Voters line up to pick up absentee ballots at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Surprise! Obama won Florida’s Cuban vote

President Obama didn’t just win the state of Florida. New exit polls show that the President narrowly won the state’s typically conservative Cuban voters.

NBC News’ exit polls show that President Obama won 60 percent of Florida’s Latino vote compared to Mitt Romney’s 39 percent. The polls also show that Obama won 49 percent of the state’s Cuban votes and Romney won 47 percent. Though Obama barely inched past Romney for the Cuban vote, the fact that he garnered more Cuban Americans’ votes notes a shift in ideology and a challenge for the Republican party.

“It’s a stunning change. It’s a reflection that Cuban-Americans are changing with younger voters and second generation voters. Cuba isn’t their number one issue,” says Geoff Thale, Program Director at the Washington Office on Latin America. Thale notes that in the past, Clinton was the “high water mark” for a Democrat gaining Cuban-American votes, and Obama beat that 1996 mark by almost 12 percentage points this time around.

“Generational change is really happening,” says Thale. “Young Cuban-Americans voted more like everyone else, taking notice of the economy.”

Thale also notes that Cuban Americans, like other Latinos, may have sensed some prejudice and racism from the Republican party’s immigration stance, which could have tipped votes in Obama’s favor.

RELATED: Latino vote for Obama a wake up call for the GOP

“They can’t take [the Cuban vote] for granted. They need candidates who are more culturally attuned to the community and its concerns. Cuba itself wasn’t a big issue in this campaign,” says Professor Nicol C. Rae at the Florida International University. Professor Rae believes that social issues were also the driving force in this campaign. However, he doesn’t see the Cuban American vote going for Democrats in the future.

“Saying that they’re now leaning to the left is a bit strong. They were just more attracted to President Obama, particularly his youth, his energy and his liberal policy on social issues,” says Professor Rae.

Republicans also don’t think Obama’s Cuban-American victory in Florida is proof of a shift.

“This so-called change—I’ve been reading about it for 30 years,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami to the Wall Street Journal. “The community has not changed.” He noted continued Cuban-American support for his re-election and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also a Miami Republican.

Thale believes that Republicans have finally been “proven wrong” and points out that voters just elected Joe Garcia, the first Cuban-American Democrat from Florida, to Congress. Garcia was a member of the Obama administration and defeated Republican incumbent Rep. David Rivera who was under federal investigation.

RELATED: Demographics show why I-4 Corridor is no longer a swing area

With Obama’s victory with Cuban-Americans and immigration shifts making Puerto Ricans and other non-Cuban Hispanics — who typically vote Democratic — the majority of the state’s registered Latino voters, Republicans may need to change their tactics.

“It’s a huge challenge for them. They’re going to have to reach out to Puerto Ricans and rethink their constituency,” says Thale.

As for what this lead among Cuban-Americans means for Obama’s second term in office, Thale says, “As a foreign policy matter, the Obama administration may have more flexibility and maneuverability on Cuba than they thought.” Thale is careful to clarify that this doesn’t mean the embargo may be ending, but that, “Cuba as a foreign policy question is no longer the third rail it once was.”

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