01/26/2012 09:12 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2012

Latino Diversity on Display in Florida's GOP Primary

The battle between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney for the allegiance of Florida's 450,000 Hispanic Republican primary voters has exposed one of the great myths surrounding the "Latino vote": despite their shared ethnicity, Hispanics are far from monolithic, politically. True, most do generally swing Democratic, but the range of that swing can vary sharply, depending on the candidate and the issues.

President Obama took 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008, compared with 31 percent for John McCain. However, in 2004 George W. Bush won reelection with a record 44 percent of the Latino vote.

Hispanics, defying liberal ideology, aren't just another "ethnic minority" that can be counted on to rally behind the Democratic Party en masse, like African Americans. In fact, for years, a solid 20 to 25 percent of Latinos have consistently voted for the GOP. Those voters are die-hard conservatives who believe in free enterprise, the nuclear family, and a strong military. Some descend from Mexican-American families with deep roots in the American Southwest; many don't even speak Spanish and are as hostile to illegal immigration as any "Anglo."

But other Latino conservatives, like those in Florida, are Cuban exiles and their descendants, who fled Castro and enjoy privileged status under U.S. immigration law. Unlike most traditional immigrants, who must apply for a visa to enter, Cuban entrants simply need to reach U.S. soil -- by raft, if necessary -- and they'll automatically qualify for U.S. citizenship within a year. It's a special status that no other foreign-born group enjoys, and it gives Cubans and Cuban-Americans a distinct view on U.S. immigration policy.

Many do sympathize with the plight of undocumented Mexicans seeking to be recognized as legal immigrants, often having to wait years to be granted a visa, and facing hostility and the constant threat of deportation should they decide to enter illegally. But these represent a minority of Cuban Americans, primarily younger generations that have broken with their parents and are beginning to lean Democratic on major national policy issues.

That's why the current battle between Gingrich and Romney among Florida's Republican Hispanics isn't really about U.S. immigration policy -- but at the same time, looking forward to the general election, it is. For the most part the two candidates are battling over the issue that is near and dear to Cuban-American voters: Cuba itself.

Older Cuban Americans still want to see Castro ousted, and the current U.S. trade embargo enforced, even as the rules on tourism and family travel to and from the island are loosened. Gingrich, in a play for votes, recently called for a "Cuban spring," similar to the Arab spring, invoking the image of a popular uprising on the island. To older Cuban exiles, who attempted such an uprising during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, that image arouses powerful memories. And they're not all positive. Some Bay of Pigs veterans still blame the U.S. -- and Democrats -- for the invasion's failure. JFK, despite promising to support a Cuban uprising with U.S. air support, ended up aborting the mission. That's one reason Cuban Americans still lean so heavily Republican.

In a sign of just how Cuba-focused the Florida Latino contest has become, Gingrich and Romney have largely buried their outstanding differences on immigration. At the last GOP debate, the two men agreed that neither supported the DREAM Act -- which would legalize some 2 million undocumented Latinos who agree to attend college or join the U.S. military -- and that they might support a more circumscribed legalization program.

When Gingrich tried to raise the immigration issue in a recent TV campaign ad, charging that Romney was "anti-immigrant," popular Tea party Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American, cried foul -- and Gingrich promptly pulled the ad, and then just as promptly offered to put Rubio on his ticket if he wins. But Romney, who first floated that same idea in 2011, still has the jump on Gingrich.

A recent Univision poll shows Romney leading Gingrich 49 percent to 23 percent among Hispanic Republicans, a far better showing than Romney made in 2008, when John McCain trounced him 54 percent to 14 percent, With 20 percent undecided, the vote's still up for grabs, but Romney appears to have the edge. Still, Gingrich's willingness to keep raising the issue of U.S. immigration in the GOP primary shows that he's already got his eye on the general election, including the allegiance of non-Republican Latinos in Florida.

McCain carried Cuban Americans handily in 2008, but Barack Obama won 56 percent of Latino vote overall, thanks to the growing share of the state's Latino electorate comprised of Democratic-leaning voters from Puerto Rico and South America. Gingrich thinks that to win those voters back, the GOP needs to become more in tune with Latino aspirations for broader acceptance in U.S. society, including more generous immigration rules.

But if Romney wins, those in the party suggesting that the GOP can win Latinos based on the economy alone are likely to prevail, even though Florida, with its uniquely non-immigrant Latino voter base, turns out to be a poor foundation upon which to base that argument.