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Casey A. Klofstad

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Why Won't Little Havana Turn Blue?

Posted: 11/30/11 12:00 AM ET

This post was cowritten by Benjamin G. Bishin and Casey A. Klofstad.

"As goes Florida, so goes the nation" is a sentence that has become etched in our minds over the course of recent presidential elections. Florida is a bellwether for the rest of the country for three reasons. First, Florida is a microcosm of the United States because the state is diverse on myriad dimensions, including race and ethnicity, age, religion, regional cultures, and sources of employment. Second, because of its relatively large population Florida carries 29 electoral votes, tied for third with New York behind California and Texas. Third, presidential elections in Florida are very competitive, and more often than not the winner of the presidency wins in Florida (nine times out of the last 10 elections).

For all of these reasons Florida gains a great deal of attention from political pundits during election season. To conjure their predictions of how we will vote they study us as demographic groups. One group that has gained increasing attention over the past few electoral cycles is Cuban Americans (59% of whom are estimated to live here in South Florida). Cuban Americans are of interest to political observers because they turn out to vote at higher rates than other Latinos. They are also unique because while most racial and ethnic minorities tend to support the Democratic Party, Cuban Americans tend to favor the Republican Party, due largely to continued animosity over Fidel Castro's communist revolution, coupled with the perception that the Democratic Party has repeatedly bungled United States foreign policy towards Cuba (i.e. Bay of Pigs, Elian Gonzalez, et cetera).

While the Cuban American vote has been solidly Republican, many observers of Florida politics have come to believe that this portion of the electorate is shifting to the left due to a seismic demographic change in the community. Without getting into too much history (read up on the Mariel Boatlift if you want more details), Cuban émigrés who arrived in the United States before 1980 largely fled Cuba due to political persecution by the Castro regime, and as such are strong supporters of the GOP. In contrast, those who immigrated after 1980 are more accurately described as economic refugees. These more recent immigrants have come to the United States with less money and education, and are more likely to still have family living on the island, than earlier Cuban immigrants. Consequently, it is assumed that these newer immigrants are more moderate in their political stances, especially when it comes to policies that restrict traveling to Cuba and sending money to relatives that still live on the island.

With electoral outcomes are as razor-thin as they are these days, this radical shift in the Cuban American community has the potential to be a game changer for the Democratic Party. To test this theory, we gathered and analyzed data on the political leanings of the Cuban American community (the full study can be found here: http://www.as.miami.edu/personal/cklofstad/13_little_havana.pdf). In line with pundits' predictions, we find that the Cuban American community as a whole has shifted to the left in terms of partisanship and with regard to United States foreign policy towards Cuba.

In contrast to political observers' prognostications, however, we do not see much change in the vote choice of the Cuban American electorate over the last four presidential elections. This leads us to a puzzle: If there has been so much change in the Cuban American community, why has this not been reflected at the ballot box?

The answer lies at the intersection of socio-economic status and the difficulty of navigating United States immigration policy. Simply put, the costs associated with hiring a lawyer in order to obtain citizenship, and thus the right to vote, are disproportionately high for the relatively less prosperous and politically moderate portion of the Cuban American community. Consequently, they have not entered the electorate as quickly as one might assume given the dramatic demographic shifts in the community as a whole. Moreover, because of the unique policy the American government has on Cuban émigrés (i.e. the "wet foot, dry foot" policy), any Cuban who reaches American soil can become a legal permanent resident. That is, a Cuban immigrant can live and work in the United States without becoming a citizen. In combination, these factors reduce the incentive for newer immigrants to immediately become citizens. One result of this is that they are underrepresented in the electorate. More specifically, post-Mariel immigrants now constitute a majority of Cuban American immigrants to the United States, but in 2008 were less than 20% of the Cuban American electorate.

This all said, as the newer immigrants slowly begin to obtain citizenship over time, and as their children come of age with the right to vote as native-born citizens, Cuban American voters are more likely to favor Democratic candidates and a more open relationship with Cuba. As is often joked in Miami, if the Democratic Party wishes to hasten this process, perhaps they should send an army of pro bono immigration lawyers to South Florida. Even then, however, the results may take decades to appear.


Benjamin G. Bishin is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. He is the author of Tyranny of the Minority: The Subconstituency Politics Theory of Representation.

Casey A. Klofstad is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami. He is the author of Civic Talk: Peers, Politics and the Future of Democracy.