MIAMI — Hispanic voters registered as Democrats have overtaken Hispanic Republicans in Florida, signaling a trend that, if it continues, could have far-reaching implications for the 2008 election and U.S. foreign policy.
Until now, the politically influential, mostly Republican Cuban-American community in Miami-Dade made Florida the only state in the country where, among Hispanics, Republicans outnumbered Democrats.
April voter registration statistics show 418,339 Hispanic Democrats statewide, compared to 415,068 Hispanic Republicans and 345,108 registered with neither party, according to a Florida Democratic Party analysis of state data.
The growth among Hispanic Democrats is striking. Since January 2006, when the state began identifying voters as Hispanic, Democratic registration has increased 18 percent. Hispanic Republicans grew by only 2 percent, while Hispanic voters choosing neither party are up 14 percent.
The trend reflects a fierce competition between the two major parties for the Hispanic vote, which could represent as much as 15 percent of the electorate in 2008. Florida Democrats are touting their expanding influence in the Hispanic community, while GOP officials say their registration and get-out-the-vote drives will be more aggressive than ever this year.
"There are a few states where the Latino vote is going to be critical — definitely Florida, as well as Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada — and those are going to be battleground states in the national scope," said Lindsay Daniels, a strategist at the National Council of La Raza, a nonpartisan Hispanic advocacy group.
Both demographic and political shifts are fueling the increase in Hispanic Democrats in Florida.
Demographically, the voter registration statistics are the latest sign that immigration from Latin America and younger generations of Cuban-Americans are diluting the influence of the older Cuban-American community. Those dedicated voters heavily favored Republican candidates and a hard-line policy toward Cuba.
Politically, an unpopular Republican administration saddled with the war and the rising costs of living has hurt the GOP's image in recent years. A poll by the Pew Hispanic Forum released in December also found that the incendiary debate over illegal immigration was turning some Hispanic voters away from the Republican Party.
Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, who pushed a crackdown on illegal immigration, lost out to rival John McCain, who favors a more moderate approach.
Millie Herrera, president of the Hispanic Democratic Caucus of Florida, said she has felt the backlash at recent naturalization ceremonies in Miami Beach.
"It used to be discouraging because I saw a lot of people registering Republican, but there was nothing you could tell them because you can't talk about anything partisan when you're registering voters," Herrera said. "In the last year and half, it's been completely reversed. … A lot of them tell us they're disgusted with the direction the country is taking."
In Miami-Dade, 46 percent of the Hispanic voters are registered Republican, down from 59 percent roughly a decade ago. About 27 percent are Democrats.
In Broward County, the state's Democratic stronghold, 42 percent of the Hispanic voters are Democrats, while 27 percent are Republicans.