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How Florida Democrats Lost Latino Voters And What They Should Learn From It

Miami Herald
Donald Trump supporters signal drivers as they make their way to the John F. Kennedy Library in Hialeah, Florida, to vote during the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

Latinos helped Trump win Florida. What do the Democrats learn from the loss?

President Trump won Florida by 4 percentage points — that’s a landslide by the state’s standards. Political analysts attribute that success, in part, to Joe Biden’s inability to secure enough votes in already solidly blue regions like South Florida.

Although Florida didn’t decide the election, after all, it’s still a heavyweight in the Electoral College and Latino voters here play a critical part in deciding who receives those electoral votes.

WLRN is committed to providing South Florida with trusted news and information. In these uncertain times, our mission is more vital than ever. Your support makes it possible. Please donate today. Thank you.

WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with a panel of reporters and a political strategist to understand more about this diverse set of voters. Tim Padgett is WLRN’s Americas editor; Lourdes Ubieta is a television, radio host and journalist; Fernand Amandi is a Democratic strategist, pollster and lecturer at the University of Miami.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: Tell us one story about one Latino voter that you spoke with before the election that really illustrates what happened in Florida.

TIM PADGETT: We were at a voting polling site, and she was probably the only person and perhaps the only Cuban-American voter there who was voting for Biden. She told me that she was probably the only person in her Cuban-American family there in Hialeah who voted for Biden. And because she's a teacher, she's very worried about President Trump's performance with the COVID crisis and how that was affecting her. She was sort of out of step with everyone else in the Cuban-American community there in Hialeah who was voting mostly on this idea that Trump was had a much tougher stance against communist Cuba and that therefore Biden and the Democrats were all socialists — radical socialists — because they didn't agree with that hard line on Cuba.

LOURDES UBIETA: With the Venezuelan voters, mostly on the Democratic side, I was shocked to see quite a few families voting for Trump — just for Trump, not for the rest of the candidates on the ballot, just because of his policies towards Venezuela. So there was kind of an emotional vote for Trump in the Venezuelan community for his hard line stance.

FERNAND AMANDI: As a pollster, I had the pleasure to speak to thousands of people about it through some of the polls that we did. And that was certainly a sign for us of what was to come. But I think more personally, I would say just looking across the Thanksgiving dinner table a couple of years ago at members of my own family, several of whom had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, that all of a sudden sounded like they were guests on Fox News, repeating back some of these absurd talking points that the Democratic Party has become infiltrated by Marxists and communists and socialists. That was certainly a warning sign.

Do you think that the messaging from Republicans was stronger than what the Democrats were doing?

UBIETA: In Florida, these people from Latinos for Trump, they did great work here. I’m talking about the outreach of the party. First, about this socialism message — it worked. Why? Because a big part of the community here in Florida comes from countries that have suffered a direct impact of communist or socialism, like Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.

Then, they use influencers like [Alex] Otaola, who made younger Cuban voters, who we suspect that they want to vote for the Democratic Party, vote for Trump. Their Trojan horse was the registration they did of thousands of new voters. They went door to door calling for people to register to vote and I think that’s part of the story.

AMANDI: They always do this after every losing election. They talk about how much they invested in dollars and how many staffers they hired. But it’s all a function of when those dollars are spent. It's much more efficient to spend a fraction of the money earlier in the cycle than just trying to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at the wall in commercials that may or may not be generating the message.

The fundamental problem here, that I saw, is that the Democratic Party was allowed to be branded here in Florida with Hispanic voters as a party of socialism and communism. It's an absolutely absurd characterization, the only thing more absurd than that is to fail to confront that and contextualize that —refute it, because then otherwise it doesn't matter who the Democratic candidate is someone as moderate as Joe Biden will then be seen through that lens. And that's where, unfortunately, the Biden campaign just got outfoxed here in Florida.

PADGETT: Part of it has to do with the COVID problem, the Biden campaign obviously wanted to be responsible about how direct its outreach was to voters in a health context. But ironically, the Republicans realized that they're starting at a disadvantage with Latinos, for example, you've got a president who's known for his racist rhetoric with Latinos as well as his fierce anti-immigration policies. And because of that, they do tend to work harder at this idea of micro-engaging Latinos, meaning don't look at Latinos as a monolith, but go at them more personally and individually.

Despite the fact that the Democrats were coming up with individual groups like “Cubanos con Biden,” “Venezuelanos con Biden.” But still, the Republicans did a much better job of making each individual Latino group in Florida and especially South Florida feel as special as the Republicans have always made the Cuban voters feel.

Help me understand how Latinos in general view the word “socialist” compared to how Americans view the word vastly differently.

PADGETT: Given the socialist regimes that have destroyed countries like Venezuela and South America and across Latin America, that word then takes on the connotation of destructive, radical Marxist communism like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua right now. That is what the word summons in that context, whereas in the North American context here, socialism, we tend to see more of Denmark as an example. We tend to think of the social safety net combined with capitalism is what makes us such a great society, for example.

But the Trump campaign was very savvy about realizing that that's a nuance that most Latin American voters, particularly in South Florida and so many of whom have fled regimes where radical socialist Marxist style political philosophy is applied, that's a nuance that they're just not really going to pick up on. And if you call Biden and the Democrats socialist, that Latin American context of the words will take over. It was a brilliant psychological insight on their part. And it worked.

UBIETA: Latin voters have the idea that the Democratic Party is kidnapped by the more leftists in the party. I believe that the Biden campaign made a mistake when they didn't react to the support of people like Gustavo Petro in Colombia, a former guerrilla [member] and related to terrorists in Colombia or Nicolas Maduro or Miguel Díaz-Canel in Cuba. So all these elements together give you that perception that the party is kidnapped [by the far left]. And these big people that made us run out of our countries in Latin America are supporting Biden and Biden is not saying “thank you, I don't want your support.” So they bought it, they believe it. There is an emotional vote — "No, no, no, no, I don't want to have in the United States what I had in Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba."

AMANDI: That's the problem. Democrats are now defined as [socialists and communists] and in politics, the name of the game is defining yourself and your opponent before your opponent defines themselves or defines you. And again, you know, everybody wants to focus on the 2020 cycle. But this is a phenomenon that happened in 2018, the road testing or the pilot program, if you will, of the socialism campaign happened in 2018 here in Florida when Andrew Gillum was called a socialist, when even Bill Nelson, one of the greatest moderates in the Senate to come out in many years, also tagged with the label. But what did the Democratic Party do? Nothing.

They chose not to counter it. They thought that they were going to litigate the word and redefine the word when in reality that’s a trigger word. It's a word that traumatizes a lot of people. There were actually many people, some of them from this community, that said the Democrats should not even touch that issue of socialism.

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Leslie Ovalle produces WLRN's daily magazine program, Sundial. She previously produced Morning Edition newscasts at WLRN and anchored the midday news. As a multimedia producer, she also works on visual and digital storytelling.
Suria is Sundial's fall 2020 high school intern and a production assistant.