Poll: Floridians support thaw with Cuba. A plus for Charlie Crist?

Americans in general, Floridians and even those of Cuban descent support normalizing relations with Cuba, according to a batch of new polls that indicate Charlie Crist's recent stance against the embargo could be a political plus.

Once a hotbed of hardline positions against Cuba, Florida now leads the nation in support for engaging or normalizing relations with Cuba compared to the rest of the nation, according to the polls from the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center of the Atlantic Council.

As many as 63 percent of Floridians support a thaw in relations with Cuba, compared to 30 percent who are opposed. Nationwide, support for rapprochement with Cuba stands at 56 percent, with 35 percent opposed.

“This is a key change from the past: Cuba used to be intractable because Florida was intractable. This poll argues that is no longer true,” Peter Schechter and Jason Marczak, executives with the Latin America center, wrote in an analysis of the polls.

Perhaps most surprisingly, those of Cuban descent heavily favor normalization or engagement: 79-21 percent in Florida and 73-26 percent nationwide.

The sample size of Cuban-Americans was small in the state and national polls, so the error margin over those results is large. Still, nationwide Hispanic support for engaging Cuba is strong: 62-30 percent nationwide.

The poll, however, didn't specifically ask whether people simply support or oppose the U.S trade embargo.

The Atlantic Council’s Latin America Center, a nonprofit business and cultural advocacy group, conducted four surveys on Cuba overall: A national poll; a national poll of Hispanics, and statewide surveys in Florida and New Jersey. The national poll’s sample size was the largest, 1,024. The Florida poll reflects 617 respondents.

The survey was released Monday night, just three days after Crist said on Real Time with Bill Maher that he opposes the embargo.

Crist's opponent, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, promptly criticized Crist, saying the former governor is not standing with the people of Cuba.

The survey polled people two separate ways: Whether the U.S. should “engage” more with Cuba or whether it should “normalize” relations with the island’s government. More people supported normalization than engagement.

As with any poll, support and opposition changed depending on the question.

Asked if the United States should deal more with the island nation because the U.S. also deals with other unfriendly nations, only 14 percent of Floridians said they favored dealing with Cuba while 79 percent opposed.

In light of the fact that the Cuban regime has remained in power for more than 50 years amid sanctions, only 43 percent of Floridians said the Castros’ longevity was a reason to have a rapprochement with the island nation; 51 percent said current policy should stay.

In that regard, one of Crist’s talking points on relations with Cuba conflicts with public sentiment.

“The embargo has done nothing in more than fifty years to change the regime in Cuba,” Crist said on Maher’s show.

Scott said Monday that Crist’s position was “insulting.”

“We stand for them. America is built on freedom and democracy. Cuba is not free or democratic,” Scott said. “The embargo that’s in place is part of standing up for the Cuban individuals, Cuban families’ freedom. So we need to continue the embargo.”

While favored more by Republicans, support for the U.S. embargo is bipartisan. It's backed in Florida by Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wassermans Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chair.

Nelson, whose supporters want him to run for governor against Crist, appeared to distance himself from the former governor.

“It is not the time to unilaterally go in and lift the embargo until we see some iron-clad guarantees that freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly is being allowed inside Cuba by the police state that is still run by the Castro brothers,” Nelson said in Gainesville on Monday.

Whether Crist's stance translates into actual votes isn't clear from the survey.

The polls didn't specifically target voters, and instead surveyed the population in general. Relative to the electorate, the survey may have under-sampled Republicans in Florida, depending on how the methodology is interpreted.

There’s also the issue of what pollsters call “intensity:” It’s unclear if those who support the embargo have such strong feelings about it that they’d vote against Crist and for Scott.

From the perspective of the Florida poll, Scott’s position might not even be shared by his base — self-identified conservative Republicans — 50 percent of whom favored closer relations with Cuba and 41 percent were opposed.

Democrats and independents showed outsized support.

Crist's new position on Cuba also exposes him to an old charge he has faced ever since leaving the GOP: Flip-flopping.

As a Republican governor from 2007-11, Crist backed U.S. sanctions against Cuba and signed a state law cracking down on travel agencies that do business with the repressive regime.

“I think the current policy in place is responsible,” Crist said on June 14, 2010, during a Miami Beach stop. “I do support the embargo.”

But as with his other reversals, Crist says his attitude has changed as time has gone on. As with other pivots and evolutions by Crist, his newest stance overall appears to jibe with public sentiment.

At a Washington press conference touting the polls’ results, Arizona’s Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said, “There has been no justification for this embargo or this travel ban for a long, long time... Why can’t we move forward with Cuba?”

The surveys were conducted by two pollsters prominent in Republican and Democratic campaigns. They said the breadth of support among all Americans — including older voters who are typically less likely to embrace change — was surprising.

“You were coming of age when there was a missile crisis, or the Bay of Pigs, or even Fidel Castro taking power originally,” pollster Paul Maslin said of older Americans. “You have seen the saga of Cuba. . . . Older Americans essentially have seen this for 50-plus years, and they’re shrugging their shoulders and saying, ‘Why couldn’t we change?’ ‘Why not change?’”

As many as 67 percent of Floridians said they favored lifting “all restrictions on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens.” And 63 percent said they favored lifting restrictions on citizens spending U.S. dollars in Cuba or on American companies that want to do business in Cuba.

More than 8 in 10 Floridians said the U.S. government should hold meetings with Cuba’s government over drug trafficking and human smuggling.

Other reasons Floridians support a thaw in relations with Cuba: economic reforms in Cuba (56 percent); Cuba’s closeness to the United States (59 percent); the fact that Cuban-Americans have more travel rights to Cuba than other U.S. citizens (59 percent).

Floridians’ support for normalization-engagement stood at 57-37 percent when told that the embargo costs the nation $4.8 billion in U.S. “exports and related economic output per year.”

Yet, when told of Cuba’s “dismal human rights record,” 45 percent of Floridians said they still would want to normalize or engage relations with the island; 49 percent were opposed and therefore want to keep current policy.

Cuba’s human-rights record is a major aspect of the U.S. embargo. If Cuba democratizes and opens up its political system, U.S. sanctions would begin to lift.

Those who support the embargo say that it’s important to spotlight the ills of the Castro regime so that people aren’t tricked into easing sanctions that will only prop up the dictatorship.

“Charlie Crist’s comments just show his ignorance on the issue of what is going on in Cuba,” Lieutenant Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera said Monday. “As a Cuban American I was insulted by it. He should get a little smarter on what’s actually happening.”

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