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Did Little Havana Just Go Blue?

- November 11, 2012

This is a guest post from political scientist Ben Bishin.


Tuesday’s results highlighted the large and growing role that Latinos play in American politics.  One particularly salient result suggests that Cuban Americans have finally taken the long awaited step toward embracing the Democratic Party.  Journalists using the National Exit Poll report that in Florida, home to over two-thirds of the nation’s Cuban Americans, Obama beat Romney 49%-47%.  Other polls report similar results, with Romney only narrowly beating Obama in this demographic 52%-48%.  If correct, they represent a watershed moment in Cuban American politics.

For over a decade scholars and pundits have predicted that owing to changing demographics, Cuban Americans would gradually become Democratic.  In one of the key cases in my book, I show that the influence of early Cuban immigrants, political refugees who are staunchly Republican and anti-Castro, is gradually being diluted by moderates who support reducing barriers to trade and travel with Cuba who came after the Mariel Boatlift of 1980.

My research, as well as close examination of the data, call Tuesday’s poll results into question.  Such a shift would indicate a drop in GOP support on the order of 10-15 points.  Consistent with research on political incorporation, in a recent paper with Casey Klofstad, we find that the effects of recent demographic changes among Cuban Americans are slow to take root in the electorate as the economic circumstances that drove their migration appear to serve as a barrier to citizenship and participation. While those who immigrated after Mariel made up a majority of Cuban American immigrants, in 2008 they constituted only 20% of the Cuban American immigrants in the electorate.  Moreover, the children and grandchildren of these early immigrants were still solidly Republican.

Exit polling of minority groups in Florida is notoriously unreliable as well. Typically, the national organizations poll at fewer than 50 locations statewide, a number insufficient to fully reflect a population that tends to be homogeneous in any particular place, but tends to hold heterogeneous political attitudes across the state.  While Miami’s Cuban Americans have a reputation for touting the hard line against Fidel Castro, for example, those across the state in Hillsborough County, which has the third largest Cuban American population of any county in the US, tend to be much more moderate.   Survey researchers have long recognized this difficulty.  Moreover, these exit polls are poorly designed to capture Latinos’ preferences more generally as, for instance, they seldom even identify Puerto Ricans who have had a large influence on recent elections, and are almost as numerous in Florida’s electorate as are Cubans.   Even Cuban Americans outside of Florida (where almost one-third reside) aren’t identified in the National Exit Poll thus preventing us from drawing inferences about their preferences nationally.

Recent strides have been made, however, through the work of groups like Latino Decisions who sample states with large Latino populations by telephone.  In stark contrast to the National Exit Poll, their results show Romney taking 64% of Florida’s Cuban American vote, a number much more consistent with historical averages.  Nationally, they find that Cuban Americans supported Romney at a 54% clip.  These numbers are much more in line with academic research.

While the Latino Decisions poll seems to be much better designed to accurately capture the views of this community, additional evidence is seen by examining election results.  At 47.3% of the national population, Miami Dade County is an ideal place to look, as it is the most populous Cuban American county in the nation.  The maps below compare the density of the Cuban American population in Miami Dade County, taken from the 2010 Census, with the unofficial presidential election results map.  On the left, darker red areas indicate larger concentrations of Cuban Americans, while on the right graph, areas that voted for Romney are colored black.  While these maps cannot be created on precisely the same scales, they are nonetheless highly suggestive.

These maps show that while Cuban Americans were far from Romney’s only base of support, the areas with the largest populations are areas that supported Romney. While it is possible that Romney won only narrowly in these areas, it seems unlikely.  Like most cities, much of Miami’s population is segregated such that Cuban Americans tend to be highly geographically concentrated.  Moreover, the non-Cuban Latinos in these districts are also likely to be Latino.  If Cuban Americans only narrowly supported Romney, we might then expect the non-Cuban Latinos, who tend to vote heavily Democratic, to swing these areas toward Obama.  After all, recall that the National Exit Poll claims that Obama won the Cuban-American vote.  We see little evidence of this.

While research shows that while Cuban Americans’ attitudes have been moderating for some time, change in the electorate’s voting behavior has occurred very slowly.  Whether Cuban Americans vote significantly more Democratic over time remains to be seen.  After all, the influx of moderate Cubans may be offset by growth among the still Republican (though less so) second and third generations.  Recent immigrants are also moving beyond the enclave of Florida to places where politics may be less intensely focused on US foreign policy toward Cuba (e.g., California) and hence less staunchly Republican.  To date, there appears to be little evidence that major change has occurred.

The evidence presented here suggests that claims about dramatic changes in the Cuban American electorate are premature.  Exit polls that employ cluster sampling may have problems in assessing attitudes among politically and geographically heterogeneous communities.  Telephone polls, in contrast, find strong support for Mitt Romney, consistent with expectations from past research.  Finally, comparison of demographic data and voting patterns suggest that the Cuban American community voted for Romney.  While this community is doubtlessly undergoing significant changes, the political outcome of this tumult is still uncertain.  Little Havana does not yet appear to have turned blue.