The Mother of All Battleground States: Can Florida's Hispanics Help Obama?

After Sen. John McCain campaigned across Florida earlier this week, Sen. Barack Obama arrives in the Sunshine State tomorrow. Recent polls show Obama either tied or several points behind his Republican rival.

Florida is not only the mother of all battleground states, but it’s also one of four key states where the Hispanic vote could help decide the election. The others are Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico.

“Hispanics in Florida” has long been a synonym for Cubans. The state’s conservative Cuban-American vote has traditionally leaned Republican. But a recent poll by Florida-based Democratic pollster Bendixen & Associates puts Hispanics in the state, “about evenly divided,” between the two major candidates, according to Spanish newswire Agencia EFE. (In the other three “Latino battleground” states, Obama leads among Hispanics.)

This would seem to mirror the fact that Cubans are no longer a majority of Florida’s Hispanic voting population. Another Bendixen study says Cubans are 40 percent of the state’s 1.1 million Hispanic voters, while non-Cubans add up to 44 percent -this includes Dominicans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and people from other Latin American countries.

This diversification of the Latino population could give Obama some hope in a key state that has gone “red” in the last two presidential elections. Political scientist Luis Fraga of the University of Washington, an expert on Hispanic outreach in presidential elections, told the Austin American-Statesman that, “this growing Latino diversity and more second-generation Cubans — who vote Republican less consistently than their parents — combine to give Democrats a fighting chance in Florida,” Juan Castillo writes.

That’s probably one reason why McCain spoke at a Puerto Rican association in Orlando this week. The central Florida city has become a Puerto Rican stronghold over recent years -with many migrating there from New York and other places- and, again according to Bendixen, swing voters are a high percentage of this population.

This is how the Orlando Sentinel explained it:

Swing voters … are highly coveted this election because experts predict they will determine the presidential outcome in Florida, a key battleground.

In Central Florida, there are almost a quarter of a million swing voters, most of whom are Puerto Ricans or other Hispanics. Until now, they have remained a largely untapped resource. But both political campaigns are gearing up to target them during the next three months.

“There’s no more important voter in this media market than the Hispanic swing vote,” said pollster Sergio Bendixen, who prepared the most recent study on those Central Florida voters for Democracia USA, a group registering new Latino voters.

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