How Trump won big with Latinos in Florida — and then some

Mario Ariza, South Florida Sun Sentinel

Donald Trump’s gains with Latino voters on Tuesday were partly a result of equating Joe Biden with the oppressive, socialist regimes in Latin America. But voters and political strategists say it was more than that.

The president’s unusually high vote tally in Miami-Dade County is a sign of larger problems that Democrats have in appealing to Latino voters in South Florida, including a lack of consistent outreach and a targeted approach to voters who hail from different homelands, strategists say.

Janet Murguía, president of UnidosUS, said too often Latinos in Florida and across the U.S. are lumped together as one, solitary group, overlooking the fact that the ethnic category consists of sub-groups from different nations with different political priorities.

“We are not monolithic."

Like others, she said the Trump campaign was successful in micro-targeting different groups of Latino voters in South Florida with messaging that resounded with them.

Some of that included disinformation. President Trump consistently made an effort to link Biden with the socialist regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, despite the fact Biden never espoused true socialist policies.

Biden carried Miami-Dade County by only about 85,000 votes, a far cry from the 300,000 Hillary Clinton beat Trump by four years ago. How those votes figure into final outcome of the election remains to be seen as votes are still tallied across the country.

“We don’t know if that’s going to be fatal,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “But we know that in the future Democrats leadership needs to learn from this.”

Capitalizing on socialist fears

In speeches, in commercials and online, President Trump consistently stoked the fears of voters who have lived under true socialism and communism by suggesting Biden would implement similar policies here in the U.S.

“This election is a choice between the AMERICAN DREAM and a SOCIALIST NIGHTMARE,” he tweeted on Oct. 29, just days before the election. “Our opponents want to turn America into Communist Cuba or Socialist Venezuela. As long as I am President, America will NEVER be a socialist Country!”

These messages appealed to voters like Deborah Cowan, whose family is from Nicaragua. On Tuesday night, Cowan was at a bar in Fort Lauderdale, cheering on Trump’s victory in Florida. Cowan, 35, said was worried about the “socialist tilt” she feels the Democratic Party seemed to be headed in. “I know what that is all about.”

She voted for Trump, as did many Latinos in the state. Although Biden won the overall share of the Latino vote in Florida, places like Miami were a noticeable sore spot.

In 2016, President Trump only won 33% of the vote in the most populous county in the state that is about 70% Latino. Last night, 46% of the vote broke for Trump.

Early exit polling suggests Trump was aided by Cuban voters: 58% of them in Florida supported the president. But South Americans, who made up 3% of the electorate, were also split evenly between Biden and Trump. Many of those voters hail from countries such as Venezuela, where socialism is not just a phrase but a lived experience.

Although Biden denounced these views in national interviews, Garcia and others say he failed to reach out directly to Latino voters in South Florida and counteract the messages they were getting on television, in the mail and in their WhatsApp chats.

“You do not respond to the label of you being called a socialist and you think that’s not going to affect you?" he said.

Murguía said Trump proved that targeting specific Latino subgroups in a precise way can get you traction. “And when you are not seeing those messages countered or the investment to cultivate new voters on the Democrat side, you’re going to see results that reflect that failure.”

An appeal to other issues

Santiago Avila, Florida chairman for the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said Trump’s messaging around socialism and communism “played a part” in his gains among Latino voters in Florida. However he doesn’t believe it is ultimately what won him over.

He said he believes that voters were also persuaded by messaging around the support of law enforcement in the midst of violent rioting that occurred in many cities over the summer, as well as a steady stream of reminders about the thriving economy before COVID struck.

Cowan, the owner of a new restaurant, said that although her socialist fears motivated her to vote for Trump, the future of her business was just as important a factor. “As a small-business owner, I think he is the best candidate,” she said.

Garcia said Trump also beat Biden when it came to messaging around religion. He said many Latinos, particularly those in Florida who are usually recent arrivals to the United States, come from Evangelical Christian and Catholic faiths that influence their views on issues like abortion.

“Religion is very important in the Latino community,” Garcia said. However, he said Biden did not make his own Catholic faith a central figure of his campaign, or his outreach efforts to Latino voters. “We need to be able to address their concerns in order to win them over.”

Ana Rosa Quintana, a Latin American policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said it is disingenuous to make the argument that Latino voters were somehow duped into voting for Trump because of his messaging around socialism and communism.

“Could there have been some disinformation out there, absolutely,” she said. “But were people duped to the point that it resulted in this massive shift and outcome? No.”

She said blaming Trump’s win on disinformation won’t result in any lessons learned for future candidates trying to compete among Latino voters in the state. “That is folks not taking it upon themselves to truly understand just how much they did not understand and identify the community.”

Campaign early and often

Natascha Otero, founded the group Boricuas con Biden and has been campaigning on behalf of Democrats for five election cycles in South Florida, particularly targeting Puerto Rican voters.

One of the biggest lessons she said she’s learned is the importance of establishing an early connection with Latino voters and consistently speaking to them about the issues that matter.

“You need to engage early and continuously,” she said. “Not, 'Oh, let’s put a $100 million in media buys for the last month of the election.”

Like others, Otero said she was disappointed the Biden campaign and large super PACs that supported him only began to really target Latino voters toward the end of the race. She said that for Puerto Rican voters in Florida, consistent engagement from politicians of every party has been successful.

She said Puerto Ricans, who tend to vote Democrat two-thirds of the time, helped Rick Scott win a Senate seat because he spent 14 months speaking directly to them after Hurricane Maria.

“The only political face they knew was Rick Scott,” she said.

Murguía said that campaigns don’t have to invent the wheel to do this.

Rather, they should lean on local groups that already make frequent contact with Latino voters in the state.

“Until we see real commitments, sustained commitments to do that, you’re going to have some folks scratching their heads because there are going to be gaps that make voters vulnerable.”

Greater representation

Before Joe Biden became the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, Chuck Rocha helped Bernie Sanders win large swaths of Latino voters in Nevada, California and Texas during his 2020 primary run. Rocha, who supported Biden during the election through a super PAC, said Biden did many things right: like raising a lot of money that was spent on ads in places like Florida and Texas.

However, he said a lot of that money was funneled out by groups outside of the direct Biden campaign and much of it was wasted because the people in charge of ad buys and messaging were not members of the Latino community here.

“When you hire a bunch of woke white consultants to Google translate your ad into Spanish and think that is going to suffice as a Latino outreach operation, it’s just not,” he said.

He said that he wishes he would have seen large-scale efforts to directly contradict some of the disinformation being spread about the Biden campaign, particularly on Spanish radio and YouTube. “That never really happened at any level.”

Rocha said that collaborating with local groups on the ground in communities and making them an essential part of the campaign, rather than a small offshoot is key. He said it will be the difference between messaging that falls flat and messaging that makes specific and direct appeals to voters that hail from different nations.

Quintana said that advice is useful for both sides of the aisle. Although Trump seemed to over perform among Latinos, she said that both Democrats and Republicans still have a ways to go to understand the complexity of the Latino population in Florida and around the country.

Like others, she said that for many politicians and campaigns, it is often shocking that Cuban-Americans, Salvadorian-Americans and Colombian-Americans might not have all that much in common when it comes to issues and might not respond to the same appeals.

“We’ve lumped everybody together into this one pan-ethnic, pan-racial category just because we all kind of eat the same food,” Quintana said.

Rocha said that without a more nuanced approach from Democrats, he fears the worst. “We’re going to continue to lose more elections.”

Andrew Boryga can be reached at 954-356-4533 or aboryga@sunsentinel.com. Follow on Twitter @borywrites.

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