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On Florida primary day, clues to power of Hispanic vote

Understanding voters

Florida Hispanics don't like Trump much, but also aren't overly enthused about Marco Rubio. In the end, they could be crucial to Democrats. 

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    Ma Healy, a new United States citizen, attends a Bernie Sanders rally March 8 in Miami.
    Linda Feldmann/The Christian Science Monitor
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When Donald Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers in his campaign announcement last June, Ma Healy got mad.

Two weeks ago, in her own small way, the Mexican-born Ms. Healy got even. She became a United States citizen, 14 years after moving here with her American husband. In Florida’s primary on Tuesday, she will vote for Bernie Sanders, and if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic presidential nomination, Healy will happily support her.

“We can’t have Donald Trump in the White House,” said Healy of Naples, Fla., interviewed at a Sanders rally in Miami last week.

Healy is part of a wave of Latinos getting their US citizenship for the express purpose of voting against Mr. Trump. Overall naturalizations typically rise in election years, but in 2016 the numbers are stark: Applications could approach 1 million this year, 20 percent higher than average, according to The New York Times.

Hispanics are an important voting bloc in Tuesday’s primaries, accounting for about 15 percent of each party here in Florida. On the Republican side, their lack of overwhelming enthusiasm for Marco Rubio points to the problems in his campaign, while for Democrats, they could be a crucial bulwark against Trump if he wins the Republican nomination.

Both in Florida and nationally, the Hispanic vote is “only getting bigger and playing an even more influential role, and that will be the case in 2016 again,” says Fernand Amandi, managing partner at Bendixen & Amandi International, an opinion research firm in Miami.

Hispanics for Rubio, kind of

Florida represents the biggest trove of delegates at stake on Tuesday – the most important primary day to date. Also voting are Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and North Carolina. On the Republican side, Florida and Ohio are the first states to allocate delegates on a “winner take all” basis. If Trump wins both, his path to the nomination is nearly set. Home-state candidates – Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio – are taking their last stands.

On the Democratic side, Senator Sanders is gaining momentum in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois – Rust Belt states with profiles similar to that of Michigan, where the Vermont senator beat former Secretary Clinton in a major upset last week. Even if she loses some of the March 15 contests, however, she will still be hard to defeat for the nomination.

In south Florida, the GOP Hispanic vote is keeping Senator Rubio at least somewhat competitive. Aside from the Trump phenomenon, the most compelling story might be the battle between the two Cuban-Americans vying for the Republican nomination, Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

This is Rubio’s home, and the center of the nation’s Cuban-American population. Across Florida, Rubio leads Trump among Hispanic Republicans, 49 percent to 20 percent, and Cruz is at 21 percent, according to a poll jointly conducted by Bendixen and the Tarrance Group, a Republican firm, released March 10. Among all likely GOP voters in Florida, Trump got 38 percent, Rubio 31 percent, and Cruz 19 percent.

But Rubio should be doing better, says Mr. Amandi.

At a campaign appearance last week in Miami, Senator Cruz drew plenty of attention from Hispanic voters. For Cuban-Americans, seeing two of their own make a historic run for the White House is a source of great pride.

“It’s an honor,” says Danilo Brito, a 60-something building inspector for Miami who immigrated from Cuba as a boy. “I’m an American, and I go for the candidate who best represents my values.”

He’s backing Cruz, because the senator is “adamant about defending the Constitution.”

Elizabeth Ayala, a Miami lawyer, says she changed her registration from independent to Republican so she could vote in the primary. Ms. Ayala also likes Cruz for his strict view of the Constitution.

“I’m from Guatemala, so I know what’s at stake,” she says. “If Hillary wins, I might as well go home.” Rubio, she says, is “too green.”

The shift away from Rubio has been building, says Amandi. “As he has become less and less viable for the Republican nomination, there has been almost a migration away from him, and towards a split between Cruz and Trump.”

A changing Cuban vote

On the Democratic side, Clinton beats Sanders with Florida Hispanic voters by a wide margin, 69 percent to 21 percent, in the recent Bendixen-Tarrance poll conducted for The Washington Post and Univision.

Nationally, come November, Amandi expects Clinton to do very well with Hispanic voters, and better still if Trump is the Republican nominee. But Trump’s ability to draw in new voters and change the composition of the electorate could also alter the calculus.

“Obama got 71 percent of the Hispanic vote last time,” he says. “Hillary can get 90 percent of the Hispanic vote, but if she does worse than Barack Obama did with white men, that’s a much bigger piece of the pie.”

Working in the Democrats’ favor in November is the changing nature of the Cuban-American vote. As many of the older Cuban exiles have died and been replaced in the electorate by their children and grandchildren, attitudes have evolved.

In 2008, then-Senator Obama got 35 percent, and in 2012, President Obama scored close to 50 percent, both nationally and in Florida.

“The US-born Cuban-Americans don’t necessarily have that bedrock loyalty to the Republican Party that the historic exiles did and continue to have to this day,” says Amandi.

Cuban-Americans, he says, are now a swing vote.  

Among Hispanic Republicans in Florida, only 36 percent see Trump favorably, versus 76 percent for Rubio and 68 percent for Cruz, according to the Bendixen-Tarrance poll.

But Trump does have his Hispanic boosters. At his rally Sunday night in Boca Raton, Fla., Elvira Santana of nearby Tamarac came decked out in Trump buttons and a Trump T-shirt.

“The politicians in Washington are all about themselves,” says Ms. Santana, who is originally from Puerto Rico and does debt collections for the North Broward Hospital District.

She remembers, as a child, traveling through the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s with her father, who was in the military. “Things have gotten so much better and people don’t see that,” she says. “Donald Trump supports all races.”

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