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How Romney won Florida's Latino vote

By Juan Carlos Lopez, CNN en Español Anchor
February 1, 2012 -- Updated 2200 GMT (0600 HKT)
  • Romney won 54% of the Latino vote in Tuesday's Florida GOP primary
  • He overcame resistance to his stance on immigration, won the majority of Cuban vote
  • November battle with Obama will be about who can win state's independent, undeclared Latinos

Miami (CNN) -- As Mitt Romney dominated the Florida Republican primary Tuesday night, he also captured the bulk of the votes from Latinos in the state, with 54% of their ballots. But how did he pull that off?

His victory could be seen as somewhat surprising for a candidate with a tough stance on immigration, who promised that if he were president, he'd veto the Dream Act that would legalize young undocumented adults who came to the United States as children if they attend college, join the armed forces or meet other requirements.

But Romney's methodology for winning their votes reveals a more focused, calculated approach to securing the fastest-growing voter demographic in the state and the country, and could prove to be a hurdle for President Obama in the general election.

Major issues for Latino voters
Romney: GOP is 'pro citizenship'

So, how did Romney persuade Florida Latinos to vote for him? Take a look at his ad strategy. Newt Gingrich, his main opponent in Florida, who received just 29% of the Latino vote, had taken a position on immigration seen as less stringent than Romney's. He proposed that older immigrants who have been in the U.S. for a long time should be able to stay. But it wasn't enough to secure their votes.

Meanwhile, Gingrich faced a tsunami of negative radio and TV ads in Hispanic media outlets, including one where Romney himself attacked the former House speaker for suggesting that Spanish was the "language of the ghetto." And that, coupled with the millions of dollars spent by a pro-Romney super PAC, probably sealed his fate.

But Florida isn't necessarily a reflection of the rest of Hispanic America. The state has 1,473,920 registered voters who identify themselves as Hispanic, about 13% of the state's voters. Of those, 564,513 are registered as Democrats, 452,619 as Republicans, and 431,131 report no party affiliation.

Of the state's Hispanic Republicans -- the only ones who could vote in Tuesday's primary -- about half live in Miami-Dade County, and they account for 72% of all Republicans in that county. Romney was particularly strong in South Florida, had a solid ground organization and won the majority of the Cuban vote there.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, and her Republican colleague Rep. Mario Diaz Balart both supported Romney but are also supporters of immigration reform. They said they differed with Romney on immigration but thought his tough message on Cuba was consistent with what is expected for Republican candidates who visit and court South Florida Republicans.

How will these results affect Obama and his goal to repeat his 2008 victory in Florida? They probably won't make much of a difference. Obama, who won the state in 2008 over Sen. John McCain, 51% to 48%, is not likely to get many of the Republican votes this time around.

But it's the independents there who voted for him in 2008 -- and the 400,000 in Florida who list no party affiliation -- who are at real risk of being lured to the Republican side in 2012. They will be the prize in the November election, and where Obama -- who starts with a 60% lead among all Latinos in state polls -- may end up battling Romney over the growing Latino vote.

What about the rest of the Latinos in Florida? Obama's Democratic base outnumbers the Republicans by more than 100,000 registered voters -- many of them Puerto Ricans based in the Interstate 4 corridor in the Orlando area. President Obama visited the island in June of 2011 and was the first president to do so since Kennedy in 1962. Obama's trip was an official visit, but with significant political undertones.

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