The polling is in: Cuban exile hardliners and Republicans are in the clear minority nationwide when it comes to the embargo and re-establishing ties with the island nation.
A raft of new surveys, taken after President Barack Obama announced plans Wednesday to normalize relations with Cuba, shows far more Americans want the sanctions lifted and relations improved compared to those who favor current U.S. policy — namely Republicans and many Cuban-Americans.
But there’s one aspect of U.S. Cuba policy Cuban-Americans, rank-and-file Republicans nationwide and Americans in general agree on: Easing travel restrictions to the island.
The surveys are unwelcome — but not unexpected news — to embargo supporters, mostly centered in South Florida where two potential presidential candidates, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, have been outspoken about strengthening the embargo.
“We’ve found that the more information people learn about what happens in Cuba, the more they are to support U.S. policy,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, the nation’s premier political action committee that supports the exile community.
“That’s always been the challenge: Informing people,” Claver-Carone said. “We’re a small community, yes, but we have a big megaphone.”
And in America at large, Republicans’ and the Cuban-American community’s attitudes about Cuba policy are decidedly in the minority, according to a comparison of national polls from CNN/ORC International, Langer Research/ABC-Washington Post, Reuters/Ipsos, CBS and a Bendixen & Amandi International survey conducted last week for The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.
Due to differences in methodology or forms of questions, the individual polls differ from each other when it comes to topline results. But all show a clear break between majority opinion and that of either Cuban Americans or self-identified Republicans, some of whom might not be actual voters.
ABC/Langer: Americans back it 64-31 percent; while the GOP is split 49-47 percent. “Very conservative” respondent support was lacking, 36-61 percent.
CNN/ORC: Americans support, 63-33 percent; while GOP support is split, 45-51 percent.
Reuters/Ipsos: Americans back it 45-22 percent, while GOP support is 31-38 percent. Reuters is the only online survey.
Herald/Tampa Bay Times/Bendixen: Cuban-Americans oppose normalization, 48-44 percent, an inside-the-error margin tie in the poll of 400 Cuban-Americans. It showed Republican Cuban-Americans oppose it 79-11 percent.
CBS: Americans back it 54-28 percent. CBS did not provide political party data. All the national polls surveyed about 1,000 people and have an error margin of 3.5 percentage points. The Republican polling numbers have a larger error margin.
ABC/Langer: Americans want it ended, 68-29 percent; while Republicans want it ended 57-40 percent. But “very conservative” support is lowest at 42-57 percent.
CNN/ORC: Americans want it ended, 55-40 percent; while Republicans want it ended 44-52 percent.
Reuters/Ipsos: Americans want it ended, 40-26 percent; while Republicans want it ended 28-41 percent.
Herald/Tampa Bay Times/Bendixen: Cuban-Americans want it discontinued, 44-40 percent; while Cuban-American Republicans wanted it to remain in place, 70-18 percent.
ABC/Langer: Americans want them ended, 74-24 percent, with Republicans at 64-33 percent and the “very conservative” at 51-47 percent.
CNN/ORC: Americans want them changed, 67-32 percent, with Republicans at 58-40 percent.
Herald/Tampa Bay Times/Bendixen: Cuban-Americans want them eased, 47-39 percent, with Republican Cuban-Americans oppose easing, 56-26 percent.
“The polls reflect what we’ve long seen coming,” said Ric Herrero, executive director of Cuba Now, a group that supports Cuba engagement. “The American people have lost faith in the embargo and prefer engagement as a means to promoting our values and interests.”
However, there’s a difference between public opinion in general and political change — especially in Washington.
Foremost, the embargo is codified in federal law due to what’s known as the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which says Cuba will face sanctions as long as it fails to free political prisoners and guarantee free speech, workers’ rights and free and fair elections. It would take an act of Congress — a tall order in gridlocked Washington to change that, especially now that both chambers will be controlled by Republicans, who believe Obama has overstepped his authority anyway.
Rubio along with Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — all Republicans — say they’ll use their positions in Congress to block efforts by Obama to fund his initiatives that would make it easier for people to travel to Cuba, use U.S. bank cards there or for the two countries to open consulates in each others’ country.
Aside from their long held beliefs and ties to the exile community, the Republican politicians’ positions are also rooted in the polling showing that their party voters are far more likely to oppose Obama’s initiatives concerning Cuba.
Gregory Holyk, a research analyst with Langer, said that his message to Republicans toeing a softer line on Cuba would be “tread carefully.”
“When you get down to who turns out in a Republican primary, that’s going to be a different group than Americans in general, one that’s more ideologically conservative,” Holyk said. “I don’t think this is a make-or-break issue for any one candidate. But in Florida, it’s a much a touchier subject.”
That has particular salience for Rubio and his newly established GOP rival, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is also mulling a presidential bid but broke from other Republicans in saying he supported Obama’s moves on Cuba.
Rubio then said Thursday on television Paul “doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” leading Paul to fire back on Twitter and Facebook that Rubio is an “isolationist.”
On Sunday, Rubio responded on TV by blasting the “Obama-Paul” foreign policy on Cuba, and Paul’s office promptly hit back by criticizing the “Rubio-Obama” foreign policy on fighting terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa.
Paul extended on olive branch, of sorts, Tuesday by addressing Rubio on Twitter: “Tempting to air a grievance @marcorubio again, but we’ve done that enough for this week. Instead I will say an early Merry Christmas.”
But Rubio didn’t respond, though many conservative media outlets and pundits sided with Rubio and criticized Paul.
“Rand Paul lost because he said the four things you cannot say as a Republican: ‘I agree with Obama,’” said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political science professor, pollster and ally of Rubio’s.
While Paul is right on shifting attitudes concerning Cuba, Moreno said that having pro-embargo views is more in keeping with winning a presidential primary in Florida, where most exiles live and vote in high percentages.
Moreno said his polling showed that the Cuban-American community was changing in Miami-Dade in 2006, when Cuba was no longer a top five issue. Still, he said, Cuba is an emotional issue with Cuban-Americans and it’s complicated to poll or understand — even for Moreno, who was born in Cuba.
“I don’t even know how I feel about this issue,” Moreno said. “This is far more complicated than black-and-white press accounts.”
But, meanwhile, the polling is clear: The rest of the nation has moved well beyond Cold War frozen relations, the U.S. embargo and travel restrictions to Cuba.