Why It's Tough To Count Florida's Latino Voters

PHOTO: Romney

Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

With less than one week to go in the presidential election, no candidate appears to have emerged with a clear edge in the toss-up state of Florida.

A new CBS News/New York Times/Quinnipiac poll showed President Barack Obama narrowly leading Mitt Romney 48-47 percent in the state. Other recent polls, such as a CNN/Opinion Research survey, show Romney up by a slim one-point lead, 50-49 percent among likely voters. Both results are within the poll's margin of error.

The Real Clear Politics average of polls show an average one-point lead for Romney, a statistical tie. Nate Silver of The New York Times shows Romney with a .6 percent lead, again, essentially a tie.

Winning Florida would greatly improve the chances of winning the White House for President Obama or Mitt Romney since it is the swing state with the most electoral votes (29).

The key to understanding which candidate has a better chance of winning could be the preferences of the state's Hispanic voters, a group that has become notoriously difficult to poll.

Florida has the third largest share of eligible Hispanic voters in the nation, but the population is unlike the Latino community in any other states. Cuban-American and Puerto Rican voters make up the bulk of Florida's Latino electorate, whereas in other battleground states like Nevada and Colorado, Mexican-Americans are the predominant group.

Cubans in particular tend to vote Republican, making the contest for Florida Hispanics closer than the nationwide race, which shows Obama leading Romney by as many as 52 percentage points.

The latest Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald/FIU poll shows Obama with a slim 51-47 percent edge over Romney among likely Florida Hispanic voters. Romney's standing is fueled by Cuban voters. If they were taken out of the sample, Obama would lead 65-32 percent among Florida Hispanic voters.

In 2008, Obama won Florida's Latinos 57-42 percent, with the help of an unprecedented 35 percent of Cuban-American voters. Obama is estimated to have won over 60 percent of Cuban-Americans under the age of 29, who largely fled the GOP to back Obama.

Obama will likely to have equal or exceed his 2008 performance among Latino voters in Florida due to his erosion in support among non-Hispanic white voters. The CBS poll found Obama trailing Romney 59-37 percent among non-Hispanic whites, a group in which he won 42 percent of the vote four years ago.

If the Herald/FIU numbers hold true, it would spell trouble for Obama. But there are some bubbling questions about whether the poll accurately captures the entire sentiment of Florida's Latino electorate:

The Miami Herald reports that the pollster who conducted the survey had trouble contacting non-Cuban voters in Florida. He eventually had to stop polling Hispanic voters in South Florida – the bastion of Florida's Cuban-American community -- and was forced to artificially "weight" the sample of the poll (to 40 percent Cuban turnout, 30 percent for Puerto Ricans, who mostly reside in Central Florida and are more inclined to vote for Democrats).

"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.

[…]

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

There are two conclusions to make here.

As the Herald writes: "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."

But on the other hand the polls could be over counting Cubans and undercounting Puerto Ricans and other Latino voters more inclined to vote for Obama.

Matt Barreto, a pollster with political opinion research firm Latino Decisions, recently said that Cuban and Puerto Rican turnout could be more even than the 10-point gap contained in the Herald/FIU poll.

"While Cuban-Americans used to comprise a majority of Latinos in Florida, today only 29 percent of all Latinos in Florida are Cuban, and while they do have slightly higher rates of participation we expect around 35 percent of all Latino voters will be of Cuban ancestry," he told ABC/Univision when the last Herald poll was released two weeks ago. "Today, the Florida Latino electorate is far more diverse than it was 12 years ago."

In any case, we won't know the outcome until Election Day. And as the old cliche goes, turnout will be key. But how the Florida Hispanic vote breaks down could tell us a lot about the winner, and why he won.

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