President Obama nearly won the solidly Republican Cuban-American vote in Florida and rolled up huge margins with every other Hispanic group, according to an exit poll performed by a firm that also worked for his campaign.
Obama actually won Cuban-Americans on Election Day itself, taking 53 percent of their vote compared to 47 percent for Republican Mitt Romney, who built up a lead among those who cast absentee and early in-person ballots, according to the survey of 4,866 voters conducted by Bendixen & Amandi International.
So Romney narrowly carried Cuban-Americans, 52-48 percent, which is a decrease for Republicans when compared to 2008.
"Obama is picking the Republican lock in Florida," Fernand Amandi said, noting that Hispanics are Florida's fastest-growing segment of the electorate.
But some conservatives doubt the numbers, accusing the firm of under-sampling Republican precincts, which Bendixen & Amandi denies.
"Like every election cycle, Sergio Bendixen, who is infamously known for the inacuracy of his polls, is once again peddling inaccurate exit polling data about Cuban-American voting trends," Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates, wrote on his Capitol Hill Cubans blog.
But Bendixen points out that his bottom-line exit poll numbers mirror the figures from the exit polls conducted by Edison Reserch for the news media, including the Miami Herald, which found Obama winning the overall Hispanic vote 60-39 over Romney.
In Bendixen's poll, Florida Hispanics broke 61-39 percent in Obama's favor -- a one-point difference from Edison. Edison's poll indicated Obama may have won the Cuban-American vote, 49-47 percent, but the results were well within the survey's error margin.
Jim Messina, Obama campaign manager, highlighted the Edison results and pointed out that, in its surveys, the share of the Hispanic vote increased in the state from 14 percent to 17 percent from 2008 to 2012.
"We won a majority of Cuban voters in Florida," said Messina. "It's a dramatic realignment for cuban voters in that state."
"This is an ominous, ominous sign for Republicans," Amandi said. His partner, Sergio Bendixen, added that "Puerto Ricans in Florida are voting like Puerto Ricans in New York... solidly Democratic."
Bendixen & Amandi had produced Obama's Spanish-language ads and consulted for the campaign. This exit poll, they said, was conducted independently of the Obama campaign. They surveyed voters on Election Day, during early in-person voting and by phone for those who cast absentee ballots. The exit poll was conducted in six counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Orange, Osceola and Hillsborough counties.
Absentee-ballot voters, who tend to be older than the rest of the electorate, were the least likely to back Obama when it came to Cuban-American voters. They backed Romney 74-26 percent over Obama. Cubans who vote by absentee ballots, a relatively small share of the entire Florida electorate, can often be missed by national exit pollsters.
The fight for the Hispanic vote was particularly pronounced in Florida, with the Romney campaign airing a scorcher of a Spanish-language ad late in the election that featured Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro's niece speaking in favor of Obama. The Obama campaign hit back with an ad featuring former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz that accused Romney of trying to exploit the "sufffering" of Cuban-Americans.
The "offensive" ad may have backfired when it came to Venezuelan voters, Bendixen said.
Venezuelans, a fast-growing group, backed Obama over Romney 76-24 perrcent, which tracked the overall results for South Americans, who accounted for just under a quarter of the Hispanic voters interviewed. Central-Americans supported Obama over Romney 74-26.
Would Florida Sen. Marco Rubio be a good way to bring Hispanics into the Republican fold? Bendixen said it was too early to tell. But, he said, former Gov. Jeb Bush is a different story.
"If Jeb runs, it would challenge these numbers," Bendixen said.
Bendixen and Amandi said the next presidential election would show whether Hispanic voters overall will become reliable Democratic voters. They pointed out that the share of the non-Hispanic white vote for Obama decreased since 2008 while the share of Hispanic support increased. Black support for Obama remained essentially unchanged.
Florida's elections results aren't final yet -- ballots are being counted still in South Florida and Jacksonville -- but the Hispanic role in the election is clear.
"If Barack Obama wins Florida it will be only and strictly and decisevely because of the Hispanic vote," Amandi said.