Even before U.S. and Cuban negotiators met Thursday for talks on resuming relations, presidential campaign staffs had been focusing on effects of the thaw and the outsized role that Cuban-Americans may play in next year’s election, especially among Hispanics.
The reason: They are more likely to vote than other Hispanic groups and are highly concentrated in Florida, a swing state, making them easier to reach for issues and fundraising.
In wooing immigrant voters, politicians weigh totals but also the share who are voters, which may be relatively small because many aren’t citizens or don’t register. Hispanics made up 17% of the population in 2012, but just 10% of voters.
Cubans, however, are overrepresented. Nationwide, they were 4% of Hispanics in 2012 but 7% of Hispanic voters. Two-thirds of eligible Cubans voted, compared with just under half of all Hispanics.
In Florida, Cubans represented 36% of Hispanic voters, according to an exit poll by Bendixen & Armandi, a Hispanic research firm. Puerto Ricans made up 27% and voters from South America, 22%.
Another key factor: fully half of all Cuban-Americans live in just two southeast Florida counties — Miami-Dade and Broward — and 60% live in just nine Florida counties. That helps fund-raising, advertising, making appearances and driving turnout.
And they have become a swing bloc in a swing state. The Cuban-American community had already drifted from fierce anti-Castro roots and solid GOP support. Exit polls showed that Florida’s Cuban-Americans split about evenly between President Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, helping the president win Florida.
Add the announced or likely GOP presidential candidacies of two major Florida politicians — former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, himself the son of Cuban immigrants — and Cuban-Americans may be harbingers of the election.
By comparison, there are almost as many Salvadoran-Americans as Cuban-Americans, according to 2013 Census data. But 59% of Salvadoran-American adults are not citizens and can’t register to vote, compared with just 29% of Cuban-American adults.
Less well-known but growing in importance: Florida’s 600,000 Puerto Ricans of voting age, who enjoy U.S. citizenship by birth. Thousands arrive each year, fleeing the commonwealth’s ailing economy and rising crime. Many settle in central Florida, especially Orange County.
Overall, 3.1 million Puerto Ricans of voting age live on the mainland, but their presidential impact is muted because 43% live in the reliably Democratic states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.