Hector Alarcon, an Orlando restaurateur who emigrated from Colombia, voted for Republican John McCain four years ago. He’s for Barack Obama this time because of the president’s health-care law.
Martha Perez, a Miami housekeeper who came from Cuba, says the economy is the top issue and backs Republican Mitt Romney. Federico Alves, a Tampa Bay-area technology consultant from Venezuela, says he isn’t sure whom he’ll support.
Together, these Floridians illustrate the increasingly complex Hispanic electorate, which accounts for 14 percent of the total and could tilt the outcome in the nation’s largest swing state. At stake are 29 electoral votes.
Four years ago, 57 percent of this group voted for Obama, exit polls showed. That helped determine the result in Florida as Obama’s huge margins among African-Americans helped offset Republican John McCain’s lead among whites. Of the state’s 11.2 million voters, 68 percent are white and 13 percent black.
Florida’s Hispanic population is among the nation’s most diverse. There’s no majority Hispanic nationality, and as a whole they are as divided along party lines as any race or ethnicity in the Sunshine State. Hispanic populations in Western swing states like Nevada are mostly Mexican-American and Democratic.
“It’s not always black beans and rice in Florida,” said Deborah Tamargo, a former Republican state lawmaker from Tampa who has a mixed Hispanic heritage. “We each have our own food, our own dances and our own ideologies.”
About 53 percent of Florida Hispanics were supporting or leaning toward Obama in June, according to Latino Decisions, a Renton, Washington-based pollster. That was the lowest among Hispanic voters in five swing states in the poll.
In 2008, Obama carried Florida by just 2.8 percentage points, even with the 57 percent support of Florida Hispanic voters, according to the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center. Only Indiana and North Carolina voted for Obama by smaller margins.
Distinctions among Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Colombians and Nicaraguans across the state mean campaigns must develop messages for each community, said Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based Democratic consultant.
“Simply put, one-size-fits-all programs will not work, and neither will simple translation from English to Spanish,” Ulvert said.
Of the estimated $2.4 million Obama spent through July 31 airing Spanish-language TV ads in the U.S., 68 percent was in Florida, according to data compiled by New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG. Romney’s Spanish-language general-election TV budget has totaled $459,000, less than half in Florida.
Obama’s campaign tailored three separate Spanish-language ads to Tampa, Miami and Orlando, featuring a different local campaign volunteer for each spot. A health-insurance ad ran exclusively in Orlando.
“For me, he’s doing a good job,” said Alarcon, 58, the restaurateur in Orlando. Before the health-care overhaul, he couldn’t afford medical insurance because of his diabetes, he said.
In a TV ad released today by the Romney campaign, Spanish subtitles scroll while Romney tells viewers that “Hispanics are hurting” from high rates of unemployment and foreclosures.
“Juntos, we can revive the American Dream,” Romney says looking into the camera and using the Spanish word for “together.”
The ad will supplement what the Romney campaign describes as the most aggressive Hispanic outreach of any Republican presidential campaign in Florida including a dozen full-time staffers focused on Latino voters, said Alberto Martinez, a Romney adviser in Florida.
One advantage for Romney: Cuban-Americans, who account for about a third of the state’s eligible Hispanic voters, according to Pew. The last two winners of open U.S. Senate seats in Florida were Republican Cuban-Americans, Marco Rubio and Mel Martinez.
About half of the nation’s ethnic Cuban population lives in Miami-Dade County, Census data show. Special immigration policies for Cubans explains why they are less concerned about the issue than other Florida Hispanics, according to a Jan. 24 poll by Latino Decisions.
That helps Romney, who favors “self-deportation,” the idea behind Alabama and Arizona immigration laws that pressure undocumented workers to leave. Perez, the Cuban-American housewife, says she has other priorities.
“Romney has better ideas for the economy,” Perez said. “Nobody’s going to solve immigration.”
More than half of Florida Hispanic voters said the economy and jobs are the most important issues. In Nevada, Virginia and Arizona, a similar percentage of Hispanic voters rated immigration the top issue, according to Latino Decisions.