Slipping Latino vote in Florida requires strategic rethink for Democrats
Republicans woo Hispanic migrants opposed to socialism of their countries of origin
Diaz and Santo in Little Havana, Miami: fled Cuba after Fidel Castro took power and are now American citizens who support Donald Trump. Photograph: Suzanne Lynch
Democrats may have taken over the city of Miami this week for the first debate of the 2020 US election season, but Republicans have not lost sight of the state of Florida, a key battleground in next year’s presidential election.
On Wednesday as Democratic hopefuls arrived in the southern Florida city, a full-page ad in the Miami Herald declared: “Latinos for Trump,” showing a picture of Donald Trump and hundreds of smiling Latino supporters with the words “Latinos flourish in Trump Economy.”
Vice-president Mike Pence was also in town this week, visiting Miami on the eve of the Democratic debates.
“From the first day of his administration, President Trump has been fighting with the values that are synonymous with Hispanic and Latino Americans: hard work, faith, family, freedom and the American way,” he proclaimed to cheers from supporters.
Florida presents a conundrum for Democrats. The country’s largest swing state with 29 electoral college votes, it is a key target for both parties.
On paper the state looks like it should be Democrats’ for the taking. Its demographics epitomise the changing profile of America’s voters across the country. As with states such as Arizona, California and increasingly Texas where the electorate is becoming more racially diverse, Democrats anticipate that this will ultimately translate into electoral gains given that most non-white voters vote Democrat.
The number of Latinos registered to vote is increasing. About 29 million Latinos across the country were eligible to vote in the 2018 midterm elections, up from approximately 25 million in 2014, according to Pew Research.
But the picture is more complex in Florida, a state with a long history of immigration from central and south America.
While nationwide only 18.6 per cent of Hispanic voters voted for Trump in 2016, according to research by Spanish-language channel Univision, in Florida more than half of Cuban Americans voted for the Republican candidate.
Though Florida’s immigrant population is far from homogenous, the high proportion of immigrants from Cuba and other socialist countries such as Venezuela has given rise to a historically strong Republican vote, epitomised by Republican senator and former presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
The Trump administration’s recent move to brand the Democratic party as socialists resonates here. National security adviser John Bolton visited Miami in April to announce new sanctions on what he called the “troika of tyranny” – Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Crucially for Republicans, this sector of the immigrant community is also more motivated to vote than younger voters who may have more Democratic leanings.
This dichotomy between different parts of the Latino community was evident this week in Little Havana, a historically Cuban neighbourhood near downtown Miami.
Miami has the highest Latino population in the US, with more than 70 per cent of the city identifying as Hispanic. As in many areas of the city, walking around Little Havana seems like stepping into Cuba. Latino music wafts from the many cafés, Spanish is the language of choice, and shops and restaurants specialising in central American products dominate the streetscape.
But politically the picture is nuanced.
At Maximo Gomez Park, right in the centre of Little Havana, Cuban Americans, mostly men, have gathered in the late afternoon heat to play chess and dominos under the sheltered awnings.
Among those are Diaz and his friend Santo. Both are Cuban exiles who fled to the US after Fidel Castro took power and are now American citizens. Politically they are unequivocal about where their support lies. “Trump, he is a good leader,” says Diaz in broken English. “He stands up to people, to China, to Iran, and the economy is doing good.”
Both are sceptical of Barack Obama’s engagement with Cuba, which has been rowed-back by the Trump administration, though they visited their home country last year for the first time in 40 years.
A few blocks along at the La Colada Gourmet coffee shop there is a very different perspective.
Ryan, a 21-year-old Cuban American working here, says he is not engaged in politics. “It’s too early to start thinking about elections, I only really get interested a few months out.” While he is not a fan of Donald Trump, he says he is only vaguely familiar with some of the Democratic candidates gathering just across the bridge. None particularly impresses him, he says.
Ryan’s view encapsulates one of the challenges for Democrats as they seek to win back the White House in 2020 and flip states like Florida.
Latinos are not voting in the numbers required to achieve significant gains in the election.
This was underlined in the 2016 presidential election. Part of Trump’s victory reflected the fact that white and more conservative voters in southern Florida and the Panhandle area further north turned out in their millions. Despite a strong surge in Latino support in early voting in Florida in 2016, the numbers were not enough for Hillary Clinton to beat Trump in the state.
Democrats’ poor performance in Florida in last November’s midterm elections was also a wake-up call for the party.
Despite a huge buzz around Andrew Gillum, the African-American candidate who contested the gubernatorial race, ultimately more voters opted for Republican candidate Ron DeSantis. Incumbent Democrat senator Bill Nelson lost to Republican former governor Rick Scott, who swapped the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee for the US Senate.
Democrats say they are aware of the voter-turnout problem. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced last month it would invest millions of dollars in communicating with communities of colour in Florida, including spending $2 million on a voter-registration drive. The party is also launching a Spanish-language weekly radio programme.
“We learned our lesson,” says Luisana Pérez Fernández of the Florida Democratic Party. Whether it will be enough to engage the all-important Hispanic vote will be a crucial question as Democrats try to secure a path to the White House in November 2020.