Will Cuban Americans in Florida vote for John McCain

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By Daniel Dombey | Financial Times

Hunched over a cup of sweet Cuban coffee in a diner in South Miami, Amador Lerida cannot make up his mind.

“It’s very difficult,” Mr Lerida mutters through his moustache, as he talks about the two candidates for president. “Politically I’m for [John] McCain, but economically it looks like [barack] Obama would be better.”

The retired electrician came to Florida from Havana in 1961 and, like many of that first wave of exiles from Fidel Castro’s revolution, found his political home in the Republican party.

But today, Republicans are on the defensive in the southern Florida districts where Cuban-Americans make up a third of the vote. The most common English word in the local Spanish-language newspapers is “foreclosure”, and the construction industry, long a leading source of employment for the local Latino population, is in crisis.

Just down the road from El Rinconcito Latino, where Mr Lerida sips his coffee, is the cruelly named district of Homestead, where foreclosed properties seem to be on almost every street.

Outside the diner, LaToya Eason, who worked in property until the housing bubble burst, says there are four foreclosed properties on her block alone. “My husband just got laid off, and I can’t afford to pay rent,” she says.

The economic crisis has been brewing for more than a year in Florida. But in recent weeks, as the global financial system has gone into convulsions, the aftershocks have shaken up politics in a state that Mr McCain labels a “must win”.

Without Florida, the Republican candidate has virtually no feasible route to the White House, but he has lost the reliable lead he had enjoyed until only a few weeks ago.

Recent polls show Mr McCain essentially tied with Mr Obama, whose campaign is greatly outspending him. With early voting beginning this week, and Mr Obama spending two days here, battle has begun in earnest.

“I have told the Washington media that in Miami-Dade County the Cuban vote is going to be solidly Republican,” Mel Martinez, a Republican senator, told a largely ageing, largely Cuban-American audience at a McCain rally in Miami last week - a note of entreaty entering his voice. “I challenge you to make me look good and not look bad on November 4 [polling day].”

As supporters waved signs accusing Mr Obama of socialism - a word that reminds many Floridians of Cuba’s Mr Castro - Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a local Republican congressman, said: “Florida once again will be decisive and once again South Florida will be decisive for Florida.”

His words evoked the drama of the 2000 presidential race, when Florida decided George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore by an official margin of 537 votes.

Cuban voters, angry at the Havana policy of the former administration of Bill Clinton, played a central role in that contest.

However, Joe Garcia, the Democratic challenger for the 25th congressional district of southern Florida and former executive director of the anti-Castro Cuban-American National Foundation, says the Cuban-American vote no longer depends as much as it once did on anti-Castro policies and rhetoric.

Instead, ethnically Cuban voters, who now include third-generation US citizens, are looking at a wider range of issues, notably the economy.

“The Republicans thought they were doing well when they were just headed towards a horrific place,” says Mr Garcia. The local economy “is run on credit and building, particularly the Hispanic part. That is coming to a screeching halt and there’s nothing else”.

That creates opportunities for candidates such as Mr Garcia, who is now only a few points behind in a district where the previous Democratic candidate was beaten by a margin of almost 60-40. It could also make all the difference for Mr Obama if he can accumulate big enough margins of victory locally to offset Republican support in areas such as the Florida panhandle, where northern parts of the state border Georgia and Alabama.

The Democrats can count on increased voter registration and well-organised support from black voters, whose churches are busing people to polling booths to ensure a high turnout.

References to the election were never far away at one revivalist meeting last week, where the congregation prayed for Mr Obama to be protected from assassination and then filed out past sample ballots and Democratic election signs.

Still, pooling Latino and African-American votes might prove a challenge for Mr Obama and the Democrats. Florida is not immune to racial tensions, and some white Cuban-Americans highlighted how unusual it would be to cast a vote for someone as different from them in terms of life experiences as the Democratic nominee.

“It’s really surprising that someone who is black and Muslim could come so far,” says Mr Lerida, repeating a durable misconception about Mr Obama’s religion. “You never know how you’re going to vote until you’re at the ballot box. But at the moment, I think I’m probably going to go for Obama.”

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Here's another good one:

Obama, McCain Battle for Florida as Hispanics Warm to Democrats

In Little Havana, once the heart of Miami’s Cuban exile community and a reliable bloc of Republican voters, it’s easy to see the changing face of Florida’s Hispanic population.

At storefronts that wire money, newer immigrants line up to send cash to Guatemala and Honduras. At Miami food kiosks, Colombian and Venezuelan arepa corn patties are as popular as Cuban pork sandwiches.

The Hispanic vote in Florida — the fourth-largest U.S. state with 27 electoral votes — is one of the biggest prizes in the presidential contest. In past elections, these voters, dominated by Cuban-Americans, have usually backed Republicans; this year, they may not. For the first time, Cubans no longer are the majority of Hispanics in the state, and some younger and less well-off members of the community are more likely to consider voting Democratic than their elders.

That spells trouble for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who is lagging in overall state polls and who needs to capture Florida to win the White House.

`Economic Issues’

“What we’re seeing is the domination of economic issues leading” Hispanics to vote more Democratic this year, said Dario Moreno, director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University in Miami. “The question is: Is the economy bad enough, is Obama different enough and compelling enough of a candidate to get these newly registered people to vote for him.”

Hispanic voters are 12 percent of Florida’s electorate, and for the first time since the state started reporting registration by race or ethnicity, Democrats now outnumber Republicans among them by almost 68,000 registered voters, according to figures released Oct. 19 by Florida’s secretary of state. Almost one in three Florida Hispanics aren’t registered with either major party.

Four years ago, President George W. Bush won Florida’s Hispanic vote 56 percent to 44 percent, helping him to carry the state.

This year, several recent polls show the Hispanic vote in Florida in a statistical tie, with a slight advantage for McCain, according Steven Ochoa, vice president of research at the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Los Angeles-based Hispanic public policy organization. An Oct. 5 Mason-Dixon Poll, for example, had McCain leading Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama 49 to 44 percent among Florida Hispanics, within the margin of error.

Obama Advantage

Mexican-Americans in California, Texas and New Mexico and Puerto Ricans in New York largely vote Democratic, and surveys, including a Zogby Poll released yesterday, show Hispanics nationwide favor Obama by a 2-to-1 margin. Florida has always been an anomaly.

Yet the state is changing. At a Dominican barber shop in Miami’s working-class Allapattah neighborhood, posters of Obama emblazoned with “Cambio” — “Change” — adorn the window. The manager, Michael Avila, 33, said he identifies with the Illinois senator because “he comes from a single-parent family, he had to work hard, he’s multiracial like many Dominicans.”

Avila said he hasn’t voted in the past, though he will this year because “the economy is a mess.”

Many of Florida’s Hispanics remain conservatives, however. They include longtime Cuban exiles, evangelical Christians, entrepreneurs who fled leftist governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua or Marxist guerrilla movements in Colombia and Peru. Many are turned off by Obama’s stated willingness to talk to Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. They also don’t like the Democrat’s opposition to Latin American free-trade deals.

McCain’s Appeal

Arizona Senator McCain, who bucked his party by pushing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, has impressed many Florida Hispanics. In June, he visited Colombia and Mexico to show his support for free trade and cooperation against drug trafficking. Obama, 47, hasn’t visited Latin America since becoming a politician.

“John McCain at great political risk tried to achieve comprehensive immigration reform,” said Hessy Fernandez, McCain’s national Hispanic media spokeswoman. “Where was Barack Obama?”

Among elderly Cuban exiles, the group that most strongly supports McCain, 72, there is palpable vitriol against Obama.


“I have to fight the communist who is Obama,” said Odelia Montesinos, 79, a retired office worker who fled Castro’s Cuba when she was 32, and now volunteers at McCain headquarters in Miami.

Republicans are confident that Cuban-Americans, still at least 40 percent of registered Hispanics in the state, will vote in far higher numbers than the new Democrats.

“The real issue is turnout, and the Republicans turn out more than Democrats in Florida,” said Katie Gordon, press secretary for the Florida Republican Party.

She said she wasn’t worried about Obama’s gains in Florida because registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the last few elections in the state, yet “we’ve elected President Bush twice, Governor Jeb Bush twice and Governor Charlie Crist,” she said. Republicans hold the majority in the state House and Senate.

Still, even in the Cuban community that provided the winning edge for Republicans in the past, that support is slipping.

Ruben Granda, a former Republican from Little Havana, was born in Miami after his parents fled Cuba. He voted twice for Ronald Reagan and twice for George H.W. Bush. Yet on every issue that is important to him now — from foreign policy to the economy — Granda, 48, said Obama is aligned with his principles. He has seen a similar openness among other voters when he canvasses for the Democrat.

Switching Parties

“I got a lot of people switching parties from Republican to Democrat, and a lot were Cubans,” he said.

Obama’s campaign has allocated $20 million to Hispanic outreach nationally, including advertisements and Spanish- speaking field organizers, said Temo Figueroa, national Latino vote director for Obama. That’s aside from $39 million invested in Florida for the general election — close to half the amount McCain has available to spend nationwide. Figueroa said Obama is spending twice as much as McCain on Spanish-language television ads and triple the amount on Spanish radio ads in Florida.

Obama’s message is getting through, said William Fuentes, 37, an electrician from Cuba who lives in Little Havana.

“No one’s selling houses, there’s no jobs,” he said. “I’m going to vote for Obama.”

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Thats a good article. It points to how the demographics are changing in Miami. Miami's population is receiving much more non-Cuban hispanics that Cubans. And many Cubans are moving north into Broward county.

As a 3rd gen. Cuban-Amer., I waited in line for 2 hours to Vote for Obama. I think there are a lot of younger voters here (weston, FL) that think like me. My parents voted McCain. Its going to be close but I think Obama will take the state :-D

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Rising Hispanic vote shifts focus off Cuba

The potential political might of Florida's non-Cuban Hispanics is growing, and many of those communities are pushing for more influence.

Bad news for GOP? Fla.'s Hispanic voters no longer Cuban


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Carlos Pereira grinned widely as he stood in the outgoing tide of newly sworn-in citizens leaving a Miami naturalization ceremony. So far, he had registered 328 people, mostly from Latin American countries. Only 62 of them were from Cuba.

''This year is exceptional because there is so much diversity,'' said Pereira, a native of Honduras who heads the Miami-based Center for Immigrant Orientation. ``This change is exciting because it will bring a diversity to political power.''

The trend that Pereira sees in the voter registration trenches mirrors the one pollsters are seeing statewide: There is a new Hispanic majority in Florida, and it is not Cuban.

According to numbers from the Democratic polling firm Bendixen and Associates, 44 percent of the state's 1.1 million Hispanic voters hail from the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and other Latin American countries -- slightly more than the Cubans, at 40 percent. In 2000, non-Cuban voters represented 19 percent of the Hispanic vote, Bendixen polling shows.

Hispanic Democrats also now outnumber Hispanic Republicans in Florida, making what had long been a relatively predictable voter population for politicians much more fluid.

''In order to survive here, candidates are going to have to keep the Cuban line, but also have to increasingly appeal to the non-Cuban Hispanics by catering to their issues,'' said Florida International University pollster Dario Moreno.

The newcomers, many of them just entering the U.S. political fray, are poised to exert unprecedented influence in this election year as the unquestioned dominance of the traditionally Republican Cuban voting block begins to wane.

''Over the last 10 years, there have been significant voter registration efforts targeting these groups, and we're seeing dividends of that at the ballot box,'' said Fernand Amandi of Bendixen & Associates, which recently signed on to do polling work for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. ``They are going to continue to assert themselves politically and to influence elections on local, state and national level for years to come.''

Despite their growing might in numbers, these other Hispanic voting communities are a political unknown. Although many are registering as Democrats, there are certain issues related to their homelands that may lead them to vote differently than their new voter registration cards suggest.


One such issue is the free-trade agreement with Colombia -- supported by congressional Republicans and stalled by Democrats -- which is pushing many Colombian-American Democrats to question their party affiliation.

The non-Cuban Hispanic voters are in varying stages of local political organization. Many of them -- including Colombians, Venezuelans and Dominicans -- have organizations agitating for more political power.

The Dominican community has a sophisticated network of political operators strategically placed across the state, with phone banks that marshal 30 volunteers to call likely voters. They organize political caravans that wind through South Florida neighborhoods.

The problem, according to many local Dominican activists: Their energy is focused on the wrong elections.

Those highly developed political machines are dedicated to races on their island patria, not here in the United States. A group is setting out to change that with the creation of a new political organization called the U.S. Dominican Political Action Committee, or USDOPAC.

''If it's always the same people in power over and over, democracy dies,'' said Rosa Kasse, 59, president of the Hispanic Coalition and executive director of the political action committee. ``We believe fresh minds and fresh spirit will inject new power into the system.''

The political action committee's leadership includes a mix of Democrats like Kasse and Republicans. The organizers also invited local leaders of the Dominican political parties to be on the board to avoid a perceived alliance with any of them.

So far, they have backed a Dominican candidate's unsuccessful run for Miramar City Council and are organizing meetings with candidates.

The community registers Democrat by nearly a 3-to-1 margin, according to voter registration numbers the PAC requested from the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections from 2006, the most recent numbers available. Although many supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries, there is widespread support for Obama.


Richard Charman, a Dominican who became a U.S. citizen in 1985, had never been motivated to register to vote -- until now.

''I was inspired by Obama's personal story, his dedication and his interest in serving the communities of this nation,'' said Charman, 52.

After Charman registered on May 13, he created an online neighborhood group he calls Iam4OBAMA -- Neighbors of Allapattah to organize voters in his area. He has put his computer-consulting business on hold while he dedicates himself solely to Obama's campaign for president.

''I have changed my priorities because Obama is a one-time phenomenon, and that phenomenon is happening now,'' he said.

The Venhamer Clinic, in political terms, has led a lonely existence until recently. In its first five years of serving low-income residents, many of them Venezuelan, it received a visit from only one politician: a candidate for Doral mayor. After he was elected, he never returned.

In recent months, however, the clinic has become increasingly popular. Both U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent, former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, visited in June. Joe Garcia, the former Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman who is running against U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, came by last month.

''The politicians are finding out now that we are a good group of voters, and they need us,'' said Ernesto Ackerman, one of the clinic's board members.

Ackerman heads another organization, the nonpartisan Independent Venezuelan American Citizens, or IVAC, that has organized a series of meetings between the congressional candidates and Venezuelan-American voters.


Their sudden popularity is a sign that in these congressional races, the non-Cuban Hispanic vote is crucial.

''The emergence of this vote has provided the opportunity for the Republican incumbents to be challenged,'' Amandi said.

The Venezuelan community has expanded rapidly in the past eight years, as successive waves of immigrants have fled the leftist policies of President Hugo Chávez. Their cause has been adopted by many Cubans, who see a shared enemy in Chávez, an ally and financial supporter of Cuba's Castro regime. Many Venezuelans have returned the affinity in local politics, leaning toward the Republican Party.

In the presidential election, even many Venezuelan Democrats are struggling with the Obama's candidacy. He has angered many Venezuelans by saying he would meet with hostile leaders, like Chávez.

Venezuelans also find his mantra of progressive change echoes messages that an idealistic Chávez used to get elected a decade ago.

'Chávez appeared with that one word `change,' and people didn't investigate him properly, and then we ended up with this disaster,'' said Kendall resident and IVAC board member Carmen Teresa Luengo. ``The majority of Venezuelans here relive that experience when they hear Obama.''

Republican presumptive nominee John McCain, Luengo said, is the clear choice.

''He is a man with great experience on the national security front, and we need that right now,'' she said.

Colombian Jeannette Varela, a Democrat, had her candidate in the Democratic primaries. Nearly 150 people, many of them well-known Colombian Democrats, came to her Star Island home for a fundraiser in support of Hillary Clinton's candidacy.

With Clinton's exit from the race, Varela feels bereft. Both McCain and Obama supporters have asked her to have fundraisers, but she hasn't committed to either candidate.

''We Colombians, Chileans, Argentinians and other Latin American groups all pay taxes and yet politically we don't have any representation,'' she said. ``We feel abandoned.''

Varela is a bellwether for a larger trend in the Colombian community.

Nearly 48 percent of Colombians register Democrat, according to polling done by a community political organization.

But many are deeply troubled by the party's blocking of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.

The treaty has stalled in Congress because Democrats have raised concerns about its impact on American workers and human-rights violations in the South American country.


Both Obama and Clinton had raised the same objections, but Varela said Clinton had personally assured her that they could sit down after the election and discuss the treaty -- a commitment that gave her ''hope.'' She says she has not heard the same assurance from Obama.

''Everyone has noticed that the opposition to the agreement is just a political maneuver that the Democrats were doing just to hurt [President George] Bush,'' Varela said. ``I have strong Democrat convictions, but that doesn't mean I'm blind and don't see what's happening.''

Meanwhile, McCain has courted the Colombian community and those who support the free-trade agreement. He ran a radio advertisement in support of it. He also visited the South American nation last month.


''That trip was historic, because I can't remember any U.S. presidential candidate going to Latin America during the campaign,'' said Nelson Hincapie, also a local Democrat who is considering McCain. ``I'm on the fence about who to vote for, but I'm leaning toward McCain because of the free-trade issue. I have too many friends who depend on it.''

Despite McCain's draw for many Democrats, political activist Carlos Cabrera believes the fence-sitters will come around on the Democratic Party.

Colombians ''are just beginning the process with Obama. They will eventually back him, because the Democratic Party is the party of immigrants,'' he said.

U.S. Census numbers show that Colombians, who number more than 150,000 in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, are second only to Cubans in South Florida, both in population numbers and in their rate of naturalizations in the last decade.

Both McCain and Obama spent ample time on Colombia and Venezuela in Latin American policy speeches they gave in Miami in May.

''I am very optimistic about what is happening in terms of the diversity of South Florida politics,'' said McCain's South Florida campaign co-chairman, Fabio Andrade, who is the first non-Cuban Hispanic to hold that post for a Republican presidential candidate. ``Five years ago, the only issue national candidates talked about was Cuba.''

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This is my town Miami Borward it is Obama land all the way. I don't need a new paper to tell me that.....

Here is how the vote is going to go. Some of the older Cubans are going to not vote for Obama, but most young Cuban's are going to vote for Obama. Also Miami/Borward has a large number of American African's/None Cuban latins which are going to vote for the Obama.

No more War please!

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