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Why Cubans Are Defecting From the Republican Party

07/17/2014 01:46 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2014
  • John A. Tures Political science professor, LaGrange College in Georgia

For decades, the backbone of the Republican Party in Florida was the Cuban-American vote. Cuban-Americans supplied not just votes, but candidates for the GOP. But now there is survey evidence that the group is split between the GOP and Democrats. The question is no longer if, but why.

More than a decade ago, two-thirds of Cuban-Americans claimed to be Republicans. This group gave Jeb Bush another term as Florida Governor in 2002, took a Florida U.S. Senate seat away from Democrats (retiring Sen. Bob Graham was replaced by Bush's HUD Secretary Mel Martinez), and helped George W. Bush win another term as president by delivering Florida's Electoral College votes to the Republicans in 2004.

Now, ten years after Bush's triumph, we find that Cuban-Americans are split, according to the Pew Research Center. And Democrats like Bill Clinton are actively wooing Cuban-Americans. It matters, because among Hispanic groups, those with Cuban heritage have the highest voting turnout rates, exceeding the Latino average by nearly 20 percentage points.

And in 2012, Obama won the Cuban-American vote nationwide and the Sunshine State, en route to his own successful reelection bid, narrowly carrying Florida.

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There are many theories why.

1) The Lack of a Castro Experience: Increasingly, Cuban-Americans are American-born, instead of having experienced the horrors of Fidel Castro's Cuba, which might motivate them to go Republican, as the GOP is the party to condemn communism the loudest. That accounts for 44 percent of all Cuban-Americans, and doesn't explain the other 56 percent who came from the island nation. It also assumes that every U.S.-born Cuban-American would go Democrat.

2) It's About Economics: According to Sean Trende with RealClearPolitics "Hispanics tend to vote more Democratic than whites because they tend to be poorer than whites." But that doesn't compare Cuban-Americans with other Hispanics. Moreover, Trende's own data shows that the richest Hispanics abandoned the GOP before the middle-class Hispanics, while all groups show a downward trend.

3) The Anti-Immigration Tone of the GOP: Mitt Romney's opposition to immigration reform has been cited as a reason for Hispanics going for Obama, as well as his "self-deportation" plan. Sen. Ted Cruz says Hispanics don't want immigration reform, but others find immigration reform to be the top issue for Latinos.

Maybe what needs to be done is the disaggregation of immigration reform. It's not that Hispanics object to border control, as Trende notes, or that most Hispanics are here illegally. Political television commentator and radio host Ferando Espuelas points out that most Hispanics are here legally, and wouldn't directly benefit from immigration reform.

"As I've written previously, immigration reform is not policy debate for Hispanics," Espuelas writes. "It stands as a proxy for societal respect - even though most Latinos are either American-born, naturalized citizens, or have a green card, and will not benefit from any reform."

Supporting anti-immigration policies that call from allowing law enforcement officials to demand proof of citizenship of Hispanics at any time for any reason isn't likely to appeal to Cuban-Americans. And such blanket "show your papers" policies are likely to drive Cuban-Americans to the Democratic Party, regardless of income levels.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. You can email your responses to him at jtures@lagrange.edu.