Democrats gain edge in Florida Hispanics

Sep 14, 2008

JOHN LANTIGUA

Palm Beach Post


The Democratic Party, which for decades badly trailed the GOP among Hispanic registered voters in Florida, has finally streaked ahead of the Republicans as the two parties race for the finish line of the November elections.

In 2006, Hispanics registered as Republicans in Florida outnumbered Democrats by 45,000, stoked by an overwhelming advantage in the conservative South Florida Cuban community.

But according to the latest figures from the Florida Division of Elections, Democrats now lead by almost 30,000 voters: 454,798 to 424,866. That represents a turnaround of 75,000 voters in less than two years.

In Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, where Democrats already had an advantage over the GOP among Latino registered voters, the party has increased its margins as Nov. 4 approaches. Democrats are crowing about it.

"Hispanics are like other voters in this country, and they want change," said Mike Rios, head of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce in Palm Beach County and a Democratic Party organizer.

"They want to stop the war in Iraq, bring down gas prices, create jobs and provide health insurance. And for all that, the Democrats and Barack Obama have the best platform."

Rios said the large increase in registered Democrats is due in part to new, young Latino voters, who tend to be more liberal. He also said many Puerto Ricans, some from the Northeast and others who have fled the Caribbean island's economic problems, have moved to Florida. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and, traditionally, Democratic voters.

Florida also has seen a sizable spike in Colombians who have become citizens, and many have registered as Democrats, Rios added.

"We've also had some Cubans register Democrat," he said in a mild dig in the ribs to his Republican rivals.

Sid Dinerstein, Palm Beach County's GOP chairman, and other Republican activists don't see those registration numbers determining the November vote.

They say they expect to win among Hispanic independent voters, who make up about 30 percent of the Hispanic electorate, and erase that difference with the Democrats.

Republican presidential nominee John McCain will reach out to Hispanic voters today at a 12:30 p.m. meeting with Asociacin Borinquena de Florida Central in Orlando during a two-day, four-city campaign trip to Florida.

"Many of the Hispanics in Florida who vote are successful people who want to live in an 'opportunity society' represented by the Republicans and not a 'welfare society' proposed by the Democrats," Dinerstein said. "If you come from a left-wing country like Cuba or Venezuela, when you get here, you are a Republican forever."

Rios insists Dinerstein is talking about a minority of Hispanic voters in the state.

"Around Florida more Hispanics are suffering with unemployment and under-employment, and they want change," said Mike Rios, head of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce in Palm Beach County and a Democratic Party organizer.

"They want to stop the war in Iraq, bring down gas prices, create jobs and provide health insurance. And for all that, the Democrats and Barack Obama have the best platform."

Rios said the large increase in registered Democrats is due in part to new, young Latino voters, who tend to be more liberal. He also said many Puerto Ricans, some from the Northeast and others who have fled the Caribbean island's economic problems, have moved to Florida. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and, traditionally, Democratic voters.

Florida also has seen a sizable spike in Colombians who have become citizens, and many have registered as Democrats, Rios added.

"We've also had some Cubans register Democrat," he said in a mild dig in the ribs to his Republican rivals.

Sid Dinerstein, Palm Beach County's GOP chairman, and other Republican activists don't see those registration numbers determining the November vote.

They say they expect to win among Hispanic independent voters, who make up about 30 percent of the Hispanic electorate, and erase that difference with the Democrats.

Republican presidential nominee John McCain will reach out to Hispanic voters today at a 12:30 p.m. meeting with Asociacin Borinquena de Florida Central in Orlando during a two-day, four-city campaign trip to Florida.

"Many of the Hispanics in Florida who vote are successful people who want to live in an 'opportunity society' represented by the Republicans and not a 'welfare society' proposed by the Democrats," Dinerstein said. "If you come from a left-wing country like Cuba or Venezuela, when you get here, you are a Republican forever."

Rios insists Dinerstein is talking about a minority of Hispanic voters in the state.

"Around Florida more Hispanics are suffering with unemployment and under-employment, and they will want change," Rios said.

Republicans believe that not all Hispanics who registered as Democrats will vote for Obama. They say two factors that led many Latinos to register as Democrats in the past two years may not carry over to Nov. 4.

Political observers on both sides of the aisle agree that one issue that provoked the sharp jump in registrations and produced an advantage for the Democrats is immigration.

The ability of GOP conservatives in Congress to block comprehensive immigration reform and the anti-immigrant remarks from some conservative commentators during the debate left some Latinos fuming - and registering.

Susan Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, says GOP candidates have clammed up on the immigration issue as they court the Hispanic vote.

"Immigration has fallen way down the list of the most talked-about issues," Purcell said. "There is less salt being rubbed in the wounds of immigrants right now. Republicans see that vote as important."

Rios, the Democrat, agrees.

"The Republicans realized they were hurting their own campaign with the immigration issue," he said. "They realized they had made a mistake."

Some Democrats and Republicans say another reason for the spike in Hispanics' registering as Democrats was the presence in the Democratic primaries of Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Virginia Savietto, originally from Argentina and now of Greenacres, is a Democratic Party activist who rode in a South Florida motorcade with Clinton this year.

"I said to her, 'I would follow you to the moon,' " Savietto recalled. "When she lost, I was crushed."

Savietto has rebounded and now says she fully supports Obama.

"But I don't know about some of the Hispanics who supported Hillary," she said.

One issue may be a barrier for Obama among some Hispanic voters.

"There is a lot of racial prejudice among some Hispanics here," Savietto said. "I don't know that they will vote for a black man."

Julian Lago, a Cuban-American in charge of Hispanic outreach for the McCain campaign in Palm Beach County, says Hispanics in Florida and across the country also are getting a different picture of the Illinois senator than the English-speaking audience.

"The mainstream English-language media has made a rock star out of Obama," Lago said. "But many Hispanics watch Spanish-speaking news programs - Telemundo, Univision - and his appeal hasn't translated there. Those news shows have been asking tougher questions about him. They are not treating him like a rock star, and the Spanish-speaking voters are seeing him more critically."

Among some specific nationalities, issues have arisen that could influence the vote.

Some in the Venezuelan community have a serious issue with Obama, who said earlier in the campaign that he would be willing to meet with leaders who are avowed enemies of the United States, presumably including Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez.

"Venezuelans didn't like that," said Ernesto Ackerman of Miami, president of the Independent Venezuelan American Citizens organization.

"But also Obama is always using the word 'change.' That was the same word Chavez used in Venezuela. And the changes he brought is what drove so many people out of Venezuela," he said.

"That word scares Venezuelans here."

Some Colombians in South Florida also have an issue with Obama. They say they will vote Republican because Democrats in Congress have blocked a free trade agreement in Colombia because of human rights abuses there.

Cesar Henao, 31, formerly of Colombia and now of Greenacres, says he has not heard much of that sentiment among his countrymen in Palm Beach County.

"I think most people do see the Democrats as the party that most helps immigrants," Henao said. "But also most Colombians here have come in the last 10 or 20 years. They remember the years of prosperity under Bill Clinton, a Democrat.

"Now with the Bush administration they see the war in Iraq and economic problems," he said. "I think that's why they are registering as Democrats, and I think they will vote that way, too."




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