Latino vote could save Mitt Romney in Florida primary

Momentum has swung against Mitt Romney since Newt Gingrich's resounding win in South Carolina Saturday. But Florida Latinos favor Romney by a wide margin, which could be decisive.  

Brian Snyder/REUTERS
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivers his rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union address at American Douglas Metals in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday.

Mitt Romney has had precious little good news lately. But Latino voters in Florida may be coming to his rescue.

A poll released Wednesday shows that Mr. Romney, fighting to regain momentum toward the Republican presidential nomination, is performing well ahead of his top rival, Newt Gingrich, among Latino voters in the Sunshine State.

Eleven percent of likely Republican primary voters in Florida are Latino, and among them, 49 percent support Romney versus 23 percent for Mr. Gingrich, according to the poll by Latino Decisions for Univision News and ABC News. [Editor's note: This paragraph his been changed to correct the percentages of support for each candidate.

“Thus far, Gingrich’s shocking victory in Saturday’s South Carolina primary has not triggered a significant boost in his Latino support in Florida,” write Matthew Jaffe of ABC and Jordan Fabian of Univision. “In the final days of polling, Sunday and Monday, Gingrich’s Latino support in Florida only increased by 2 percentage points.”

Florida Republicans go to the polls next Tuesday in a crucial test for the party’s top two contenders. Florida is one of the biggest prizes on the primary calendar, with 50 GOP convention delegates at stake – all of whom will be awarded to next Tuesday’s winner.

Romney’s overall GOP primary numbers in Florida took a dive after South Carolina. Where once he was way ahead, it’s now a tight race. The latest poll, by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, shows Romney and Gingrich tied at 33 percent each. The Real Clear Politics average of five post-South Carolina polls shows Gingrich ahead by 4 percentage points.

If the Florida GOP race remains tight, the Latino vote could prove decisive. And Romney is particularly well-positioned among its dominant subgroup, the Cuban-American community. Floridians of Cuban origin account for 540,000 of the state’s 1.5 million Latino voters, and Romney leads Gingrich among them 49 percent to 17 percent.

Romney has been endorsed by three of Florida’s Cuban-American leaders – Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart. (Another Florida Cuban-American, Sen. Marco Rubio, has said he will not endorse during the primary.)

Endorsements are often not worth much. In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley’s support for Romney could not hold off an insurgent Gingrich. But four years ago in Florida, those same Cuban-American leaders backed Sen. John McCain and were seen as critical to his victory in the Florida primary – the race that effectively sealed the GOP nomination for him.

Romney is also the first Republican to go up with Spanish-language advertising in Florida, narrated by his son, Craig, who is fluent in Spanish.

In the general election, President Obama remains strong among Latino voters, whom he won four years ago by a 2 to 1 margin. Nationally, Mr. Obama beats Romney among Latinos 67 percent to 25 percent. He beats Gingrich 70 percent to 22 percent among Latinos.

But in Florida, the hypothetical general-election matchups are closer. Obama beats Romney 50 percent to 40 percent among Florida Latinos, and beats Gingrich 52 to 38.

A good portion of Latino voters live in states that are already solidly red or blue – such as California, New York, and Texas. It’s the Latinos in swing states like Florida who matter most. So if Florida is close in November, the state’s Latinos could be critical to determining the outcome of the entire election.

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