TAMPA, FL – Looking at exit polls from four years ago, it’s easy to see why Mitt Romney’s presidential hopes ended in Florida. The Massachusetts governor, who lost to John McCain in 2008, only captured 9% of the Cuban American vote.
This time around, Mitt is focused on wooing Florida’s Cuban community. He spent Sunday making stops in Miami-Dade and Broward County in south Florida where nearly two-thirds of the state’s Cuban population is concentrated.
And the Governor’s efforts seem to be paying off. In the latest NBC/Marist poll, Romney is up 15 points over his opponent Newt Gingrich.
So how did Romney go from losing the Hispanic vote four years ago to being one of the favored candidates among Latinos this year?
Val Prieto, who runs the influential Cuban blog Babalú, thinks it might be something to do with the Governor’s economic message.
“Like all Americans, Cubans want basic freedoms and civil liberties, less government intrusion and lower taxes. We want opportunity just like everybody else,” Prieto stated.
The Cuban community makes up an influential sect of Florida Republican primary voters. They are highly engaged and often give candidates the edge in competitive races. And as The Cuba Transition Project of the University of Miami indicates, Cuban Americans are three times as likely to be Republican, making them a valuable demographic in the general election.
And while the issue of immigration is a flashpoint for many Hispanic voters in the state, Florida’s poor economy and housing market are larger issues for many Cubans who are headed to the polls.
“The immigration issue is just playing into the Left’s battlefield,” says Prieto. “Many Cuban Americans have launched small businesses out of their garages only to go on and become national and international brands. But we are struggling. Our property values are hitting rock bottom and the Miami unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country.”
While Florida has one of the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the nation, the Miami-Dade area has been hit particularly hard – unemployment is nearly 10% and the foreclosure rate in south Florida is three times the U.S. average.
Perhaps that is why Mitt Romney’s attacks on Newt Gingrich’s ties to Freddie Mac are resonating. On Sunday, Romney continued to hammer Gingrich for his work with the mortgage giant. Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd in Hialeah, Romney said, “I think the reason that you find it hard to connect with the Speaker is that you know over the last 15 years, he’s been in Washington and he’s been working for people like Freddie Mac. You want someone who is not part of Washington; you want someone who will change Washington. I will do so when I’m president.”
For his part, Gingrich has been struggling to find a strong response to the deluge of coordinated attacks coming from the Romney campaign. In a state that is struggling economically, the Speaker finds himself defending his position on moon bases and his relationship with Ronald Reagan.
For Prieto, even the attacks have become too much. “It’s a shame it has to get so personal. I don’t recall 2008 being as crazy as it is this year,” he stated. “Cuban Americans saw what Obama was going to do because they lived it for the past 50 years and they were concerned. You are going to have a large turnout this year because so many people are struggling.”
And that turnout could be just what Governor Romney needs to march on to the nomination.