Romney made larger gains in Florida after the first presidential debate than most other battlegrounds, leaving him about 1 or 2 points ahead in the Sunshine State. But the polls suggest that one reason for Romney’s strength might be a surprising group: Florida’s Latino population. 

In 2008, Obama won Florida’s Latinos by 15 points with a relatively strong showing among Miami’s traditionally Republican Cuban population and the exploding and heavily-Democratic non-Cuban Hispanic population, especially the Puerto Ricans of the Orlando-Kissimmee metropolitan area.

Over the last four years, those demographic changes have continued to aid Florida Democrats, as non-Cuban Hispanics continue to flock to the state. According to Florida’s voter registration numbers, the number of registered Hispanics increased by 300,000 or 22 percent since 2008 and Democrats were the primary, if not exclusive, beneficiary. The number of registered Hispanic Democrats increased by 131,000, while the number of registered Hispanic Republicans increased by just 30,000. As a result, Democrats hold a 10 point advantage among Florida’s registered Hispanics, up from 5 points in 2008. With polls showing Obama performing nearly as well among Hispanics nationally as he did in ’08, Obama’s lead among Florida’s Hispanics could grow further, presuming that he held up well among Florida’s Cuban population. 

But Florida polls show a tighter race than expected among Florida’s Hispanic voters. Rasmussen, Susquehanna, and Mason Dixon show Romney ahead by 3 or 4 points, while NBC/WSJ/Marist, PPP, and Fox News all show Obama with less than a 5 point advantage. And finally, a well-publicized FIU/Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald Poll showed Obama ahead by just 6 points in a poll of Florida Hispanics. But two polls show Obama maintaining support near ’08 levels among Florida’s Hispanics. CNN shows Obama up 74-24 among non-white voters, the same as his 74-25 advantage from 2008. SurveyUSA shows Obama leading among Hispanics by 17 points. It’s probably not a coincidence that the latter two surveys show Obama leading and Romney up by just one.

For Obama to fall off so far among Florida Hispanics, non-Cuban Hispanics would need to stay home and Romney would need a strong showing among Cuban voters. Both halves seem possible, but the voter registration numbers suggest that demographic changes are sufficient to swamp declining turnout rates. So generating a ten point swing among Florida’s Hispanic population through a decline in support among Florida’s Cuban voters would probably require a 20 point swing among Cubans, given that Cubans will probably represent something slightly less than half of Florida’s Hispanic voters, and perhaps much less than half (they’re about 30 percent of registered Florida Hispanics, but they turn out at higher rates).

The issue might be that polls don’t weight Hispanic voters by ancestry, so if 60 percent of respondents are Cuban, polls won’t take measures to ensure that a larger share are Mexican-American or Puerto Rican. This introduces another layer of error into the already difficult task of polling Hispanic voters, and it might be influencing the numbers. Two data points are consistent with this possibility. A Latino Decisions survey found Obama ahead by 30 points in early October, and their surveys are weighted for ancestry. Similarly, SurveyUSA, the only statewide, full-population survey to find Obama leading by a double digit margin among Hispanics, disaggregated and presumably weighted by both Cuban and non-Cuban Hispanics and found Obama ahead by 40 points among non-Cuban Hispanics but trailing by 8 among Cubans, with Cubans representing 48 percent of Hispanics. Those numbers sound about right and that might have something to do with why SurveyUSA is the only recent poll showing Obama ahead in the Sunshine State.

Of course, it might also be the case that Romney is performing well among Cubans and Hispanic turnout is low enough to allow Romney to narrow or reverse the gap among Florida’s Hispanic population. But this is potentially a perilous basis for a slight lead in Florida. The ball is in Obama’s court and the Romney campaign can't prevent Obama’s GOTV effort from paying dividends in the race’s waning hours. The Romney campaign can just do their best to turnout their own supporters and hope that Obama’s unenthusiastic Hispanic supporters stay home.