Oct. 15, 2012 -- If two new polls are to be believed, Republican Mitt Romney is making up some serious ground among Hispanic voters in Florida.
President Barack Obama still retains a big lead among Latino voters nationally, and a new Florida International University/Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald (FIU) poll of likely Florida Latino voters shows Obama leading Romney 51-44 percent. But the margin is smaller than the one Obama had in 2008.
Also, a Mason-Dixon poll conducted for Tampa Bay Times/9 News/Miami Herald late last week showed Romney actually leading among Latinos 46-44 percent.
Those numbers would portend trouble for the Obama campaign. In 2008, he edged Republican Sen. John McCain by three percentage points to claim this key battleground state.
It is possible Obama wouldn't have won the state without his 57-42 percent margin among Florida Hispanic voters, a better-than-expected performance among an electorate that trends more conservative than Latinos do in other states.
He was able to accomplish that by making inroads among Cuban-American voters who have traditionally favored the Republican Party. Obama won around 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in 2008, a virtually unprecedented performance that was made possible by younger Cuban voters who drifted away from the GOP.
Cubans make up around a third of eligible voters in Florida, but sometimes make up close to half of the Latino electorate in Florida, according to the Herald. Democrat-leaning Puerto Rican voters also make up close to a third, and all Puerto Rican voters favor Obama 61-36 percent, according to the FIU poll.
But the FIU survey shows that Romney has begun to reclaim the GOP's advantage among Cubans. If Cuban voters are taken out of the sample, Obama would take 64 percent of Florida Hispanic voters compared to 33 percent for Romney, the Herald reported. Overall the poll shows that enthusiasm for Romney is up among Cubans -- and Latino voters generally -- following his debate performance last week. And enthusiasm for Obama appears to have waned.
If that trend holds up, that could make it very difficult to win Florida, which carries 29 electoral votes. Obama and Romney are basically running neck and neck in the state and the state's diverse Latino electorate, which comprises almost 14 percent of all votes in the state, could sway the result.
Nearly half of all Latino voters in Florida said Obama has not "fulfilled his promises" to the Hispanic community, according to the FIU poll. And 54 percent said they are not better off than they were four years ago.
Obama does retain narrow edges on fundamental issues. Fifty-one percent say he is the better candidate at fixing the economy, while 48 percent believe Romney would be better.
And Florida Latino voters prefer Obama to Romney 55-44 percent among Latino voters in Florida when it comes to addressing the sensitive topic of immigration.
Both surveys contain methodological issues that pose questions about their accuracy. The FIU poll is a so-called "robo poll" that uses automated calls to survey voters. Polls using that method cannot include people who exclusively use cell phones, who tend to be younger and have more liberal political views.
While the "robo calls" were conducted in both English and Spanish, pollsters generally believe that voters who speak Spanish only or dominantly are more accurately surveyed with live, in-person calls.
Critics of the poll also pointed out that Cuban voters may have been overrepresented in the sample. FIU's survey was comrpised of 47 percent Cuban-American voters, whereas other pollsters estimate the group will make up about a third of the electorate in November. Other Florida Latino groups lean more toward Democrats.
"Today, the Florida Latino electorate is far more diverse than it was 12 years ago when the Elián González scandal swung the election to [George W.] Bush," said Matt Barreto of the political opinion research firm Latino Decisions. "Today, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Colombians and many Central Americans are increasing in electoral influence in Florida and we absolutely have to update our models and understanding of the Florida Latino electorate."
And the Mason-Dixon poll contained a very small sample of Latino voters, meaning that it's unclear whether the small sample serves as an accurate reflection of the overall electorate.
Still, observers of Florida politics believe that the race for Latino voters is tightening in Florida.
The Romney campaign has begun to flood Florida with Spanish-language ads. The Obama campaign was outspending Romney's in Spanish 2-1 as of mid-September, according to data from Kantar Media. But Romney's campaign nearly matched Obama's in the Miami market, the base of the Cuban community, spending $1.6 million there on TV ads (compared to Obama's $1.9 million).
Republicans have also used a network of Hispanic surrogates to hold outreach events around the state, including big names such as Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio.
And as the numbers reflect, questions remain about Romney, but enthusiasm for President Obama has sputtered in the aftermath of the first presidential debate. The big question for Obama is whether he can rekindle that enthusiasm in the final 22 days of the campaign.