Miami-Dade County

Herald poll: Cuba, Cuban voters weigh Crist down in Miami-Dade

Charlie Crist has a Cuba problem and a Cuban voter problem, a new Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald poll of Miami-Dade’s electorate shows.

Crist’s headline-grabbing announcement last month that he wants to travel to Cuba has hurt his standing more than it helped in Florida’s most-populous county, with only 5 percent of voters saying they’d be more likely to support him over the issue, while 24 percent say the opposite, according to the survey conducted by Bendixen & Amandi International.

A supermajority, 67 percent, say Crist’s Cuba position makes no difference in their vote between him and Gov. Rick Scott — and that’s despite the poll numbers showing voters by 51-40 percent say they favor Cuba travel for all residents of the United States.

Voters are now also evenly split on whether to continue the five decade-old embargo, an increasingly common position growing in a county that was once a bulwark of hardline sentiment.

Crist is the first major candidate for governor who has called for ending the Cuba travel ban and lifting the embargo, saying it hasn’t worked.

Overall, Crist leads Scott 47-35 percent. But that’s tepid support for Crist in the Democratic bastion.

“Charlie Crist is not where he needs to be if he wants a strong base vote coming out of Miami-Dade County and South Florida by extension,” said Fernand Amandi, who conducted the 400-voter poll for The Herald and El Nuevo Herald last week.

Crist’s 12 percentage-point advantage over Scott is about half the size of President Obama’s in 2012 and it’s about 2 points shy of Democrat Alex Sink’s margin in 2010 when she lost to Scott. Southeast Florida is crucial for Democrats, who need a big turnout to counteract Republican votes in Southwest and North Florida.

Weighing on Crist and boosting Scott: Miami-Dade Hispanic voters. Fifty percent back Scott; 31 percent support Crist. Cuban American voters, who accounted for more than half of Hispanics polled and dominate the county’s political power structure, back Scott over Crist 58-30 percent. Hispanics overall account for 55 percent of the county’s 1.3 million registered voters.

A Bendixen & Amandi exit poll in 2012 indicated Obama pulled 44 percent of Miami-Dade’s Cuban vote. Like Obama, Crist pulls outsized support form non-Hispanic whites and African-Americans.

The Herald poll has an overall error margin of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points. When it comes to the 300 Cuban voters who were oversampled, the poll’s error margin is 5.6 percentage points.

Scott is aggressively reaching out to Hispanics, releasing two Spanish-language TV ads and a Spanish-language radio ad in Miami-Dade and other markets. And his new running mate, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, was Miami-Dade’s property appraiser.

As the incumbent, Scott has a greater fundraising edge and has spent $1 million on TV ads since mid-March in Miami-Dade — part of a mammoth $12 million early media buy that has helped drag Crist’s poll numbers down statewide and given the unpopular incumbent a better shot at reelection.

Still, about 30 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Scott’s job performance. Overall, 40 percent approve the way Scott handles his job and 50 percent disapprove.

Asked about how Crist handled his job as governor from 2007-2011, 40 percent approved and 47 percent disapproved.

Crist hasn’t been able to afford major ad buys but plans to unveil some soon.

Miami-Dade has always been tough on Crist. In five prior statewide runs — three of which he won — he carried the county only once, in 2002, while running for attorney general, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush won reelection in a landslide and carried his home county.

A lifelong Republican, Crist left the GOP in 2010 and became an independent in an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate against Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek — both Miami sons.

Crist became a Democrat last year after helping President Obama win reelection in must-win Florida. In switching parties, Crist has also shifted many of his positions, including his once-staunch support for the embargo and opposition to Cuba travel.

But now, Crist said, he and many others realize travel restrictions and the embargo — supported by 45 and 46 percent of Miami-Dade voters respectively — don’t work.

Crist said current U.S. policy hasn’t hurt Castro, but harms the Cuban people and the economy of Florida, a “natural launching pad” for trade and business with the island 90 miles south of Key West. Last week, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released excerpts of her new book, Hard Choices, in which she, too, said U.S.-Cuba policy hasn’t worked and that she tried, but failed, to get Obama to try to lift the embargo.

Crist said he wants to travel to Cuba this summer and has contacted the U.S. State Department about the matter, but hasn’t heard back.

“I think it’s a more-enlightened thing to do to help Florida, help the people of Cuba and not necessarily embrace the Castros, that’s obviously not the motivation here, be anybody’s ‘puppet’ in the words of the current governor,” Crist said. “They miss the point. The point, as I like to say, is do the right thing.”

All the party switching and policy switching has left voters like Yelba Obando, who responded to the poll, a little confused.

“Is Crist the Democrat? Yes,” Obando told a reporter when asked about her choice for governor. A moment later, she said “No. I would not want to vote for that one.”

When it comes to the issue of Americans visiting Cuba, the 44-year-old Obando has views more consistent with older Cubans, in part, because she emigrated to Hialeah from Nicaragua due to a bloody war against the Marxist Sandinista government in the 1980s. She said she doesn’t like people helping the Castro regime by visiting Cuba.

“They are, like, injecting money to that system that is so bad,” said Obando. “Cubans go to help their families. But just tourists? I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

Scott and Lopez-Cantera echoed a variation of that criticism last month by saying Crist’s visit to Cuba — if he goes — would give the totalitarian government there a propaganda coup and not incentivize change.

“When he spends money there, he’s helping the Castro regime,” Scott said last month. Scott, however, has refused to comment on whether longtime GOP allies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and various local Florida chambers of commerce should visit the island.

Though the poll shows Scott’s anti-travel and pro-embargo position is now in the minority in Miami-Dade, Scott’s position is targeted to his base: Republicans, 72 percent of whom in Miami-Dade are Hispanic and nearly all of whom are Cuban American.

Not all Cubans are conservatives.

“That embargo looks to me like a waste of time,” said poll respondent Miguel Jimenez, a 50-year-old Cuban trucker who arrived during the Mariel boatlift in 1980.

“Look at the thousands and thousands of Cubans living in the U.S. who travel there. And each time they go, they spend at least $5,000 or $6,000 over there,” Jimenez said. “So you tell me, where is that embargo?”

As for whom he supports in the governor’s race, Jimenez said he’s an independent who would likely stick with the incumbent, Scott. Among independents, the candidates are nearly evenly matched, with Crist having a slight edge over Scott, 42-37 percent.

The poll indicates that those Cuban voters who emigrated before Mariel are far more likely to take a hardline position on Cuba. The poll also shows a clear divide between Cubans who immigrated to the United States and those born here.

U.S.-born Cubans were evenly split between Crist and Scott. But those born on the island favored Scott over Crist 61-25 percent.

Also, U.S.-born Cubans opposed the embargo 54-43 percent; while those born in Cuba favored the policy 61-30 percent. Overall Cuban support for the embargo: 56-36 percent.

Regarding unrestricted travel to Cuba, U.S. born Cubans supported it 61-34 percent while the reverse was true for those born in Cuba, with 36 percent in favor and 58 percent opposed. Overall Cuban opposition to unrestricted travel: 51-42 percent.

African-American voters and non-Hispanic whites supported unrestricted travel by 51 and 67 percent, respectively.

Of all the registered Hispanics in Miami-Dade, 37 percent are Republican, 30 percent are Democrats and 32 percent have no party affiliation or belong to a third party and are considered independents.

But the GOP is losing ground in Miami-Dade as is the staunch support for hardline positions against Cuba. There are now slightly more registered independents than Republicans, who are now outnumbered by 188,000 registered Democrats.

Also, non-Cuban Hispanics are growing in greater proportions overall in Miami-Dade and the county. Yet Republican and Cuban voters usually vote at higher rates during mid-term elections. And Amandi said what’s important in politics is who votes and what a politician does to get those votes, not what broad public sentiment might be.

In that respect, he said, Crist’s decision to go to Cuba did him more harm than good.

“It didn’t help him in anyway and it risks alienating some of the Cuban vote that he could win,” Amandi said. “Crist didn’t help himself. The numbers bear that out.”