Charlie Crist is playing with electoral fire with his strongly articulated views on Cuba. Recent polling indicates that this position of Crist’s is problematic in a key demographic group which the former Governor and presumptive Democratic nominee must be more competitive with in order to regain the Governorship. It is also worth noting that Governor Crist’s Democratic Primary opponent Senator Nan Rich has taken a similar position and would likely face the same problems were she to be nominated.
While statewide public polling may indicate support for lifting the embargo and travel restrictions regarding Cuba, the intensity of opinion is on the side which wants to maintain the status quo. The reality that Crist now must grapple with is while a majority of Floridians may want to lift the embargo, many of those who do not want to lift it vote largely based on this issue. In other words, the intensity of those advocating keeping the embargo in place is higher than those advocating Crist’s view. Complicating matters further, a large number of those who vote for candidates based on this issue were potential Crist voters who supported President Obama in 2012. More on this shortly.
Charlie Crist is a pragmatic politician who generally has never held strong convictions on most issues so the decision to engage so aggressively on this is baffling. A political candidate like Crist whose primary motivation is getting elected forcefully articulating a policy position that puts his election in jeopardy is a serious concern. The advisers and consultants who pushed Crist to take a strong Cuba stand and articulate traveling to Cuba clearly did not do their homework with regards to Miami-Dade County.
While many progressive Democrats may believe lifting the embargo is the compassionate thing to do and that attitudes are changing based on anecdotal evidence, from a political standpoint it is murky territory for any statewide candidate in Florida. Historically, no candidate that has advocated lifting the embargo or who has talked so openly about traveling to Cuba has won statwide post-1970. Crist (or Rich) would be the first.
Attitudes on the embargo and travel restrictions have changed slightly in the Cuban-American community in Miami-Dade County. But a clear majority of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade still support the embargo and current travel restrictions per the Herald poll. The monolithic opposition to lifting the embargo that we saw in the mid 1990s when President Clinton in an attempt to win over this electorate strengthened restrictions has broken for sure, but a clear majority still favors the status quo.
President Obama won 47% of the Cuban-American vote in 2012 up from 35% in 2008. This shift occurred while Obama’s numbers were consistently slipping among every other demographic group in the state of Florida. The increased vote share the President took out of Miami-Dade County in 2008 accounted for 65% of his margin of victory statewide. According to recent polling, Crist’s numbers in this community sit in the low 30s, a number that very well could provide Governor Scott with his margin of victory.
While the Cuban-American electorate is changing a two important factors account for why Republicans continue to be so successful among this group:
1- Older Cuban-American voters still have a disproportionate weight in the electorate. This generation continues to see the embargo one of a handful of issues that can determine what candidate to support. The vast majority in this demographic favor the status quo with regards to the embargo and travel restrictions.
2- Many newer Cuban-American immigrants (post 1990 let’s say) grew up in a culture without Democracy in Cuba. Thus while cultural attitudes may be more liberal on a number of issues, voter registration and engagement rates are not as high as the 1960’s or Mariel generation of immigrants.
It is worth noting that President Obama NEVER took a strong position on this matter while running. Certainly he’s made some tweaks to policy which are relatively minor compared to what Crist is advocating, but even in doing that, the President downplayed or never mentioned his views publicly. As a politician of the left, President Obama may have been perceived to be soft on the Cuban embargo but he never articulated a position similar to Crist’s, which allowed him to aggressively court voters in this community in 2012 that did not support him in 2008.
Governor Crist and the Democrats have also made the unwise decision to concede the Spanish language airwaves to Governor Scott and the Republicans at this early stage of the campaign. Governor Scott’s ads have been running on Spanish language TV since mid April. This is an exact reversal of 2012 when President Obama beat Governor Romney to Spanish language media by several months. No doubt this has also impacted Crist’s polling numbers but is likely a lesser factor when compared to the Cuban embargo.
Tomorrow we will discuss what Governor Crist can do to turn this situation around. How a talented politicians like Governor Crist can escape the box he has unwisely put himself in on this issue. Additionally we will look at how this problematic view of Crist’s may impact other Democrats running in Miami-Dade County if it is not dealt with wisely.