You can’t tune into news about the campaign without hearing about Florida. As a non-Floridian this obsession can get a bit tedious (I admit living in Texas I get jealous of not getting any attention from the campaigns), but the fact of the matter is that Florida is a big political deal. The Sunshine state’s general electorate is a swing-y one, leading both parties to aggressively court the state. But what is truly exceptional about Florida is that its Latino population is just as split; if there is one state where the balance of the presidency hangs on Latinos it is Florida.
Florida is the largest battleground state in terms of electoral votes, 29. Texas and California are larger but are irrelevant given their deep shades of red and blue, respectively. And in the 2012 presidential race Florida is a must win for Mitt Romney in order to have a shot at the White House. Florida is also important for President Obama, though he could still reach the 270 electoral vote mark without it, it would be a risky path. Both presidential candidates want this state badly and have demonstrated as much with the highest campaign ad spending by both campaigns taking place in Florida, totaling $136 million.
But what makes Florida unique is that the race for the Latino vote in Florida is just as fierce as it is for non-Latino Floridians. While there are sizeable Latino populations in the swing states of Nevada and Colorado they differ in that only a minority of Latino voters identify as Republicans. In other words, the battle for Latino votes in these states is not so much in persuading them to vote for one candidate over another as it is in getting them to turnout for the Democratic presidential candidate. Florida is an entirely different story in that it is the battleground state with the most Latino diversity in terms of partisan affiliation.
The overwhelming majority of Latinos identify as Democrats, but Cuban-Americans concentrated in Florida have always been the exception to the Latinos as Democrats rule. Up until 2006 more registered Latino voters identified as Republicans than Democrats. However over the last couple of years Latinos identifying as Democrats have started to take over their Republican counterparts. Today 38 percent of registered Latino voters in Florida identify as Democrats while less than one-third identify as Republicans.
The shift in Latino partisanship in Florida is due to the accompanying demographic shift that is taking place in the I-4 corridor that runs through the central part of the state. From 2000-2010 the Puerto Rican population has increased in Florida by 75%. As in other parts of the country Puerto Rican voters traditionally identify as Democrats and as a result their influx has changed the state’s Latino political landscape. For example, in 2008 President Obama won the Latino vote. It was one of his lowest margins, compared to other states, but he nevertheless secured a vote that had eluded Democratic presidential candidates before him.
The projected share of the Latino vote in Florida in the 2012 election is close to 20 percent. With an estimated increase of 35 percent in Latino voters the state should see one of the highest increases from 2008. The question now becomes how this growing Latino population will vote. While the number of Latino Democrats has been growing, Latino Republicans and Independents together make up a majority of registered Latino voters. Also, Latino Republicans continue to dominate the ranks of Florida’s elected offices at every level.
There is no clear dominant partisan Latino force in Florida. The Sunshine state is a true toss up and one where how the Latino vote swings so will the state. In the end, anyway you cut it, Florida is la madre of all battlegrounds.