Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich Wrestle for Key Florida Latino Vote

Florida is problematic for Obama, but the president is still more appealing to Hispanic Americans.

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Former Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have been attacking each other on immigration, with each man eager to sew up the Latino vote that is so critical in Florida. But both men may find their primary tactics will give them trouble in the general election, a contest in which the Hispanic vote is becoming increasingly important with each election cycle.

Despite—or perhaps because of Gingrich's charge that Romney is "anti-immigrant"—the former Massachusetts governor fares better among Hispanic Republican voters in Florida.

According to a poll conducted by Latino Decisions for Univision and ABC, Romney beats the former House Speaker 49 percent to 23 percent in Florida, a stunning gap in a state where Latinos are ten percent of the vote. But both men lag behind President Obama among Latinos, both in Florida and nationally.

In the Sunshine state, Obama beats Romney in a hypothetical match-up by a 50 percent to 40 percent margin. The president does better against Gingrich, whom Latino Decisions concluded would lose, 38 percent to 52 percent, against Obama in Florida.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

Nationally, the president does much better among Hispanic voters. Against Romney, Obama would capture 67 percent of the Latino vote to the former governor's 25 percent. Against Gingrich, Obama would take 70 percent of the Latino vote, compared to 22 percent for the House Speaker. That's welcome news for the president, who never had the relationship with Latino voters that former Democratic nomination rival Hillary Clinton had. The inability of the White House (facing a hostile or ineffective Congress) to pass comprehensive immigration reform would seem to threaten Obama's status among Hispanics, but he is still performing well in polls among that voter demographic. With Latinos comprising increasing parts of the electorate—not just in traditional states like Florida and Texas, but elsewhere in the nation—solid Latino support could make the difference. Latino voters have helped put once-red states such as Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and North Carolina in play.

But Florida remains problematic for Obama, who might desperately need the state to win re-election (especially since states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana—all of which Obama won in 2008—are going to be tough territory for him this fall). And Obama is underperforming among Latinos in Florida, polling above the potential GOP candidates, but not by the margin he should to lock down the state. If the eventual GOP nominee selects a Floridian—especially Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio—the battle gets even tougher for the president.

[Read why Hispanics are key to a victory in the 2012 presidential race.]

Still, the Republican contenders are operating with an old playbook in Florida. Except for Rep. Ron Paul, the GOP candidates vehemently restated their commitment to keeping, even strengthening sanctions against Cuba, including travel restrictions. Such talk played very well in Florida 20 years ago, but the demographics have changed, both among the Florida Latino population as a whole and the Cuban-American population there. Puerto Ricans are the fastest-growing Latino population in Florida, and while they tend to be more conservative than, say, Puerto Rican voters in New York, the Cuba issue is not as important to them. And even among Cuban-Americans, the tide is turning. Older Cubans want to punish the Castro brothers as much as possible. Younger Cubans want Castro out but still want to visit their families on the island and send them needed goods.

Both Romney and Gingrich face onerous barriers among Latinos nationally. But unless Obama strengthens his position among Hispanics in Florida, the damage to the GOP nominee in the rest of the country may not matter.

  • Read: Mitt Romney, GOP Reach Out to Hispanics
  • Read the U.S. News debate: Is Newt Gingrich Right About Immigration?
  • See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates