To Reclaim Florida, Democrats Must Reimagine Who Florida Latinos Are
Joe Biden's decisive defeat in Florida reflected a big underperformance with Latino voters — whom critics say Democrats still take for granted and misread.
Even though Joe Biden won the presidency, here in Florida President Trump defeated him much more soundly than expected – and one glaring reason was the Latino vote.
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On Election Day, Biden campaign workers went door to door in Homestead and other Miami-Dade County communities, urging Latino Democrats to get out and vote – because polls showed Biden seriously underperforming with Florida Latinos.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton won two-thirds of Florida’s Latino vote. But in the end last week, Biden got little more than half – and Trump won almost half. That’s impressive for a Republican, especially a Republican known for racist rhetoric about Latinos and fierce anti-immigration policies. Impressive also given the millions of dollars Biden spent on Spanish-language advertising in Florida.
“It shows how the Democrats can be so ineffective at engaging groups crucial for their victory,” says Eduardo Gamarra, a political scientist at Florida International University who studies the Latino vote. “They take groups like Latinos for granted.”
Even though Florida wasn’t crucial to Biden’s national election victory, Gamarra says Democrats can’t afford to keep getting it wrong, especially with Latinos, who make up a fifth of the state’s eligible voters.
Gamarra says both parties finally understand that Latinos are not a monolithic voting bloc – that they, like everyone else, have more individual concerns and so need to be more “micro-engaged.” The Biden campaign, for example, created more personalized activist groups like Cubanos Con Biden and Venezolanos Con Biden. But Gamarra says Republicans invested more time, money and strategy micro-engaging Latinos in Florida.
As a result, Trump won big last week not just with Cubans, Florida’s largest and most reliably Republican Latino cohort.
“The big shift,” says Gamarra, “was among South Americans and especially Colombians.”
And Colombians, Florida’s third-largest Latino voter bloc, are perhaps the most instructive example.
“We did a survey in June where the Colombians were overwhelmingly pro-Biden,” Gamarra points out. But then, he adds, something important happened in August:
“The jailing of Uribe.”
Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, under investigation in Colombian for alleged involvement with right-wing paramilitary death squads and witness tampering, was put under house arrest there. Despite those accusations, Uribe is roundly popular with Colombian expats in Florida because he beat back Colombia’s Marxist guerrillas in the 2000s.
Knowing that, Trump jumped to Uribe’s defense – and it paid off. More Colombians here became receptive to Trump’s hard line against Latin American socialism – and to his false, smear-tactic claim that Biden and Democrats themselves were radical socialists.
People in the Democratic Party for too long have just relied on demographic changes to win elections – and that’s not how this works. You have to earn people’s votes.
Trump was successfully exploiting fears about authoritarian left-wing regimes like Cuba’s. At the same time he and administration bigshots like National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien flew into South Florida to sit down with local leaders in the Colombian and other Latino communities and “made them feel as special as they’ve always made the Cubans feel,” says FIU sociologist and Latino diasporas expert Guillermo Grenier.
The Biden campaign, despite urgings from organizers on the ground to respond more proactively, were caught flat-footed, incredulous so many Florida Latinos actually bought Trump’s branding of Biden as socialista. (In recent weeks it did release pro-Biden ads featuring anti-communist icons like Cuban exile writer Carlos Alberto Montaner, but analysts agree it was too late.)
“The Biden campaign just didn’t see this as an issue to attack head on,” says Chris Wells, a Cuban- and Venezuelan-American political activist in Miami and a former Republican.
Wells was one of the many grassroots Biden organizers who implored the campaign to take the socialista attacks more seriously. But he points to other frustrations, like lax funding and staffing of campaign phone banks to connect callers and voters from the same Latino backgrounds – or the failure to bring pro-Biden celebrities like Eva Longoria to popular Latino gathering spots like ventanitas (coffee window counters) to more effectively engage the community while also observing pandemic social distancing.
“Just so many decisions like that were just totally disconnected with the community they were trying to reach out to,” Wells says.
Florida and national Biden campaign officials WLRN contacted declined to speak on the record about the Latino issues. Some suggested the campaign was so focused on reclaiming the northern “Blue Wall” states that efforts like Latino engagement in Florida may have been shortchanged.
Still, insists one campaign spokesman, "The Biden campaign invested a historic amount in Hispanic outreach programs...This funding always emphasized voter contact initiatives [including] Chiva buses, car caravans and surrogate travel" for celebs like Longoria, who he points out did mix with voters at a Colombian coffee house in Miami.
But Daniela Ferrera, a Miami Cuban-American and Biden organizer who’s also a former Republican, says these questions reflect a larger flaw in the Democrats’ approach to Latinos and minorities in general.
“People in the Democratic Party for too long have just relied on demographic changes to win elections – and that’s not how this works,” says Ferrera. “You have to earn people’s votes.”
Ferrera feels the Biden campaign gave up on Florida’s Cuban vote without challenging the socialista attacks – and that bothers her since her own family suffered under Cuba’s communist regime.
“My dad was jailed by Castro’s thugs and my uncle was a political prisoner in a concentration camp,” says Ferrera. “For anyone to accuse me of being a socialist or a communist is beyond disgraceful.”
Ferrera also says Democratic strategy too often assumes all Cuban voters are hard-line conservatives. In reality, she insists, there are many younger, more moderate and more recently arrived Cubans who, according to a recent survey headed by FIU’s Grenier, have been migrating to the GOP but are receptive to Democratic policies like Obamacare and engagement with Cuba.
Among them is Guennady Rodriguez, who came to Miami seven years ago and publishes a popular news website, 23yFlagler.com (which stands for the virtual intersection of 23rd Street in Havana and Flagler Street in Miami).
“All these right-wing [Latino] communities here, they have their platforms, their shows, their star voices, their YouTubers, so it’s very easy for them to create and to spread the message,” says Rodriguez. “But on the Democrat side there was no real coherent voice.”
If Democrats want to reclaim Florida, they’ll need to reimagine more coherently who they think Latinos are.