, but another reputable exit poll has Obama winning 49%.

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The GOP, meanwhile, has watched its share of Florida’s Cuban vote, the largest of the Sunshine State’s Latino blocs, plunge in presidential elections from 75% in 2000 to 52% last week. “We were as surprised as anyone by the tremendous Democratic uptick,” says Bendixen managing partner Fernand Amandi. “The Cuban-American electorate is changing and making itself much more open to Democratic candidates.”

Pundits have been trumpeting the rise of the moderate Cuban-American voter for the past decade, but until last week its ballot box power was more of a myth. Obama narrowly defeated Romney in Florida thanks in large part to his increased share of the state’s total Latino vote, from 57% in 2008 to 61% this year. And while that’s largely indicative of the growing heft of Florida’s non-Cuban Latino voters, it’s obvious now that Cuban voters helped push him over the top in a state Romney was forecast to win. Democrats also broke the GOP’s lock on Miami congressional districts that have large Cuban populations: although Cuban-American U.S. Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart kept their seats, Democrat Joe Garcia defeated conservative U.S. Representative and fellow Cuban-American David Rivera in a landslide.

Traditional exile cubanos have long been courted by candidates of both parties because, to their credit, they’ve produced high turnout in the nation’s largest swing state. And they’ve usually backed the GOP and its hard line against communist Cuba. But their numbers are dwindling, replaced by a younger generation, including more recently arrived Cuban immigrants, whose voting criteria are broader than Cuba policy. Polls, in fact, show most Cuban-Americans today believe the U.S. should lift its 50-year-old trade embargo against Cuba.

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Florida political experts like Amandi consequently believe Rubio could be undermined by last week’s Cuban-American results. At first glance, it certainly doesn’t help a politico when his own community breaks with him the way Florida Cubans did—especially when, in the Bendixen analysis, Obama actually captured 51% of the Cuban vote in the 48 Miami-Dade County precincts that have the highest Latino vote. (Cubans account for 75% of the county’s Latino electorate.)

But, ironically, the Florida Cuban vote could also enhance the standing of Rubio, who last week confirmed that later this month he’ll visit Iowa, the first GOP caucus state for 2016. Obama’s re-election is a vindication for Rubio as well as a rebuke: Throughout the campaign, he and his conservative mentor, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose wife is Mexican, warned Republican leaders that the party couldn’t keep repelling Latinos at every turn, especially on immigration. If Rubio spins it right, the fact that a near-majority of his fellow Cuban-Americans rejected the GOP presidential ticket—as well as the sudden post-election calls for immigration reform among chastened Republicans— could bolster the I-told-you-so idea that he’s the guy Republicans need to listen to four years from now.

Beyond Rubio, however, the other big question is what the Cuban-American vote means for Washington’s failed and fossilized Cuba policy. Obama has curried favor with Cuban-Americans by granting unlimited travel and remittances to Cuba for those with relatives on the island. It’s doubtful Obama would go as far as lift the embargo, unless both Castro brothers die between now and 2016. But it’s feasible that he and a coalition of reform-minded congressional Democrats and Republicans, as a sort of trial balloon, could work to lift the constitutionally questionable ban on travel to Cuba that non-Cuban U.S. citizens are subject to.

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Then again, the hard-line Cuban caucus still wields some clout on Capitol Hill—Ros-Lehtinen is chairwoman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rubio and Democratic Cuban-American Senator Bob Menendez also oppose any easing of Cuba policy. Obama may decide it’s simply not worth disturbing waters in the Florida Straits when he has more important bipartisan deals like deficit reduction to forge. Then there’s the case of U.S. citizen Alan Gross, sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison last year on questionable espionage charges. It will be hard for Obama to make any Cuban policy change until Gross is released.

Still, the bottom line is that whatever Obama does in his second term regarding Cuba, angering Florida’s Cuban voters seems to be one fewer worry. In fact, while Cubans were once the only relevant Latino voting bloc in the U.S. despite representing less than 5% of the Hispanic electorate, 2012 has reduced their muscle considerably. If anything, says Amandi, by voting as heavily as they did for Obama, “they made themselves relevant again.” And staying relevant is something for which Cuban voters have always had a knack.

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Correction: The original version of this article suggested that U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen might remain as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In fact, Ros-Lehtinen’s term as chairwoman will end in January.