Latinos A Powerful Force In Florida Electorate

In our Political Chat segment, we have a tale of two states: one where Hispanic voters hold a lot of sway, and one where they don't. A growing number of Hispanics in Florida are forming an ever more powerful electorate. Host Michel Martin speaks with Fernand Amandi, executive director of the Miami-based public opinion research firm Bendixen and Amandi, who sheds light on why Florida's Hispanic population is a political force to be reckoned with.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, we have a tale of two states, one where Latino voters hold a lot of sway and one where they don't. A growing number of Hispanics in Florida are forming an ever more powerful electorate. But in Arizona, an even larger portion of the population is Latino. But Latinos there carry far less political weight. We wanted to talk more about why. In a few minutes, we'll hear from NPR correspondent Ted Robbins in Tucson.

But first, to help us understand what's going on in Florida, we turn to Fernand Amandi, executive vice president of Bendixen and Amandi. That's a public opinion research firm in Miami. It specializes in the polling of diverse electorates. Mr. Amandi joins us from NPR member station WLRN. Thanks so much for being with us once again.

Mr. FERNAND AMANDI (Executive Vice President, Bendixen and Amandi): It's a pleasure to be back with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, we're having this discussion in part because of course there's this heated Republican primary race for the United States Senate. Incumbent Republican Governor Charlie Crist has fallen behind Marco Rubio, who's a former speaker of the Florida State House. Could you just tell us a little bit more about where the race stands right now?

Mr. AMANDI: Well, the race is at a very interesting and critical point. The big deadline coming up is the end of the month, April 30th, where Charlie Crist, the incumbent governor, will have to decide whether he wants to stick it out in the Republican primary or run as an independent. That is the date that one must qualify as either an independent candidate or Republican candidate for federal office.

Many political observers and watchers strongly feel that Governor Crist will indeed run as an independent, which will certainly shake up the race considerably because recent polls suggest that while he would lose handily to Rubio in a Republican nomination fight, he leads Rubio and the Democratic candidate, Kendrick Meek, in a three-way race in the general election.

MARTIN: Now, obviously, there are a lot of factors at play here and we want to pay particular attention to the role of the Hispanic vote. But I did want to ask, what's going on with Charlie Crist? At one point he was a very popular governor. He's fallen out of favor with national political Republican figures who are just running in the opposite direction. So is the issue here that they're mad at him or is it that they just love Marco Rubio, and he's just a much more attractive character, just what's going on there?

Mr. AMANDI: Well, I think if Charlie Crist were on the program here, he would very candidly say that the Republican Party, that he feels most comfortable in the kind of moderate consensus bipartisan-building Republican parties, is one that no longer welcomes him. All of this stems and really begins with the governor's literal and figurative embrace of President Obama's stimulus package earlier last year.

That really set the stage for the rise of the Rubio candidacy, which was running very much to the right of Governor Crist and is what has put him in this political predicament where his own party and many of the people within his own party are abandoning who used to be a very popular incumbent governor that was very much seen as a Teflon candidate that no negative news would stick against. But that has changed dramatically in the last 12 months.

MARTIN: So tell us about the Hispanic vote in Florida and how does the Hispanic electorate factor into the campaigns of each of these candidates now running for the Senate seat.

Mr. AMANDI: Well, it's a very important vote for the simple reason that 2008 showed here in Florida that the Hispanic electorate proved to be a kingmaker vote. It was the switch between what the Democrats received overall in 2004 from the Hispanic vote versus what they received in 2008, which was allowed Barack Obama to capture the state, and for the first time in the state's history, win the Hispanic vote as a Democrat. And many will be looking at very closely as a potential decisive vote in this Senate campaign of 2010.

MARTIN: I mean, just Marco Rubio and Barack Obama are such different candidates. It's hard to compare, but how is the Hispanic vote trending in this or are they split?

Mr. AMANDI: Well, there are a couple of dynamics that are taking place within Florida's Hispanic vote that show this new era, this new stage. Over the last couple of election cycles, you've seen the rise of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote, which now is the majority segment of the Hispanic vote in Florida.

What used to just be a predominant Cuban Republican vote is now made up of many Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Central and South Americans who tend to register and vote as either Democrats or independents. And that majority vote, which now represents the overall vote of Hispanics in Florida, is what gave Barack Obama his victory amongst Hispanics in 2008.

MARTIN: Well, wait a minute, you're telling me the non-Cuban Hispanic vote is actually larger now than the Cuban vote in Florida?

Mr. AMANDI: That is correct. It is about four or five percentage points larger. And that trend is obviously growing, given the influx of many different Hispanics moving to Florida, whether it be Puerto Ricans from New York or even the island itself and Central and South Americans, many who have been here for many years that are now entering the electorate as they become citizens and become part of the statewide electorate.

MARTIN: It's my understanding, though, Fernand, the Cuban vote has also changed in Florida. I think a lot of people have this impression that the Cuban vote is extremely conservative, very kind of a core Republican constituency. Is that still true?

Mr. AMANDI: Absolutely not. In fact, it's quite the other way around. The other dynamic that I was mentioning at the outset was the change within the Cuban vote itself, what used to be a monolithically Republican Cuban vote is now splitting Cuban immigrants that have arrived since 1990 and Cuban-Americans, the sons, daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of the older wave of Cuban exiles that came in the '50s and '60s and '70s, who are entering the electorate themselves are not registering as monolithically Republican as their grandparents and parents.

So those two pressures within the Cuban electorate itself, the growing number of recent arrivals and the first and second generation Cuban-Americans born in this country who are not necessarily registering in lockstep as Republicans are having an impact on the Cuban electorate itself.

MARTIN: So can you give us a sense of how the Hispanic vote in all its various forms and complexity now is breaking, within the Republican primary and potentially for the Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek.

Mr. AMANDI: Well, if you look at the recent polling, amongst Hispanics, it's really a vote that's up for grabs. Neither Charlie Crist, Kendrick Meek or Marco Rubio, the likely candidates, have been able to really mount a significant share of that vote overall.

Although one would expect Kendrick Meek as the Democratic candidate, who is still somewhat unknown in the parts of the state outside of his South Florida base, to be able to seize upon a lot of the issues that Hispanics care most about now, whether it's the economy, whether it's health care, whether it's the situation with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So I think the opportunity exists there for him.

But right now neither one has a real stranglehold on that vote and the vote that we think, and many people agree, could be very decisive coming up in November.

MARTIN: And finally, what issues are Latino voters pushing to the forefront? Or are they divided on these issues as well?

Mr. AMANDI: Very much in line with where many Americans are today when it comes to the most important issues in the country. Most Latinos, most Hispanics in the state of Florida are concerned about the lack of jobs and what they perceive to be a very weak economy. The housing and the mortgage crisis, and then of course the health care issue, which is something that concerns many Hispanics, not just around the state, but around the country, that are disproportionate in the numbers of lacking health insurance coverage. So, it's a lot of these bread and butter economic issues that are what are really driving their concerns.

MARTIN: Fernand Amandi is the executive director of the Florida-based public opinion research group Bendixen and Amandi. He joined us from member station WLRN in Miami. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. AMANDI: My pleasure. Thanks for having me back.

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