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The Florida Republican Primary and the Latino Vote



* "In Florida, a changing Latino mosaic reshapes politics" By Kevin Gray, Reuters (January 31, 2012)

* "The Republicans' Hispanic problem" By Jonny Dymond, BBC News (January 30, 2012)

* "VOTE 2012: Why the 2012 Hispanic Vote Doesn't Matter ... Yet" By Ray Suarez, PBS NewsHour (January 30, 2012)

* "Latino Vote 2012: GOP Candidates Act Aggressively To Capture Cuban-American Vote Ahead Of Florida Primary" By Carlos Harrison, Huffington Post (January 30, 2012)

* "Gingrich Latino Puzzle" by Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, LatinoDecisions (January 26, 2012)

* "Will Mitt Romney's Embrace of Puerto Rican Statehood Play in Florida?" By Bryan Llenas. Fox News Latino (January 30, 2012)


In Florida, a changing

Latino mosaic reshapes politics

By Kevin Gray

Reuters (January 31, 2012)


MIAMI (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidates courting Florida's influential Latino vote have hit the campaign trail lambasting Cuba's Fidel Castro and heaping criticism on U.S. policy toward the communist island.


But the candidates' focus on the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American community in South Florida may be overlooking a changing Latino vote in which the underlying political views are no longer seen through the prism of U.S.-Cuban relations.


An important voting bloc in a crucial swing state, Florida's Hispanic community has grown more diverse and now includes a fast-growing Puerto Rican population, an influx of South Americans and a rising number of Mexicans.


The evolving demographic will likely force both Republican and Democratic politicians to rethink ways to woo Florida Latino voters.


"For years we lived in this world that was all about the Cubans," said Steve Schale, a Tallahasee-based Democratic strategist. Florida's "changing mosaic is going to have an impact on our politics."


Florida's primary on Tuesday provides Republican candidates the first opportunity to test their support among Hispanics, who nationwide could account for as much as 10 percent of the vote in November's general election, analysts say.


Republicans will be able to count on a base of conservative Cuban-Americans who make up the majority of Florida's 400,000-plus Hispanic Republican voters, many based in Miami.


Overall, Latinos represent more than 23 percent of Florida's population, but only 13 percent of the state's 11.2 million registered voters.


Across Florida, from sprawling housing subdivisions in and around Orlando to coastal communities in Tampa, the shifting Latino makeup is apparent.


Mexican Roots


Puerto Ricans, now the second largest group of Hispanics closely behind the Cubans, comprise a growing part of the population in the Orlando area. Near Tampa, Florida's third-biggest city, Mexicans have overtaken Cubans but trail Puerto Ricans as the most prominent Hispanic group.


Some elementary schools in the city of Clearwater report having a 40 percent Hispanic enrollment, overwhelmingly of Mexican origin. "That's going to have implications years down the line when they get old enough to register to vote," said Robin Gomez, the city's auditor and Hispanic-Latino liaison, who himself has Mexican roots.


Even in Miami, the heart of the Cuban-American community, gradual population changes can be seen. In the western suburb of Doral, a large number of Venezuelan and Colombian restaurants highlight an expanding South American population that now makes up 46 per cent of Doral's residents.


The shift is significant for Florida, home to the third-largest Latino population in the United States after California and Texas.


As a state, California traditionally votes for Democrats in presidential elections and Texas backs Republicans, meaning Florida's Latino voters can carry particular weight in an election year.


"When you break out voters by nationality, the Cubans are still Number One but they are no longer the only game in town," said Fernand Amandi at Bendixen & Amandi, a political consulting firm in Miami that has been retained by Democratic President Barack Obama's campaign.


According to the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly a third of Florida's Hispanic voters are of Cuban descent, while 28 percent are of Puerto Rican origin. Mexican-Americans represent 9 percent of voters.


Furthermore, in recent years the Republicans' stranglehold on Cuban-American voters has been slipping.


In 2008, Obama won Florida's Hispanic vote by 57 percent to 42 percent for Republican John McCain and surprisingly lost the Cuban-American vote by only 6 percentage points. He also captured the non-Cuban-American Hispanic vote with 65 percent to 33 percent.


But polls show Obama slipping among Florida Hispanics, likely to due to their higher unemployment rate, which some analysts estimate at around 13 percent - more than 3 points higher that the state average.


"Hispanics in Florida are acutely aware of Obama's failed economic policies and their devastating effects," said Bettina Inclan, director for Hispanic outreach with the Republican National Committee.


Jobs, Education and Healthcare


Jobs, education and healthcare rank as the issues that many Hispanics cite as most important to them, said Mark Lopez, the Pew Hispanic Center's associate director.


Miami's Cuban-Americans remain a reference for Republican candidates looking to win over Latino voters. Nearly 11 percent of Florida's Republican voters are Hispanic and almost 60 percent live in Miami-Dade county, making them a key voting Republican bloc.


Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all made appeals to Cuban voters during campaign stops in Miami. Both Romney and Gingrich criticized Obama's Cuba policy that has lifted some U.S. travel restrictions to the island and vowed tougher measures against the Cuban government.


Ivan Jimenez, a 35-year-old online advertising manager who lives in Doral and is of Puerto Rican descent, said the candidates missed a chance to reach out to other Latinos.


"They focus heavily on the Cubans," said Jimenez, who described himself as an independent. "Miami is becoming more of a melting pot. It's time for all of the politicians to start seeing it that way."


Led by the Puerto Rican community, a non-Cuban-American electorate began to take shape in Florida five years ago.


Since then, the total number of Hispanics registered as Democrats versus Republicans has widened by nearly 100,000 voters, reversing a trend that as recently as 2006 showed more Hispanics in Florida identifying themselves as Republicans.


Many Puerto Ricans are Democrats or Independents and their numbers have nearly doubled in the last ten years, analysts say.


But they can also be swing voters.


"Puerto Ricans vote for the person, not the party," said John Quinones, a Republican and chairman of the Osceola County Commission, who in 2002 became the first Republican Puerto Rican elected to Florida's state house.


Quinones said he was urging Republican leaders to do more to broaden the party's appeal to Puerto Ricans to bolster its support among Latinos.


"I get the sense they group Hispanics into one lump category," he said. For Puerto Ricans, "the issues may not be the same as the issues that affect Cubans in Miami."


"You have to recognize there are nuances and different issues that may be more prevalent to Puerto Ricans than to Mexicans and other Hispanics," Quinones said.


In a sign that some Republicans may be taking note of the changes in Florida, Gingrich addressed a group of Puerto Ricans during a campaign stop in Orlando last week.


He vowed to support Puerto Rico's bid for statehood if Puerto Ricans vote later this year in a plebiscite to change the island's status from its current one as a U.S. territory.


But he also peppered his speech with calls for a "Cuban Spring" whose aim he said would be to change the government in Havana.


The line barely drew any applause.


(Additional reporting by David Adams, Tom Brown in Miami and Barbara Liston in Orlando; editing by Christopher Wilson)



The Republicans' Hispanic problem

By Jonny Dymond

BBC News (January 30, 2012)


At the Centre for the Christian Family, a Hispanic evangelical church just outside Orlando, the reporters and cameramen outnumber the audience waiting for Newt Gingrich to turn up.


The former Speaker of the House of Representatives is well over half an hour late. Word spreads that because of the low turnout he will not give a speech, but instead meet and greet the small crowd.


When he does make a short address to the 75 or so people waiting, he does not trouble to utter a word in Spanish, though his promise to pursue statehood for Puerto Rico does raise a ragged cheer.


The Republicans have a Hispanic problem.


They know they need Latino votes. And they know that on many calculations - social and economic - they should get them. But Latinos, the fastest growing part of the US population, are not coming to the Republicans.


Much of the problem turns around the issue of immigration. US Hispanic voters are here legally, but many have friends or family who are in America illegally.


"The rhetoric has gotten more negative" says Peter Vivaldi of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition

And socially conservative, evangelical Hispanics should be natural Republicans. But the tone of the debate is all wrong.


"The rhetoric has gotten more negative," says Peter Vivaldi, of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, who invited Mr Gingrich to the centre.


"While the economy is good everybody is happy, nothing's an issue. But when the economy is bad and the money is not there and the jobs aren't there, we're looking to point the finger one way or another in directions that I don't think are really fair.


This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue, this is a moral issue."


Florida - where more than one in five people are of Hispanic origin - sees better numbers for the Republicans amongst Hispanics than in the rest of the US.


But the most recent Univision/Latino Decisions poll shows Barack Obama trouncing either Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich among Hispanics across the US by huge margins. Such numbers are are trumpeted by the White House.


Mitt Romney's statement in a recent Republican debate that illegal immigrants should "self-deport" was greeted with a combination of mirth and anger.


Newt Gingrich's description of Spanish as the "language of living in the ghetto" may have been wilfully misinterpreted by his opponents, but it did him no favours amongst many Latinos.




But some Republican politicians get it.


Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush wrote recently in the Washington Post that "Hispanics respond to candidates that show respect and understanding for their experiences".


At a debate party organised by the Hispanic Leadership Network in Miami, I asked him whether he meant that as a rebuke to some in his party.


"No," he said. "Voters want respect, they want to be heard and if you just wander around the streets of Miami you see the immigrant experience as something extraordinarily wonderful, extraordinarily American, and just having that understanding is a show of respect."


It is difficult to remember the last time Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich described the Latino immigrant experience as "extraordinary", "wonderful" or "American".


That is not the rhetoric that many non-Hispanic Republicans believe in or want to hear.


There are, of course Hispanic Republicans, and they crowd into a debate party to watch the candidates make their pitches. Waiting for the debate to start, Ana Abaonza, an architect, has some advice for the presidential hopefuls.


Some Hispanic Republicans are upset about Mitt Romney's suggestion of self-deportation


What they need to say is that they are going to address the specific problems that are tainting us - immigration, equality and putting us into parts of the government where we can have access to doing policy in the United States."


And what of Mitt Romney's suggestion about self-deportation?


"That is nonsense," she shoots back, "Self-deportation, I don't know how that can even be thought of."


One thing can be guaranteed. If - as seems likely - Mitt Romney is the Republican candidate, the Obama campaign will remind Hispanics in swing states of his comments about self-deportation, over and over again.


As Jeb Bush likes to point out, Hispanics can make the difference in 15 swing states come the presidential elections. The problem for the Republicans is that difference may put Barack Obama back in to the White House.


And as the US changes all around it, the Republicans look more and more like the party of old, white, America.



VOTE 2012

Why the 2012 Hispanic Vote

Doesn't Matter ... Yet

By Ray Suarez

PBS NewsHour (January 30, 2012)


When it comes to politics, I know a lot about The Decade of the Hispanic. I've been lucky enough to cover three of them. For as long as I've been a reporter, the Hispanic vote has been the next big thing. Certainly, with every passing year, the potential and the reality of that vote's size grows.


So it's understandable that in this primary season, much attention has been directed toward the Hispanic vote in the days before the Florida primary. There hasn't been much to say until now as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are not hotbeds of Latino settlement in the United States.


And so it begins: What will Republicans say to appeal to Latino voters? Which way will they vote? Will Latino strategies offer a foretaste of campaigns to come when the primary calendar moves west? What will the candidates say about this country's Cuba policy? All very interesting, to be sure, but not determinative of anything much. There's plenty to say about the Latino vote in 2012 ... just not yet.


The vast majority of Latinos in the United States are Mexican-American or Mexican-born. Florida is an outlier in those terms. The state is home to a sizable Latino population, of course, of just over 4 million people, more than a fifth of all Floridians.


Among Latinos across the country, immigration policy is an issue of vital interest. In Republican primaries, and particularly in the Florida Republican primary, immigration policy is an issue of strongly symbolic power but of little direct impact. The vast majority of Latinos in Florida are drawn from two groups with a less direct interest in current debates over immigration.


Cubans have an immigration policy all their own, commonly called "wet-foot, dry-foot," giving people who make it from the Communist island immediate legal status if they make it to dry land. If intercepted at sea, Cubans are sent home. Those who stand on terra firma in Florida don't have to worry about deportation, a path to citizenship, permanent resident status, or any of the other arcane but vitally important moving parts of immigration law. There are about a million ethnic Cubans, immigrant and native-born, in Florida. A quarter of Cubans nationwide are not even naturalized citizens, and thus ineligible to vote.


The other major Latino group calling Florida home is Puerto Rican, mainland and island born. The 2010 Census counted 850,000 Puerto Ricans in Florida. For all the talk about immigration in Florida during the nationally televised debates, it doesn't matter to Puerto Ricans in a direct way either. Moving from Puerto Rico to the United States mainland, in legal terms, is about as complicated as moving from New Jersey to Illinois. Made American citizens by an act of Congress in 1917, and born American citizens ever since, Puerto Ricans "emigrate" by getting on an airplane. They don't have to ask permission, or even tell anyone besides the U.S. Postal Service that they've arrived.


The tone of the immigration debate matters in Florida. Immigration policy itself? Not as much as you might think. Presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich argue over immigration at the Republican debates for the benefit of much-wider groups of voters. Alienating likely voters both in Florida and other coming primary and caucus states with a policy designed to win 10 percent of one state's vote would be nothing less than campaign malpractice.


In this young election season, Latinos across the country, including in Florida, have been telling public opinion researchers the economy is their No. 1 issue, and it's no wonder. Maybe you saw the numbers coming from the Pew Research Center in recent months indicating Latino families lost two-thirds of their accumulated wealth in the last few years, mostly because family assets were heavily concentrated in real estate.


So candidate messaging on a cratering housing market, rampant repossessions, and the heavy exposure to discretionary spending by the rest of the country have had much more resonance in Florida than immigration. The issues that have challenged Floridians -- empty resorts, foreclosures and joblessness -- mean Latino issues are Florida issues and Florida issues are Latino issues.


But the real impediment to a heavy impact of Latinos on the Florida outcome is mathematical, not philosophical. In national elections, two out of three Latinos vote for Democrats. No national poll taken so far this season has indicated that is likely to change a great deal in 2012. Of the expected 2 million primary ballots to be cast by Florida Republicans, some 200,000 are expected to be cast by Latinos. Various polls show Mitt Romney with a 10-24 percent lead among Florida Latinos. If the momentum of statewide polls is any guide, Romney has moved solidly ahead of Gingrich.


At the risk of stating the obvious, 10 to 24 percent of 10 percent isn't very much ... 1 to 3 percent of the overall Florida vote. If the margin of victory is much more than 3 percent, how much will the Latino vote have mattered? The more middle class and affluent slice of Florida's Latino voters look like they're going to vote like other more middle class and affluent Republican voters. With an ethnic/national origin profile among Latinos vastly different from all the other major areas of Latino settlement, will Florida's Republican primary tell us much that matters for Nevada, Arizona or California?


Before the striking changes of the last two decades, the political profile of Florida was heavily influenced by exile politics and the arguments among Cuban-Americans. Cubans still matter; they are influential leaders of major Florida institutions and major office-holders. However, it's been a while since Cubans were even a majority of Latinos in Florida. As the post-revolutionary refugee generations age and younger and more heavily Florida-born Cubans move to the fore, those old formulas about exile politics and Florida politics will become less and less important.


Candidate appearances at famous Little Havana restaurants, thundering denunciations of the Castro brothers, ads with the candidates dropping a little Spanish, the anointing of candidates by anti-Communist leaders in Miami. It's all fun to cover, all interesting, all catnip for political junkies but less likely to shape the rest of the race in the Republican primaries, and the fall campaign than the Hispanic unemployment rate in October.



Latino Vote 2012

GOP Candidates Act Aggressively To Capture Cuban-American Vote Ahead Of Florida Primary

By Carlos Harrison

Huffington Post (January 30, 2012)


Now it's the Latinos' turn.


After contests in early primary states where the Hispanic vote was too small to be significant, now comes Florida, where it's too large to be ignored. "It's important," Florida International University political science professor Kathryn DePalo told The Huffington Post. "Especially the Cuban-American vote. It's a huge voting bloc. If you can get most of those on your side, it's critical."


The candidates know. The two front-runners in the Republican race have been sipping cafecitos, carving lech�n and placing Spanish-language ads aimed at the state's Latinos into heavy rotation.


Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney both spent significant amounts of time on immigration issues during the two Florida debates. They've done one-on-one sit-down interviews with the most important anchor in Spanish-language television, Univision's Jorge Ramos. And Friday, they each spent a half hour making their case to a crowd of nearly 400 influential conservatives at the Hispanic Leadership Network's "Inspiring Action" conference in Miami.


It's a pitched battle for what, if history is a guide, could be a decisive demographic.


"As the Hispanic vote goes, Florida will go," Alci Maldonado, who chairs the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, told the Boston Globe. "And as the Florida vote goes, the country will go."


While Florida is one of several swing states that could prove critical in the 2012 election, it is among the largest. Almost 11 percent of Florida's Republican voters are Hispanic, and nearly 60 percent of them live in Miami-Dade County.


Hispanic voters proved crucial in the 2008 Republican primary race. That time, Romney lost Florida to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 97,000 votes. More than half of that margin came from the Miami-Dade area, where McCain won by 52,000 votes. Statewide, McCain got 51 percent of the Latino vote, while Romney got 15 percent.


This time, Romney is redoubling his efforts to avoid a repeat of the results of four years ago. Sunday he was in one of the most Hispanic cities in Florida, Hialeah, where Hispanics account for 95 percent of the population. He was greeted by the sounds of guitarists playing "Guantamera" and surrounded by the smell of roast pork, which he helped to cut up and serve to patrons.


The former Massachusetts governor in South Florida has collected the coveted endorsements of three of the most influential Cuban-American politicians in the state, the self-described "Three Amigos," Florida Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, and former congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.


On Friday, Romney announced the endorsement of Puerto Rico's Gov. Luis Fortu�o, which may have some impact among Hispanics in the Central Florida corridor stretching from Orlando to Tampa, predominantly made up of Puerto Ricans.


To capture the Latino vote, Gingrich, in turn, is banking on the support of Congressman David Rivera to counter Romney's three Cuban-American friends, and on his Spanish-language outreach.


"We are definitely taking it seriously," Gingrich's Florida campaign director Jose Mallea told The Huffington Post. "We are the only campaign that has a website -- -- which is is in Spanish. And it's not just translations that we put up. We actually develop original content for that to speak to Hispanic voters. So I think there's no one in this race that has taken the importance of the Hispanic community more seriously than us."


But it may not be enough.


So few people turned out for a Hispanic town hall that Gingrich held Saturday in Orlando, that he went out to speak to the audience members individually, The Hill reported.


After Florida, though, the Hispanic playing field changes, with large populations of U.S. citizens of Mexican, Central American, Puerto Rican and Dominican descent dominating Latino communities in the rest of the nation. While most Cuban-Americans in the nation live in South Florida, whoever wins their vote in Florida won't have such voters to rely on in other states.


And Romney has drawn the ire of large Latino organizations over his stance on immigration issues -- by opposing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and, until last Monday, promising to veto the DREAM Act, which would offer the children of undocumented immigrants a way to gain citizenship after completing two years of college or military service. Romney said he would support the military service option only.


Somos Republicanos, the nation's largest Hispanic Republican group, has condemned Romney over his conservative positions on immigration reform and thrown its backing behind Gingrich.


Gingrich, former U.S. speaker of the House, advocates a more moderate immigration policy, permitting long-time undocumented immigrants to gain residency. He has promised that no matter what happens in Florida on Tuesday, he's staying in the race until the convention in August.


That could prove a good strategy for him. Some observers believe that his positions on immigration improve his odds in other states with large non-Cuban-American Latino voting populations.


"We think Romney will do better among Latinos in Florida," Bob Quasius of Caf� Con Leche Republicans told Fox News Latino. "But when he goes west, especially in the southwest, he won't do well at all."




If not the most memorable moment of the run-up to the Florida GOP primary, the most comical one might to be Mitt Romney's oxymoronic addition to the English language: self-deportation.


At a Florida debate and in response to a question regarding if whether to enforce his position on illegal immigration, he would support mass deportations, Romney answered "Well, the answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here."


Romney's use of the term 'self-deportation' and his genuine belief in it as a viable means to deal with the 13 million undocumented immigrants who would not be allowed to remain in the U.S., led to substantial social media outcry, an attack by his primary opponent, Newt Gingrich (to be expected), and a measure of agreement from fellow candidate Rick Santorum.





Gingrich Latino Puzzle

by Victoria DeFrancesco Soto

LatinoDecisions (January 26, 2012)

This article was originally published at NBC Latino


Judging by the more than 400 "likes" on Newt Gingrich - Para Latinos Facebook, Newt Gingrich should do well with Latinos in the Florida primary this coming Tuesday. By contrast, Mitt Romney only has a dozen or so "likes" on his page. But Facebook popularity does not win elections because, according to the Univision-ABC-Latino Decisions poll released this week of Latino Florida voters, Romney wins the popularity contest that really matters.


Less than a week before the primary, Mitt Romney's favorability among Latinos in Florida is at 40%, comfortably ahead of Newt Gingrich's 33% approval. More specifically, Romney's favorables are not only higher but his unfavorables are lower than Gingrich's. When these Latino voters were asked who they would vote for, Romney's favorability ratings translated into solid vote intentions, 35%, followed by Newt


Gingrich at 20%, Ron Paul at 6%, and Rick Santorum at 8%.

Gingrich may be surging among the general electorate in Florida, but among Floridian Latinos a surge has yet to materialize. They refuse to embrace Newt Gingrich even though he is the only candidate that has coordinated a consistent Latino outreach effort since late 2010. His is the only campaign with a full fledged Spanish language website,, which greets the Latino visitors with a list of 10 reasons why he's their guy. Romney on the other hand has a a rinky-dink English language page that looks like a low-tech blog.


The lack of Latino love for Gingrich is even more puzzling given he has stood alone among the GOP primary candidates in his less draconian views toward immigration reform. Meanwhile, Romney who has advocated an enforcement-only approach to immigration, said he would veto the DREAM Act, and suggested self-deportation as a way to address our failed immigration system. It would seem that Latinos who continue to rank immigration as the first or second most important issue area would support the candidate that is closer to their issue positions.


The answer to Gingrich's Florida Latino slump is simple - Cuban-Americans. This group makes up a little more than half of the Latino electorate in Florida and this group by and large is not personally affected by immigration because of their legal status. This is not to say that Cuban-Americans do not support immigration reform or the DREAM Act, they simply are not as personally affected by the issue as Mexican immigrants. In the latest Univision-ABC-Latino Decisions poll, 36% of Cuban-American voters indicated immigration was the most important issue facing the Latino community, while half of Mexican-American voters named immigration their top concern.


Romney may not have a polished Latino-targeted website and a large Latino Facebook following. But who needs that, when you have the endorsements of the most prominent national Cuban-American political leaders, Ileana Roth-Leithen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Mario Diaz-Balart. Romney has also garnered a long list of endorsements from city and state Latino leaders. Finally, the rumors that Marco Rubio is on the short list for Romney's running mate can't hurt.


Not all is lost for Gingrich in his quest for the Latino vote. His outreach and policy positions place him as a frontrunner among the Latino electorate in Texas, the state with the second largest Latino population. The former Speaker also edges out Romney among Independent Latino voters at the national level, an especially crucial electorate to consider looking to the general election. Finally, Gingrich shows the strongest approval ratings from foreign-born Latino voters showing that his immigration policy position has indeed paid off.


Seen from the microscope of Florida, Gingrich's Latino outreach seems to have failed. However, once the lens is zoomed out Gingrich's apparent Latino puzzle dissolves. He will have to continue to court the Latino Republican and Independent vote but in the meantime, his time and monetary investments have provided a solid groundwork among Latinos moving beyond January 31st.


Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is the Communications Director for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin. Connect with her at:



Will Mitt Romney's Embrace of

Puerto Rican Statehood Play in Florida?

By Bryan Llenas

Fox News Latino (January 30, 2012)


At the end of a long weekend of campaigning in South Florida, where the Cuban American vote has been largely emphasized, Mitt Romneys' strong embrace of Puerto Rican statehood and an endorsement from Governor Luis Fortu�o, may signal a shift of momentum in favor of Romney among Latino Republicans in the Sunshine state.


The Puerto Rican governor announced his support for Romney late Friday --citing his "leadership and experience"-- just days before the Florida primary where the Latino vote will be a key factor.


Romney responded to the well-timed endorsement in a statement, saying: "I look forward to working with Governor Fortu�o on the issues most pressing for the people of Puerto Rico - job creation, public safety and resolving the Island's 113-year political status question."


Insulted Puerto Ricans Slam CNN Debate, Republican Candidates


But in what may be a more telling sign of things to come for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor seems to have been able to win over Puerto Rican statehood activists who stormed out of a CNN and Hispanic Leadership Network sponsored watch party on Thursday night, over what they deemed as an "insulting" handling of a question over Puerto Rican statehood.


In November, Puerto Rico will vote on whether or not to change it's status with the United States. At 4.4 million, Puerto Ricans represent the second largest voting block of Hispanics in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. There are more than 830,000 Puerto Ricans living in Florida, with more than half living along the I-4 corridor in the central part of the state. Puerto Ricans make up 28 percent of eligible Latino voters in Florida - just behind Cubans who make up just under one third at 32 percent.


During the Thursday night's televised debate, Rick Santorum was the only candidate given time to answer a question on their position on Puerto Rican statehood. His answer was non-committal.


"I am a Romney supporter now," Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder,


Republican president and CEO of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Florida, tells Fox News Latino. "My favorite candidate of them all was Santorum but he lost me when he answered the Puerto Rican statehood question in the CNN debate."


Outraged that CNN then changed the topic, Cuevas-Neunder lead efforts to press Romney and Gingrich to take a stand on Puerto Rican statehood at the Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Miami.


Where Mitt Romney Stands on Latino Issues


"The question is very simple: Do you believe Puerto Rico should be a state or not?," she separately asked both hopefuls.


Romney's response seemed to strongly embrace Puerto Rico's statehood initiative.


"I'm looking forward to the time when the people of Puerto Rico make their decision about becoming a state," Romney said in Miami. "I expect the people of Puerto Rico will decide, like [Fortu�o] feels, that they want to become a state, and I can tell you that I will work with him to make sure that if that vote comes out in favor of statehood, that we will go through the process in Washington to provide statehood to Puerto Rico and, again, to create a model in the Caribbean - one more model in Latin America of the benefits of having freedom."


Gingrich also answered Cuevas-Neunder's question on Puerto Rico statehood in Miami at the same event, emphasizing that he would follow the people of Puerto Rico's cue:


"I believe the people of Puerto Rico have got to decide their future," Gingrich said to a roar of applause at the HLN conference in Miami. "If they vote yes, then I will work actively in the process of succession into the United States. I would welcome them if they make a decision but I will not tell them the one decision they should make."


Where Newt Gingrich Stands on Latino Issues


It was Romney's answer, with its more affirmative commitment to statehood that thrilled Cuevas-Neunder and, according to her, "blew everyone away".


Colonel Derek Freytes, a U.S. veteran, was also once on the fence before he heard Romney's response to the statehood question in Miami - a question he believes should have been answered by all of the candidates on national television.


"I'm supporting Romney now," said Freytes, a U.S. veteran.  


"In Puerto Rico, we are talking about American veterans that have fought and defended this country and can't vote, I think Romney really understands and is looking at advancing our democracy - he's moving in the right direction."