Little Havana turns blue (or maybe not)

Choose-your-own-poll-number reporting on the Cuban-American vote

FLORIDA — Somehow the Florida election is beginning to feel a bit like an episode from the old I Love Lucy comedy. Not only did the Sunshine State hang over election results for four days—and still counting in some races—but there has been forehead-slapping confusion over who won the Cuban-American vote here, by how much, and what it might mean. The confusion has been fueled by a collection of all-over-the-map poll numbers variously cited, depending on the news source, to draw premature conclusions about this unique voting population.

So let’s start with this widely repeated statement by Cuban-American Ricky Ricardo to his wife: “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splaining’ to do.”

Seven days before the election, Floridians were greeted with a new Florida International University/Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald poll of likely Florida Hispanic voters that suggested President Obama could lose Florida because Cuban-Americans would overwhelmingly vote for Republican Mitt Romney.

In fact, the poll showed that among those Cuban-Americans surveyed 74.4 percent said they would vote for Romney while just 23.8 percent said they would vote for Obama.

In reporting the poll for the Herald and Tampa Bay Times, political writer Marc Caputo wrote that Cuban-Americans tend to respond to polls in higher numbers than other Florida Hispanics:

The sheer response rate and strong backing for Romney among voters of Cuban ancestry has cropped up in other Florida polls. Together, the polls could be detecting an unrivaled intensity for the Republican ticket that could help keep Obama from a second Florida win and a second term in the White House.

Caputo concluded his story with a quote from the pollster, Eduardo Gamarra, an FIU professor of Latin American studies:

Gamarra said the poll shows the Cuban vote isn’t just tough for pollsters to deal with. It’s tough for Democrats. “You keep hearing about a liberalization of the vote with younger, second-generation Cubans. But the polls are not showing it,” Gamarra said. “Young Cubans are starting to look more Republican than their parents.”

Caputo goes into great detail looking at Gamarra’s polling method, how he weighted the Cuban vote, and the difficulty of getting an accurate reading of the rest of Florida’s non-Cuban Hispanic community. Counting all Florida Hispanic voters, the poll gave Obama a 51-47 lead over Romney.

How’d that pan out?

Six days after Election Day it was still unclear, with El Nuevo Herald/Miami Herald asking, “Did Obama or Romney win the Cuban-American vote?” Wrote the Herald’s Juan O. Tamayo:

A claim that nearly half of Cuban-American voters favored President Barack Obama continued under dispute Monday, with one side claiming it had new evidence that it was true and the other insisting it was false.

Tamayo goes on to report that FIU did an exit poll showing that Romney won 59 percent of the Cuban vote (still well below the University’s own pre-election poll number). Meanwhile, the Democratic polling firm Bendixen & Amandi International said Obama got 51 percent of the Cuban vote to Romney’s 49 percent. Wrote Tamayo:

The dispute involves competing visions of whether the Cuban-American vote has moved beyond its half-century-old support for the GOP. But while the two sides disagree on the numbers, it appears clear that Obama received more Cuban votes last week than he did in 2008.

Not so fast.

There are still more disputes. The National Journal’s Beth Reinhard, a South Florida native, noted in a November 9th story that “Fox News and the Pew Hispanic Center reported that Cuban-Americans favored Obama 49 to 47 percent.” Reinhard also reported that a “Latino Decisions poll in Florida on the eve of the election found Obama’s support among Cuban-Americans unchanged from 2008. That year Obama got 35 percent of the Cuban vote.”

So discerning readers might note that we have: an FIU poll showing 74.4 percent of Cubans would vote for Romney; an FIU exit poll showing 59 percent voted for Romney; a Democratic exit poll showing Romney got 49 percent of the vote; a national media exit poll showing Romney got 47 percent.

Commentators simply grabbed the numbers they liked and ran with them. Some used their favorite numbers to go in surprising directions.

Here the Herald’s columnist Fabiola Santiago let FIU’s Gamarra defend his pre-election poll—that was wildly off the mark—with this interesting excuse:

Call this unexpected support for Obama “the spiral of silence” vote, as political science professor Eduardo Gamarra does. “They were embarrassed to say they were going to vote for Obama,” he said, “but they did.”

Then Santiago suggests maybe the vote was influenced by celebrities:

Perhaps the unprecedented public support of the president by the cross-cultural Cuban-American elite—talk show host Cristina Saralegui, Gloria and Emilio Estefan and rapper Pitbull—helped play a role.

Finally, Time’s Tim Padgett decided that the Cuban-American vote demonstrated that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio may not be worth much in the wider Hispanic community. Padgett wrote:

Despite his best efforts, Rubio is a Cuban-American, which counts for a lot on his humid home turf of South Florida but muy poco in the arid Southwest. That’s where the lion’s share of U.S. Latinos reside and where groups like Mexican-Americans, the largest Hispanic bloc, often resent the preferential immigration treatment that Washington gives Cubans fleeing the Castro dictatorship.

But now the GOP has to wonder how much long-term clout Rubio, a rising conservative star and a top prospect for the 2016 presidential nomination, has with even Cuban voters.

The bottom line: no one should use a single data point (a poll!) to draw quick conclusions about a unique voting population (or allow a pollster or pundit to do as much in their stories). Best to slow down and gather some more information.

Or, to put a political scientist’s polish on that thought, here is what University of California, Riverside professor Ben Bishin wrote at The Monkey Cage blog on November 11:

The evidence presented here suggests that claims about dramatic changes in the Cuban American electorate are premature. Exit polls that employ cluster sampling may have problems in assessing attitudes among politically and geographically heterogeneous communities. Telephone polls, in contrast, find strong support for Mitt Romney, consistent with expectations from past research. Finally, comparison of demographic data and voting patterns suggest that the Cuban American community voted for Romney. While this community is doubtlessly undergoing significant changes, the political outcome of this tumult is still uncertain. Little Havana does not yet appear to have turned blue.

The confusion around the polling of South Florida’s Cuban-American voters is a symptom of the overarching problem Florida media—and other media around the nation—have had with polls. Journalists have been all too willing to accept as fact the polls they pay for. Once the check is cashed, news organizations are reluctant to dismiss or even question their own polls.

Three days before the election, a Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll showed Romney leading by 6 points in Florida—51-45. “[N]early every key indicator in the Times’ pre-Election Day poll reveals Romney’s advantage in a state Obama won four years ago,” the Times reported.

On the Sunday following the election, the Times called itself a loser in its political winners and losers column: “Our polls didn’t just miss the bull’s-eye, they missed the entire target.”

It’s nice to see the Times publicly acknowledge as much. But, is that it? Don’t readers deserve some further reflection on what happened here and what might be learned for next time?

Oh. While many fans of Lucy and Ricky may like to repeat the “Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do” quote, Ricky apparently never quite said that. A good reminder to journalists and their audiences—be careful what you believe.

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Brian E. Crowley is editor of Crowley Political Report. A political journalist for more than two decades, Crowley is an analyst for WPTV NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach and is a principal of ImMEDIAcy Public Relations.