By Patrick Rucker and David Adams
WASHINGTON/MIAMI (Reuters) - Strong support from Hispanics, the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, helped tip President Barack Obama's fortunes as he secured a second term in the White House, according to Election Day polling.
Obama's support among Hispanics was about 66 percent, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling data, roughly in line with the percentage that voted for him four years ago.
It was critical for Obama to retain the coveted voting bloc, especially because he lost support among white men, said Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington who has tracked Hispanic sentiment for months.
Obama saw his support among white men decline to 36 percent in this election from 41 percent in 2008.
Obama made a strong effort to court the estimated 24 million eligible Hispanic voters, seeking to overcome some discontent over his immigration policies.
In September, Obama told the Spanish-language Univision TV network that his "biggest failure" was the lack of comprehensive immigration reform, although his administration launched a program in June to allow young undocumented immigrants to apply for temporary work permits.
"We saw Obama's standing among Hispanics and overall voter enthusiasm increase after his announcement this summer," Barreto said.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Obama's Republican challenger, had taken a hard line, saying illegal immigrants should leave the country, or "self-deport," before making a bid for citizenship.
The Obama campaign sought Hispanics in key swing states, according to poll data, with a quarter of those voters in Florida saying they were contacted by his representatives.
Hispanics account for more than half of U.S. population growth, according to 2010 census data. The Hispanic population in the South, a Republican base, grew by 57 percent between 2000 and 2010 - four times the overall population growth of that region.
In Texas, the Obama ticket only drew 40 percent of all votes but won 57 percent of Hispanics. They also played a major role in other swing states, including Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia, according to exit polls.
"This is a credit to the Obama campaign who recognized many years ago that the Hispanic vote, if cultivated, could become a solid base vote, and it paid off handsomely last night," said Fernand Amandi, with Bendixen & Amandi, research and media consultants for the Obama Hispanic campaign.
HISPANICS SWING FLORIDA
Obama won a record 62 percent of Hispanic voters in Florida, up from 57 percent in 2008, Amandi said, citing exit polling data. Hispanics represented a greater percentage of the Florida electorate this year compared to 2008, they went from 14 percent to 17 percent.
That may have been the difference in a close race in Florida where ballots were still being counted on Wednesday with Obama clinging to slender lead of 45,000 votes out of more than 8 million cast.
The Hispanic margin could have been even higher were it not for the large Cuban-American voting block in south Florida which has traditionally leaned heavily Republican. Even so, Democrats made inroads in that community as well, capturing as much as 40 percent of the Cuban-American vote, according to Amandi.
If true that would be a shocker as Democrats have never won more than 35 percent of the Cuban vote, a mark set by Bill Clinton in 1996.
It might also help explain how Obama trounced Romney in Miami-Dade county, which accounts for 10 percent of Florida's 12 million registered voters, capturing 521,000 votes compared to only 317,000 for the Republican candidate.
But the biggest impact appears to have been non-Cuban Hispanic voters in central Florida, home to a growing population of Puerto Ricans, including an estimated 300,000 who moved there in recent years due to economic woes on the Caribbean island.
The large Central Florida turnout for Obama among Hispanics serves as a warning about the Republican's Party's future, said political analyst Luis Martinez-Fernandez at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
"They have a huge problem on their hands. They're either going to have to continue to alienate blacks and Hispanics, or they're going to have to alienate the Tea Party which doesn't seem to want to change," he said.
In heavily Hispanic Osceola County, John Quinones, a local Republican politician with Puerto Rican roots, said Romney should have focused earlier on the demographic.
"By the time we had seen a strong presence from Mitt Romney and his campaign, we had seen Obama and a lot of the Democratic candidates over and over a lot sooner," Quinones said.
While Obama's campaign was on the ground in central Florida, Romney was locked in the primary battle taking stands on immigration that helped him capture the most conservative wing of his party but which were unpopular with Hispanics.
Quinones said the Republican Party needs to consider how it discusses immigration reform. Puerto Ricans, who hold U.S. passports and are not subject to immigration issues, make up about 70 percent of the Hispanic electorate on the so-called I-4 corridor that spans central Florida.
However, Martinez-Fernandez said Puerto Ricans still take anti-immigration policy personally. "In many cases, we see the attack on Hispanics as an attack on ourselves," Martinez-Fernandez said.
A NEW DIRECTION?
Tuesday's results and demographic trends are one reason that Republican leaders like Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former Governor Jeb Bush have repeatedly urged the party to get behind immigration reform.
In a statement on Wednesday Rubio praised Romney but also stressed the need for the party to take a new direction.
"The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them," he said.
But Obama's victory puts the immigration agenda in his hands. Notably, when Obama ticked off his top bipartisan priorities in his victory speech early Wednesday morning, "fixing our immigration system" was among them.
The words of Rubio and Bush seemed to be gaining ground within the party on Wednesday.
"The Republican Party better pay attention to Latino voting," said conservative strategist Karl Rove, interviewed on the Fox News channel.
"The Republican Party has to understand the fastest growing part of the American population, has to be open to and listening to people who are going to be a major part of our future, and unless we do that, we're going to be a minority party," added former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, speaking on the CBS "This Morning" show.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)