For Republicans, it used to be a sure thing: Come to Florida. Collect the Hispanic vote. Move on.
That's because the Hispanic vote used to mean, for the most part, the Cuban-American vote. Not anymore.
Republican candidates rolling into the Sunshine State for the biggest primary so far, on Jan. 31, face a new reality -- an increasingly diverse electorate, both demographically and politically.
Now, politicians face two diametrically opposed Hispanic voting blocs in Florida: Cuban-American Republicans concentrated in South Florida, and Puerto Rican Democrats concentrated in Central Florida. Both will play a major role in deciding who wins this crucial state in 2012.
These days, rounding up Latino votes in Florida makes herding cats look easy. Candidates looking for votes can forget the sure bet.
"The South Florida vote is still solidly Cuban Republicans, but there's the emergence now of other Latin and South American groups who are a little bit more democratic," said Susan McManus, a political analyst from the University of South Florida. "And younger Cubans, depending on the issue, can also vote Democratic."
It's just as complicated in Central Florida, across what used to be a solidly conservative section of the state, right under Mickey Mouse's ears: half of the state's Puerto Ricans live between Orlando and Tampa, numbering almost 400,000 in 2008.
But even they don't all fall neatly into the Democratic line.
"They tend to lean Democratic, depending on how long they've been in the country, and where they've come from," McManus said. "If they come straight from the island, they tend to be more of a swing vote. If they come via New York or the Northeast, and come down to Florida that way, they tend to be heavily Democratic."
The differences stood out starkly in the last presidential election. President Barack Obama won 57 percent of Florida’s Hispanic vote, while 42 percent went to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The margin was even greater among non-Cuban-American Latinos. Obama won their support by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, finishing with 65 percent to McCain's 33 percent. He couldn’t win the Cuban-American vote, though. McCain won 53 percent to Obama's 47 percent.
There's a lot at stake in 2012, in both the primary and the general election. Florida is a winner-take-all state in the primary, handing all 50 delegates to the highest vote-getter. That's more than South Carolina, and more than Iowa and New Hampshire put together. Come November, Florida will hand out 29 electoral votes, the same as New York.
And today it's very much a purple state, with nearly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats.
Just this month, the state Republican Party crowed about narrowing the registration gap with Democrats statewide. But they're losing the race for Latinos, the fastest growing voter demographic.
But while Republicans have only added 7,093 registered Latino voters to their ranks since 2008, Democrats have added more than 50,000.
Much of the change has come in Central Florida, where a burgeoning Latino population is registering heavily as Democrats, turning what was majority Republican territory as recently as the 2000 election into an almost evenly divided battleground.
"It's very evenly split," McManus said. "That's why it's the most important part of the state. In fact, the Tampa Bay media market is evenly divided between Democrat and Republican registrants. And the Orlando one is two points different, is all. That's why the whole central part of the state is critical to the success of anybody running statewide, whether it's for president or governor or senator or whatever."
The area in the state with the highest concentration of Hispanic voters clearly demonstrates the challenges facing the Republican Party. Over the last four years in Miami-Dade County, home to most of the state's Cuban-Americans and most of its Republican Hispanics, the GOP's registration numbers actually decreased by 5,880. The number of registered Democrats, meanwhile, increased by 9,260.
If those numbers don't bode well for the GOP as a whole, they could be even more problematic for the current crop of candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination, whose harsh and heated anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric is alienating Latinos across the country.
Even the Republicans' formerly solid support from Hispanic evangelicals has become shaky. Pastors are vocally calling on the candidates to reverse course and support "poverty programs, immigration reform, and education equity," said Peter Vivaldi, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition's Florida representative.
"The folks that are getting involved are saying, 'Who's got the best platform on these issues,'" he said. "We're not endorsing a candidate, we want the candidates to endorse our issues."
It will be a critical test for Republicans, both now and in the future. Veteran GOP consultant Karl Rove and other key Republicans see Latinos, who are expected to make up 30 percent of the nation's total population by 2050, as vital to the party's growth.
"We need to pay the respect of knowing that the Hispanic vote is going to be important and we need to engage them," said Jennifer Korn, who ran the Viva, Bush! re-election campaign for George W. Bush in 2004. "I think many conservatives have looked at 2008 and said, 'Lesson learned.' We need to engage with the community and have them be part of what we're trying to accomplish."
Things don't appear likely to change much in time for the primary.
Almost 11 percent of Florida's Republican voters are Hispanic, and almost 60 percent of them live in Miami-Dade county. The result, said McManus: "I think the Cuban vote will dominate the Republican primary."
If historic patterns hold true, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looks poised to get most of the Cuban-American vote.
"They always go with the establishment candidate," Florida International University political analyst Dario Moreno said. "They were heavily for [George] Bush the first in '92. They supported [Bob] Dole in the primary and '96. They supported [George W. Bush] in the primary in 2000 -- his brother was governor. In 2008, they went with McCain. So it makes sense to me that that vote will probably go to Romney."
November, however, is anybody's guess. With the number of Republican and Democratic voters nearly even, Florida will remain very much up for grabs. But if current Hispanic registration trends continue, Florida won't be a swing state forever.
A GLIMPSE OF THE U.S. HISPANIC POPULATION:
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