Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Ed Pilkington in Charlotte
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guardian.co.uk, Monday 3 September 2012

Barack Obama needs to increase his appeal among Puerto Ricans living in the central zone of Florida if he is to win the crucial battleground state in the race to return him to the White House, in-house polls are indicating.

The Obama for America re-election campaign is focusing its energies on what is increasingly seen by both Democrats and Republicans as a vital demographic target in a vital swing state. So much so that Team Obama is flying in senior politicians from Puerto Rico in an effort to mobilise undecided voters in the heavily populated I-4 corridor around Orlando.

Internal polling figures that were released for the first time at a Hispanic caucus meeting at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte on Monday show that Obama is only enjoying a relatively soft lead among Puerto Ricans in Florida. A survey conducted by the pollster Sergio Bendixen on behalf of the campaign at the end of July gave Obama a 54% to 32% advantage over Republican candidate Mitt Romney within this electoral demographic.

Presenting the figures to the caucus, Bendixen said, "We need to do better than that. We need to get that number up into the seventies. If we are to carry Florida we need to do better among Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area."

The Hispanic vote has been identified by both main parties as an important factor within the 2012 presidential fight, and within that contest Florida is the undisputed highlight. That is partly a reflection of the fact that the state commands 29 of the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency.

But it is also a product of Florida's large and growing Hispanic population, which already accounts for more than a fifth of all voters in the state, as well as its highly diverse ethnic mix. Obama's internal polling shows that among Cubans in southern Florida he is trailing 38% to Romney's 56%, whereas among US-born Hispanic Floridians he is up 51% to 35%.

Overall, Obama continues to command a lead among Floridian Latinos, but it is relatively close, at 51% for Obama and 37% for Romney. With 12% of the Latino population still undecided, there is still all to play for.

Bendixen has carried out internal polling for the Obama campaign in two other key swing states with large Hispanic populations – Nevada and Colorado. Nevada comes out as the great Obama success story of 2012 so far – the president is enjoying a 56-point lead among Latinos there (by 74% to 18%).

Between April this year to July, support among Nevadan Latinos surged an extraordinary 20 points, a measure of success that Obama for America has so far failed to replicate in Colorado. Though the president has a comfortable lead there too (69% to Romney's 21%), he only managed to achieve a four-point increase in Hispanic support in Colorado in the three months up to August.

Bendixen told the assembled Hispanic caucus that every time he polled Latino voters in the swing state – on average once every two months – support for Obama was increasing. He put that down to a combination of the positive reception Obama's key policies have had among Latinos, and the increasingly negative opinion among them of Romney and the Republicans.

Mainly Spanish-speaking Hispanics – first generation immigrants from Mexico and other Latino American countries – were showing a particularly robust response to Obama's bid for re-election. They polled in favour of him by a whopping 84% to 7% for Romney (by contrast Hispanics with English as their dominant language favoured Obama by 63% to 30%).

Bendixen sees that in turn as a reflection of high levels of anxiety among first generation American Hispanics about healthcare and the immigration status of their loved ones. Both Obama's Affordable Care Act, which extends health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, and his executive order to defer the threat of deportation from young Hispanic students have polled exceptionally well among Latino voters in the swing states.

Fears about health insurance are especially pronounced among the Puerto Ricans in central Florida. Many of them were drawn to Florida by jobs at Disney World and other tourist attractions, but they are frequently paid the minimum wage without any health insurance.

Obama for America has for several months been seeking to capitalise on that well of good feeling among Latinos by aggressively running Spanish-language TV adverts in Florida, Nevada, Colorado and other battleground states. The adverts, also produced by Bendixen, have focused on Obamacare and the president's executive order deferring deportations for young Hispanics.

In another Spanish-language advert, the Obama campaign has sought to make hay over some of Romney's most controversial remarks on immigration, including his pledge, made in one of the primary TV debates, to force undocumented Hispanics to "self-deport" themselves.

The Romney campaign has by contrast been slow off the mark, only recently beginning to broadcast TV ads in Spanish. Its first such advert was a soft focus interview with one of the candidate's sons saying what a good guy he was.

"The Republicans haven't done much to fight us for this crucial vote yet. They are only just getting into gear with advertising and messaging," Bendixen told the Democratic Hispanic caucus.

One problem faced by Latino organisers canvassing for Obama among Puerto Ricans in central Florida is that there is what one called a "leadership deficit" there with few Puerto Rican politicians in positions of influence. To make up for it, the campaign has been bringing in leading politicians from Puerto Rico itself such as Kenneth McClintock, president of the US territory's state senate.

The Republican party has similarly been seeking to cement its Puerto Rican credentials in Florida, putting the first lady of Puerto Rico, Luce Vela, on stage at its national convention in Tampa last week. The convention also highlighted Marco Rubio, the Hispanic senator for Florida.

But Bendixen's figures show that Romney's favourability rating among Hispanics in Florida, Nevada and Colorado has slumped by 14 points (from 42% to 28%) in the three months up to August, while Obama's has increased from 60% to 65%.

"Romney has made self-inflicted wounds," Bendixen told the caucus. "When he talks about auto-deportation people do not forget that as it reflects on the quality of life of all Hispanics, documented or undocumented."

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