Democrats and Republicans who disagree on just about everything are in sync on one subject: If they want to win Florida's governorship next year or the presidential election in 2016, they can't afford to ignore or alienate Hispanic voters.
"It's a no brainer for both parties to try to be attractive to Latinos and Hispanics because they've shown in the last election that they have strong influence — and it's just going to get bigger and bigger," said Felipe Korzenny, director of the Florida State University's Center for Hispanic Marketing Communication and author of the 2011 book "Hispanic Marketing: Connecting with the New Latino Consumer."
In a huge state with an array of diverse demographic groups, Hispanics are the pivotal voting bloc, said Fernand Amandi, managing partner of Bendixen & Amandi International, a South Florida-based consulting firm that has worked for Democrats, including producing Spanish-language campaign ads for President Barack Obama.
"If you look at the statewide results for governor or president dating back to 2002 the numbers are clear: Hispanics and how Hispanics in Florida vote are instrumental in deciding who wins," Amandi said.
A new Census Bureau analysis released last week showed growing voter participation among Florida Hispanics and found far greater voting by Hispanic citizens in Florida than the rest of the country. Past results and predictions for the future have both sides lavishing attention on Hispanic voters, with the efforts concentrated in South Florida and the Orlando area.
"Is it up for grabs?" asked Isidro Raul Mejia, president of the Palm Beach County Democratic Hispanic Caucus. "Of course it is."
Charlie Toraño, of Boca Raton, agreed — and as a self-described conservative Republican is frustrated that the overwhelming support Republicans used to enjoy from the region's largest bloc of Hispanics, Cuban-Americans, is eroding.
"Cubans have traditionally voted more Republican than Democrat Now we're seeing those numbers get closer to 50-50," Toraño said.
"The future in terms of either party is with the Hispanic vote," said Alfred Delgado, president of the Broward Democratic Hispanic Caucus. "Whoever is not out there and making the connection and winning the hearts and minds is going to lose the Hispanic vote."
Showing just how critical Hispanic voters are to winning elections in Florida, the state Democratic Party opened a field office last week in Little Havana, the symbolic heart of the Cuban-American community. It will serve as the base for a party staffer whose assignment is Hispanic outreach in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
The Democrats' move comes six months after an election that saw a surge of Hispanic support for President Barack Obama. Election Day exit polling shows Obama won 60 percent of the vote from Florida Hispanics, securing the state's 29 electoral votes.
Republicans don't intend to cede any ground to Democrats. U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican who represents part of south Broward, said last year's results don't foreshadow what will happen in the next big elections.
Diaz-Balart, who is chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Conference, acknowledged the Republican Party has work to do. "The brand is hurt, very hurt," he said. Every time a Republican does or says something that could alienate Hispanic voters, Diaz-Balart said Democrats have successfully capitalized on it.
That's starting to change, he said. Earlier this spring, when a senior Republican, U.S. Rep. Don Young of Alaska, used the term "wetbacks" to describe farmworkers who picked tomatoes years ago on his father's California farm, he was quickly condemned by party leaders — something Diaz-Balart said didn't happen too often in the past.
Diaz-Balart said it's critical to overhaul the nation's broken immigration system and figure out policies toward the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally — and Republicans can't be seen as obstructionists. He's one of the so-called Gang of Eight group of Democratic and Republican congressmen working on a House of Representatives version of immigration legislation.
Florida's two biggest Hispanic groups aren't directly affected because Cubans are granted special status and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. But Diaz-Balart said immigration is "a very unifying issue regardless of those that are affected by it or not."
If Republicans mishandle the issue, the party's candidates will pay a political price, said Justin Sayfie, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer-lobbyist who publishes the Sayfie Review political news website and worked for former Gov. Jeb Bush, who was popular with Hispanic voters.
"The immigration issue is kind of used as a gateway issue. If you're not in tune on that one, then they won't listen to what you're saying on the other ones," Sayfie said.
Politicians often find it easier to use symbols instead of substance.
For Republicans, it's traditionally a visit to the Versailles Restaurant, a Little Havana institution, to down a tacita, a shot of Cuban coffee.
And the Democrats clearly had their target demographic in mind at this week's office opening. Next to the box of Dunkin' Donuts, the refreshments included croquetas, the breaded and deep-fried ham snacks, bocaditos, little sandwiches with ham spread, and pastelitos de guallaua, pastries stuffed with guava filling.
But strategists on both sides said Hispanic voters increasingly demand more than cosmetics.
"Versailles is important. It's a good thing to do," Diaz-Balart said. "But it's important to understand the diversity of the community and the individuals of the community."
Just ask Herman Cain, who showed his ignorance of the Spanish-speaking Cuban-American community during his unsuccessful campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Seeking to show he liked the croqueta served at Versailles, he asked, "How do you say 'delicious' in Cuban?"
Korzenny said it does no good to "say a few words in bad Spanish and pretend to be interested in the community. You don't have to speak Spanish to be credible. You don't have to pretend to speak Spanish to be credible. You have to show empathy and understanding."
See a gallery of pictures from the Democrats' Hispanic outreach and find out which prominent politician arrives late, offers a quick "buenas dias" and departs hastily at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
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