Exit polls demonstrate that, for the first time in over half a century, engaging Cuba is no longer the political liability it once was.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, thehavananote.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
[Tuesday's] election results made pretty clear that President Obama's reelection had much to do with his campaign's vaunted ground game, and likely also with Gov. Romney's inability to provide a compelling enough alternative to a president who was vulnerable on several fronts. The pundits largely agree: the American people didn't exactly give Obama a mandate. Even as the Republican party asks itself, "Where to, now?" – President Obama must do some soul searching of his own if he is to govern successfully in his second term.
With all the talk of changing demographics, one key demographic made an important and historic shift. The Cuban American community may well have given President Obama a mandate on Cuba policy. According to exit polling (as reported by Fox News), President Obama won a record number of Cuban American votes in this election, 47 percent to Romney's 50 percent. This is a full ten points above the previous high water mark (reached by Obama in 2008) by a Democratic politician. No longer can Cuban Americans be characterized a "reliable Republican" constituency.
We've known for some time that increasing numbers of Cuban Americans' votes could be up for grabs. But what accounts for such a huge shift in the numbers that went for Obama? Should we surmise that Cuban Americans are no longer one-issue voters, and that rather than remaining obsessed with affairs back home, they're more concerned about domestic policy here in the US? Or, are they in fact still one-issue voters who've responded to President Obama's opening for Cuban American families' travel and remittances home? Hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans have taken advantage of Obama's relaxed restrictions on families, and when Congressional Republicans threatened those new rights, Obama stood up for them. But Romney had promised to reinstate tough Bush-era rules on families and others traveling and sending money to the island, so if the election turned on Cuba, for the first time, the momentum was undeniably with the pro-engagement candidate.
We'll have to wait for another more specific, cross-referenced poll to know which issues moved so many Cuban Americans into the president's column. Whatever the answer, the exit polls demonstrate that, for the first time in over half a century engaging Cuba is no longer the political liability it once was. Done in a strategic way that advances American interests, engaging Cuba could even be an asset in the one place it was long anathema, South Florida.