How the Unique Makeup of Florida Latinos Could Make a Difference in 2012 Elections

Whether in the Republican primary - set to take place there at the end of this month - or in the general election, perhaps no state carries the political weight of Florida. It's a unique, multicultural hotbed that could ultimately decide not only the GOP nominee but also the next president, making the state's Latino vote a coveted commodity.

But politicos courting the Sunshine State be warned: Latino voters in Florida are unlike those in the rest of the country.

"The Cuban and Puerto Rican communities dominate Florida's Hispanic vote. Unlike in swing states in the Southwest, Mexican-Americans do not comprise a significant portion of the Hispanic voting population in Florida. This requires national candidates to take a more nuanced approach to courting Hispanic voters in Florida," said Carlos Curbelo, a Republican strategist in Florida.

"In addition to the concerns most voters share, Cuban-Americans and other Hispanic communities anchored in South Florida, like Colombians and Nicaraguans, take a particularly hard look at candidates' foreign policy positions and credentials," added Curbelo. "Puerto Ricans in our state have stronger ties to the island than those in other parts of the country, and many of them are small business owners."

For an indication of just how unique Florida Latinos are, look no further than the fact that they tend to vote Republican, while Hispanics throughout the rest of the country lean strongly toward Democrats. A new poll this week from Quinnipiac University revealed that Hispanic voters in Florida are almost evenly split in a hypothetical general election matchup between President Obama and GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney. The state overall currently favors Romney over Obama, with the former Massachusetts governor getting 46 percent of the vote and the incumbent president only 43 percent if the election were held today.

However, nationwide Latinos widely favor Obama. A poll conducted by Latino Decisions for Univision in November found that among registered Hispanic voters in the 21 most Hispanic-heavy states - including Florida, of course, with its 22.5 percent Latino population - Obama held a whopping 67 percent to 24 percent lead over Romney. But in Florida, Obama's advantage was far slimmer than his leads in other states with large Hispanic populations such as Colorado and New Mexico.

In 2008, Obama won 57 percent of Florida's Hispanic vote; Republican nominee John McCain,  42 percent. However, Cubans supported McCain 53 percent to 47 percent. Non-Cuban Hispanics backed Obama by 65 percent to 33 percent.

Approximately 540,000 of the state's 1.5 million Latino voters are of Cuban origin, mostly based near Miami. Part of the reason they tend to split with other Latinos is over immigration. Cuban immigrants are granted sanctuary in the U.S. if they reach the country, making them immune to Republican policies that have little tolerance for undocumented immigrants. An illegal immigrant from Mexico, for instance, would be thrown out of the country if Romney's immigration policies were implemented.

Romney last month vowed that if elected he would veto the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some undocumented children of immigrants who attend college or serve in the military. That stance, understandably, alienated some Republican Latinos in early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. Juan Rodriguez, a businessman in Des Moines, said he would not support Romney given the candidate's comments on immigration. Esteban Lopez, a Goffstown, N.H., resident who will vote for the first time in the general election later this year, said he too would not back Romney.

"I work in education and I know first-hand how important the DREAM Act is for Latino youth, for kids who are in this country without having taken part in the decision to come here," Lopez said in an interview in Spanish. "The short answer is, I wouldn't vote for Romney."

While some Latinos nationwide are frustrated with Obama's inaction on comprehensive immigration reform efforts, it is clear that Romney would face an uphill battle. So the Republican hopeful on Wednesday hit the airwaves in Florida with a Spanish-language ad entitled "Nosotros," meaning "us."

The ad featured a slew of key Florida Republicans who back Romney, such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

The newest Florida Republican hotshot is Sen. Marco Rubio, widely expected to be one of the top candidates for the number-two slot on the eventual Republican ticket. Rubio, a Cuban-American elected to the Senate in 2010, opposes giving amnesty to undocumented workers, but enjoys widespread backing among the Cuban community in South Florida.

The possible support of Rubio has the potential to be a massive boost for Romney, whether an endorsement comes before the Sunshine State primary or not. Cubans favored McCain over Romney by 52 percent to 13 percent in the GOP primary in 2008. Romney, who has already won Iowa and New Hampshire and is leading South Carolina polls, could potentially all but lock up his party's nomination with a victory in the Florida primaries on Jan. 31.

Not to be forgotten among Florida Latinos is the second-most prominent faction: Puerto Ricans, numbering around 480,000. Like Cubans, Puerto Ricans do not have the same immigration concerns that the other Latinos have. And they are becoming more and more crucial - the Puerto Rican population has nearly doubled in the past decade. In recent elections, they have wavered from side to side: They supported Rubio as well as the state's former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, but backed Obama in 2008.

Expect to hear lots more about Florida Hispanics in the coming months - as well as Hispanics nationwide - as both parties battle for votes. Latinos are the country's fastest-growing voting bloc, with an estimated 12.2 million set to vote in this year's general election according to projections from the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials (NALEO). The Republican party picked Florida to host their 2012 convention and the state will also host the final presidential debate, set for Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton.

In an interview Tuesday in New Hampshire, Carlos Gonzalez, the state's first elected Latino official, said that his Republican party "has to pay attention to Hispanics" going forward, noting that the issue of immigration has already figured prominently in the GOP primary.

"Once our candidate Mitt Romney started to talk about his Mexican heritage, his family, that's an indication that there's no turning around. The issue of immigration, along with the economy, will be one of the main issues in the upcoming election," Gonzalez said.

And in that election, perhaps no state will be as important as Florida: In nine of the last 10 elections, the Sunshine State has voted for the eventual victor.

Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News & Univision.