Orlando Sentinel
November 3, 2004

GOP gets Florida Hispanic vote

Still, John Kerry got a higher percentage of the Latino vote than Al Gore did in 2000.

By Víctor Manuel Ramos, Cristina Elías and Walter Pacheco
Sentinel Staff Writers

Hispanics in Florida again bucked national trends and supported the Republican presidential candidate, but apparently not as dramatically as in 2000.

Exit polls showed loyalty to the GOP had eroded some among Hispanics, with President Bush garnering more votes than his Democratic opponent, but John Kerry capturing a higher percentage than Al Gore did four years ago.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez, a Cuban refugee and Republican, was doing better than Bush, pulling an estimated 59 percent of the vote, compared with the president's 54 percent, according to Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.

"Florida usually favors Republicans, and we have seen signs of a shift," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a San Antonio research group that also did exit polling here.

"It's an interesting voting trend, because it would be a sea change in Latino voter behavior in Florida."

Now the largest minority group in the country as well as in Florida, Hispanics were the target of multiple registration drives and campaigns.

Still, they remained a wild card. Even if categorized as one ethnicity, most experts agree that Hispanics are by no means a solid voting bloc. Although nationally they tend to support Democrats, in Florida they have leaned Republican -- mostly because of the Cuban vote.

However, the state's Puerto Rican constituency, with its coveted swing votes, has grown significantly. Add to that other Hispanic immigrants.

"One thing Latinos have shown across the country is we will defy predictions and easy classification," said Marcelo Gaete, an officer with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Los Angeles.

Several pre-election surveys and studies had predicted a significant rise in Latino voters. More than 180,000 are registered in Central Florida.

The effort to get Hispanics out apparently paid off in the Buenaventura Lakes neighborhood of Osceola and others like it. Voters turned out in droves to the community's library in a precinct where 56 percent of the voters are Latinos.

Some joked, as they waited in a line that snaked around the building, that the vote reminded them of Puerto Rico, where elections sometimes become festive occasions.

"The only thing missing is a guiro and a conga," said María Corsino, a 75-year-old native of Luquillo, Puerto Rico, who was surprised to see the crowd after 26 years living in Orlando.

Soraya Castillo, a volunteer with the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration at an Engelwood polling site, said the showing there had been impressive. "They are coming in threes and fours, practically the whole family is voting," she said.

Many were thought to be first-time voters, reflecting the swelling population and get-out-the-vote efforts.

"It's as if we had been preparing for a test and this is the moment to shine," said Marytza Sanz, director of Latino Leadership, one of many groups that held voter drives.

Víctor Manuel Ramos can be reached at vramos@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6186. Cristina Elías can be reached at celias@orlandosentinel.com or 407-931-5942. Walter Pacheco can be reached at wpacheco@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6262.