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Younger Cuban-American voters shift away from the GOP and toward an independent outlook

MIAMI — Anton Fajardo voted for John McCain in 2008 but is now for Barack Obama.

Alex Toledo backed Obama yet likes Ron Paul.

Juan Morales also voted for Obama, and thinks he will again, but is keeping an open mind.

Three perspectives on the 2012 election with a common tie: Fajardo, Toledo and Morales are in their early 30s and of Cuban descent. Together they represent an ideological shift that is altering Florida's political landscape and may help decide the presidency.

A couple of generations removed from the exile experience of the 1960s, which created lockstep allegiance to the strongly anti-Communist GOP, younger Cubans are brandishing a more independent outlook.

"Any Cuban I know who is over 45 years will vote Republican no matter what," Fajardo, 32, said over the lunchtime commotion of Miami Beach's Lincoln Road. "I think my peers will vote as I do, whoever they think is the best candidate."

The race between Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, is expected to be a repeat of Florida's 2008 election, in which Obama's victory with less than 3 percent of the vote proved that no advantage or weakness among 1.2 million Cuban-American residents can be overlooked.

Obama captured 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote four years ago, more than any Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1996 and 65 percent of support from voters ages 18 to 29. McCain took 66 percent of the vote from Cubans ages 50 to 64 and 79 percent from those 65 to 74.

"My dad's a diehard Republican. He always brings it up saying, 'You voted for Obama and the situation we're in is all your fault,' " said Toledo, 32, who manages the interactive department at an marketing firm in Miami Beach.

That Toledo is leaning toward long-shot Paul — Obama, he said, did not deliver the change he promised — is a sign the president has work to do among a group that harbors some of the same disillusionment as other young voters.

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It used to be enough for Republican politicians to sweep in to Miami, sip Cuban coffee at Versailles restaurant and hammer on Fidel Castro to seal the Cuban vote that makes up about 70 percent of the Republican electorate in Miami-Dade.

But the younger generation is less motivated by those politics, having assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture.

"I grew up thinking I was Republican and it wasn't until I started asking questions and not getting answers besides, 'Oh because Kennedy betrayed us,' that I started to change," said Aimee Valera, referring to the botched Bay of Pigs invasion a half-century ago. Valera, who was born in Cuba, sought citizenship so she could vote for Obama and is volunteering for his campaign. She's trying to convert her sister, who favors Republicans but "is leaning toward the Democratic side" because of women's issues, Valera said.

The change is also driven by the introduction of Mariel boatlift immigrants into the voting class. Fleeing Cuba en masse in 1980, the refugees were driven more by economic than political reasons. Along with more recent arrivals, they tend to be less against the trade embargo and more in favor of increased travel with Cuba.

Political strategists in Miami caution against drawing too strong a connection to U.S. policy and fading allegiances, but for various reasons, overall GOP support among Cuban-Americans has dropped by nearly 20 percent in since 2000.

Republicans, who face much broader concerns over attracting non-Cuban Hispanics, expect the economy will reverse the trend and pledge an aggressive outreach program in South Florida. Obama's also not the cool new guy, either.

"Obama was a very unique candidate but this is a whole new ball game," said Bettina Inclan, director of Hispanic outreach for the Republican National Committee. "I think there's no more emotional issue when you can't figure out how to pay your bills and achieve the American Dream."

Others are unsure.

"If we would have had this conversation a year ago, I would have said the economy is going to force Cubans back," said Dario Moreno, a pollster and political science professor at Florida International University. But he said the GOP presidential debates renewed anti-immigration rhetoric.

While Cubans enjoy protected status under U.S. law, Moreno said, they are no less sensitive to the debate: "At some point Republicans sound not anti-immigration but anti-Hispanic."

When they register to vote, Hispanics are turning to the Democratic Party or to no-party-affiliation, a sign the GOP's hard-line stance is turning them off.

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J.C. Planas, a former Republican state lawmaker who is Cuban-American, thinks the economy will help turn back Obama's advantage. But he said his party has a branding problem, allowing itself to become symbolic of rigid social views on gay rights and abortion, for example, and should focus on economic and education issues.

"With Republicans, it's all about fear," said Aliette Carolan, 34, a lawyer in Miami, who is the daughter of Cuban exiles and voted for Obama. She said despite comparisons of the president's health care plan to socialism, it's popular among her peers. (Polling conducted by FIU bears this out.)

"It's not socialism," Carolan said. "It's about having a social conscience. It's about time the government stepped up and did something about health care in this country."

Carolan said she thinks younger Cubans will stick with Obama "not because they're so pleased with him but because Republicans have not presented anybody who is in any way better."

Older Cubans are still highly reliable Republicans, and they consistently turn out to vote.

Voter registration among Cubans who arrived during and after the 1980 Mariel boatlift is lower, said Vanessa Lopez, research associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American studies at the University of Miami. "The trick will be," she said, "as with all young people, is to get them out to vote."

Romney has in his camp some of the most prominent Cuban-American elected officials in South Florida, chiefly U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who turns 41 this month. While the shift may not be dramatic — Cuban-American members of Congress from South Florida have withstood Democratic challenges in recent elections — it is perceptible and expected to widen over the next decade as '60s exiles die off, forcing Republicans to expand their platform. "I think that's a good thing for our republic that the parties can't take any voters for granted and are going to have to earn people's support," Rubio said.

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@tampabay.com.

Younger Cuban-American voters shift away from the GOP and toward an independent outlook 05/13/12 [Last modified: Monday, May 14, 2012 9:18am]

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