A look back and a look forward.
Regular readers know that I’ve often commented about the media’s overwhelming desire to tell a story of changing voting patterns among Cuban-Americans. I’ve shown how the party affiliation trends have remained basically unchanged for the last 15 years with 2/3 of Cubans registering Republican and the balance split between Democrats and independents. Well in less than 49 weeks all of these theories are going to be put to the test. We’ll of course be watching. That said, I thought I’d lay out the history of voting trends among Cuban-Americans over the past 20-30 years.
Since our elections are based on secret ballots we can never know the exact number people of a certain demographic characteristic that voted for a particular candidate. So we need tools to approximate those numbers. The most common tool is exit polling. You poll a representative sample of voters as they leave the polls and make projections based on that. The people that conduct the polls from year to year can vary, and in a given year there can be more than one exit poll. Another way is to look at the voting results from precincts that are overwhelmingly homogeneous. This has limitations too. Over time populations shift. For example there are far fewer Cubans living in Little Havana today than 25 years ago. So you need to find precincts that haven’t changed much over time.
As I researched this post I discovered a fascinating phenomenon. Many of the articles written about Cuban-American voting trends use apples and oranges comparisons that don’t hold water. For example in one article the author cites an exit poll showing the percent of Cuban-Americans that hat voted for Clinton in 1992 but when discussing the the 1996 election, the statistics were not for Cuban-Americans but for Hispanic voters in Florida. Just in case you don’t know, Cuban-American voting patterns have been consistently different from those of non-Cuban Hispanics. Cubans tend to be more conservative and vote Republican while non-Cuban Hispanics tend to vote Democrat. Not only that, but non-Cuban Hispanic immigration in Florida has been on the rise over the last couple of decades. In short, you have to be really careful about which data you use and that you use it consistently.
According to this paper about Hispanic voting trends Ronald Reagan “received 80 percent of the vote in the predominantly Cuban American precincts of southern Florida. This was the beginning of a trend that would continue through all of the presidential elections into the 21st century.”
The same paper continues:
The Cuban vote in Florida turned out to be an important factor in Clinton’s reelection. Clinton received 35 percent of the traditionally Republican Cuban American vote, a 15-percentage-point improvement over his 1992 showing.
If Clinton had 35% of the vote in in 1996 and that 15 points higher than 1992, simple subtraction dictates that he got 20% in 1992. That’s presumably not significantly higher than Carter got in 1980 (there was an independent candidate on the ballot that year so it’s not a zero sum game). The 1996 election is considered the high-water mark for Democrats with regards to Cuban-American voters. I make that distinction because we’re going to use that as a benchmark when we analyze the post-election reporting next November.
To put Clinton’s 35% among Cuban-Americans into perspective, George McGovern managed to obtain 37.5% of the national popular vote in one of the biggest landslides in U.S. Presidential Election history in his 1972 loss to Richard Nixon. The Democrats’ “big win” with Cubans in 1996 was not even McGovernesque.
Even so it was a substantial jump and we should consider the circumstances of the 1996 election. Clinton was an incumbent president, the economy was booming and the Republican nominee was particularly weak. With regards to Cuba, President Clinton had signed the Helms-Burton bill, which strengthened the embargo against Cuba, into law. Hugo Chavez had not yet been elected in Venezuela and Cuba was in the middle of the “special” period. In short, Cuba was broke and it looked like regime was finally going to fall.
Now let’s look at the 2000 election. The most significant (though not the only) factor in that election with regards to Cubans was the Elian saga.
The anger directed toward Clinton and the Democratic Party caused many Cuban American citizens -both Democratic and Republican to cast their votes tor George W. Bush. Nationwide, 67 percent of Latinos cast their votes for Gore, but in Florida he received only 19 percent of the Cuban vote-and lost Florida by a mere 537 votes.
Two things to note here. First is that Clinton’s actions vis-a-vis Elian cost Gore the election. Of that there can be no doubt. Despite Gore’s attempt to separate himself from those actions Cuban voters punished the Democratic candidate. I believe that this was a moment of truth for the Democrats with regards to Cubans, one in which they reaffirmed in the minds of many Cuban voters that they can’t be trusted to handle the Cuba issue. As a result Gore’s numbers among Cuban-Americans were no better than Carter’s.
In 2000, Andrea Mitchell’s predictions came to pass
2004 is an interesting case. It’s been more difficult to find data about how Cuban-Americans voted in that election. There was a lot of build up to the election with the local Democrat talking heads saying that Cubans were abandoning Bush in droves.
On election day, the liberal blog, the Daily Kos, reported that Kerry had won 32% of the Cuban-American vote.
This web site also claims that Kerry obtained about 1/3 of the Cuban-American vote while the St. Pete Times reported that “In two overwhelmingly Cuban-American precincts in Hialeah, unofficial returns showed Kerry winning about 25 percent of the vote.”
Assuming the higher number is correct and Kerry got 33% of the vote, it’s still lower than the McGovern-like percentage Clinton obtained in 1996 (though significantly higher than what Gore obtained in the immediate aftermath of Elian). But it’s also still in line with known party affiliation percentages. It certainly was not the giant stride that people like Joe Garcia and other pundits were predicting.
Now the question remains, what will 2008 look like? There’s a lot of things to factor into that calculus. First of all and most importantly is the fact that the likely Democratic nominee is Mrs. Clinton. If Gore couldn’t escape the wrath of Cuban voters had for Clinton after Elian, how can Mrs. Clinton? Of course time has passed and perhaps memories fade. I’m sure that’s what the Democrats are hoping for.
Then there’s the idea out there that somehow a lot of Cubans are angry with Bush especially because of the strengthened travel ban. My opinion is that the ones that are angry are either part of the 20% that voted for Carter in 1980 or Gore in 2000 (in other words, people that would never vote Republican), or the more recent arrivals many of which are not yet eligible to vote. Even if there are some Cuban-American voters that would prefer more lax travel to Cuba, one has to ask oneself it it’s a galvinizing issue. Again, in my opinion, the answer is no. The person that really wants to travel to Cuba does so. This is certainly not a case of Elian in reverse. I have a hard time believing that thousands of heretofore unregistered Cuban-Americans are going to run out and register so they can vote Democrat to defeat the travel restrictions.
Next time we’ll look at the congressional elections and see where we’ve been and where we are likely to go.