By ARIAN CAMPO-FLORES
So he says his grandfather fumed when Mr. Blanco told him he was casting a ballot for President Barack Obama on Election Day. “He was very heated and red in the face,” said Mr. Blanco, 33 years old. “He thinks Obama is a socialist.”
The president captured 48% of the Cuban-American vote in Florida—a record high for a Democrat, according to an exit poll by Bendixen & Amandi International, Mr. Obama’s Hispanic polling firm. Republican Mitt Romney received 52%.
The figure for Mr. Obama is backed up by a national exit poll for media organizations that showed him winning 49% of the Cuban-American vote in the state. By comparison, he captured 35% of that vote four years ago. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry received 29% of the state’s Cuban-American vote, and in 2000, Democrat Al Gore won 25% of it.
The surprising development, given Cuban-Americans’ traditionally staunch support for the GOP, could help reshape U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Given his overwhelming support among Florida’s non-Cuban Hispanic voters, who make up a growing share of the electorate, Mr. Obama carried the state’s Latino vote overall by 61% to 39%, exceeding his margin in 2008 by seven percentage points. Together, both trends are accelerating a realignment of the state’s Latino vote, from once solidly Republican to now reliably Democratic, analysts say.
“The president has successfully picked the lock in Florida,” said Fernand Amandi, managing partner at the polling firm.
Some Republicans deny a shift is under way in political sentiment among Cuban-Americans. “This so-called change—I’ve been reading about it for 30 years,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami. “The community has not changed.” As evidence, he points to continued Cuban-American support for his re-election, and that of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also a Miami Republican.
Yet voters just elected to Congress the first Cuban-American Democrat from Florida: Joe Garcia. He is a former member of the Obama administration who defeated the incumbent Republican, Rep. David Rivera, who was dogged by state and federal investigations into his finances.
Several factors explain the apparent changes in the Cuban-American community, said Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. The older generation of Cubans—exiles who fled the Fidel Castro government in the 1950s and 1960s and were political conservatives—are dying off.
They are being replaced by a younger, U.S.-born generation that tends to be more liberal along with more recent arrivals who come mostly for economic reasons, Mr. Gomez said. Both groups tend to care less about U.S. policy toward Cuba, the topic presidential candidates typically stress in Miami. They’re more interested in issues such as health care and education, he said.
The Bendixen & Amandi exit poll found Mr. Obama won by 60% to 40% among Cuban-Americans born in the U.S., while Mr. Romney prevailed by 55% to 45% among those born in Cuba.
When Mr. Blanco, the Obama voter, first registered to vote in 1998, he checked Republican. “I just went along with the way I was brought up,” he said. But soon, he said, “I realized that was not the best decision for me.”
His stances on social issues, such as support for gay marriage and abortion rights, made him feel uncomfortable in the GOP, he said. Shortly after the 2000 election, in which he voted for Democrat Al Gore, he registered as an independent. This year, he switched to Democrat.
Shifting sentiment in the Cuban-American community could pave the way for changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba, said Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit that opposes the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
Although Mr. Obama took steps to mend relations with Cuba early in his administration—such as loosening restrictions on travel and remittances to the island—things soured after the Cuban government jailed an American subcontractor, Alan Gross, in 2009.
If the two governments work out a deal for the release of Mr. Gross, the Obama administration could pursue further openings with the island, perhaps including a further loosening of travel restrictions, Mr. Thale said. Given the evolution in Cuban-American political sentiment, “the president has more flexibility than he or his political advisers might have thought,” he said.
A version of this article appeared November 9, 2012, on page A6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Cuban-Americans Move Left. You can also read This Election May Be Make or Break for GOP Cubans in Florida by Alex Gonzalez