Latino Vote 2012: Through The Latino Looking Glass After The Florida Primary

After Florida, It's A New Game For Latinos

Now the Republican candidates go through the "Latino Looking Glass."

Mitt Romney's decisive win in Florida came with the resounding support of the state's Hispanic Republicans. But the Hispanic voters in Florida's primary were mostly Cuban-American, with hardly any Mexican-Americans casting ballots in the closed Republican race.

From here on out, those proportions will be reversed, and the impact of this change on the primaries could be profound.

The first test of that new dynamic comes in Nevada, on Saturday.

"The Latino vote in Florida and the Latino vote in Nevada have very little in common other than they're Latino," Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, told The Huffington Post.

"Florida is a Cuban-American stronghold. Cuban-Americans are more conservative. They're also more likely than other Latino groups to be registered Republican and to vote in Republican primaries."

Among the general population, Mitt Romney beat Newt Gingrich by almost exactly the 15-point margin Quinnipiac predicted.

But in overwhelmingly Cuban-American Miami-Dade County in South Florida, home to nearly 60 percent of the state's Hispanic Republicans, Romney beat Gingrich by more than 2 to 1.

For Romney, it was an encouraging sign of Latino support, despite the backlash from Hispanics across the country over his stance on immigration issues, said Florida International University political analyst Dario Moreno.

"It does show a lot of strength for Romney in the first state where Hispanics were key," Moreno said. "He now goes to Nevada, a western state with some Hispanic Republicans and a Hispanic Republican governor. So I think if you're Romney you have a lot to be happy about."

As the candidates campaigned in Florida, large sectors of Latino voters saw Romney's harder line on immigration as a negative.

Gingrich even tried to capitalize on the issue with ads accusing Romney of being "anti-immigrant," but dropped the language under pressure from Florida's hugely influential junior senator, Marco Rubio.

Somos Republicanos, the nation's largest group of Hispanic Republicans, and the Service Employees International Union both condemned Romney over his immigration positions and launched their own ad campaigns against him.

But the immigration issue may not have resonated with Florida's powerful Cuban-American voters, who are not directly impacted by the nation's immigration laws. GOP political strategist Ana Navarro said that those voters may have been more interested in Romney's message about the economy and jobs.

"I think he had a very unique situation with the south Florida Hispanic vote," she said. "First of all, he was a much better candidate in south Florida courting the Hispanic vote today than he was four years ago. Second, the economic, pocketbook, housing issues took precedence over the issues like immigration.

"Gingrich's attacks using immigration were ineffective," she continued, "and may even have been counter-productive."

But the bottom line, she said, is that Romney's success with Florida's Latino voters came from the same tried and true political tactics that had nothing to do with them being Hispanic.

"I think the takeaway is that, in Florida, money matters, organization matters and debate performances matter," she said. "Mitt Romney outspent Gingrich, out-organized Gingrich and outdebated Gingrich."

Coming off a stunning defeat in South Carolina, Romney worked relentlessly to recover his momentum in Florida. He blanketed the state's 11 media markets with television ads, maintained a rigorous schedule of campaign appearances, and targeted the two biggest groups of Florida Hispanics -- the Cuban-Americans in South Florida and the Puerto Ricans in Central Florida -- with tailor-made media events. He was greeted by guitarists playing "Guantamera" and carved roast pig in South Florida, and supported Puerto Rico's right to vote on its statehood status with the island's governor by his side in Central Florida.

As the final results were still pouring in, Gingrich's Florida director, Jose Mallea, told HuffPost that money had been a critical factor. "It took a toll," he said.

He estimated Romney spent close to $25 million in the winner-take-all fight for the state's 50 delegates.

"That's a half a million dollars a delegate," he said. "I don't know how much longer the other campaign can sustain that."

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