TAMPA — The rhythms of salsa music pulsed through Al Lopez Park during the annual Conga Caliente festival on Sunday afternoon. Families brought fold-out chairs and enjoyed snacks from the kiosks selling skewers of meat, arepas and plantains filled with cheese, while Latina stars like Albita performed on stage.
Amid the student dance groups and vendors hawking sugar-sweet raspados, there was a life-size cutout of President Donald Trump. Some people shook their heads or muttered insults as they passed by while carrying plates of orange fried bacalao, but others stopped to take a picture or high-five the “Latinos for Trump” volunteers hovering nearby.
“To reach Hispanics, you have to be at their events,” said Rosie Paulsen, 49, one of the volunteer organizers. “They have to become very aware of who you are.” She wore a Wonder Woman outfit and snapped photos of supporters posing with the Trump cutout. Another volunteer danced to the music as she waved Trump signs.
Despite Trump’s harsh immigration policies and demeaning comments about foreigners, Republicans are betting on making in-roads with Florida’s diverse Latino communities to boost voter turnout in the 2020 election. Those efforts can make all the difference in Florida, a key swing state where candidates win elections by less than half a percentage point.
“It’s about the margins,” said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster based in Miami. “Even if Republicans never get a majority, what they are focused on is getting a certain percentage to offset the margin of defeat.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis won the 2018 election by 0.4 percentage points. His share of the Hispanic vote was 44 percent, versus 54 percent for his opponent, Andrew Gillum, according to Pew Research Center. Latino turn-out for Trump in 2016 wasn’t nearly so high, but was still significant compared to the national average, according to CNN exit polls (35 percent in Florida versus 28 percent nationally).
The Republican party has traditionally engaged more Latino voters in Florida than nationwide because of the state’s large population of Cubans, who skew conservative.
But Cubans no longer make up the majority of Hispanic voters in Florida. As that base shrinks, new populations with other backgrounds are in play. In the past few years, that means Venezuelans fleeing their country’s economic crisis and Puerto Ricans relocating after Hurricane Maria, as well as larger shares of Dominicans, Mexicans, and Colombians, each with their own cultural perspective.
“The Hispanic electorate is not a cohesive vote and never has been,” said Susan MacManus, a Florida political analyst and University of South Florida professor emerita.
Originally from Ecuador, Paulsen said she supported Trump because the business climate had improved for Hispanic entrepreneurs under his policies. She also admired his family. “To me, Ivanka Trump is like Jackie Onassis — very proper,” she said.
Trump’s rough demeanor and comments about Latinos don’t bother her — he was just another politically-incorrect boomer, the kind she worked with as a Medicare insurance broker, she said.
“I don’t take anything personal.”
At the festival, some stopped to share their enthusiasm with Paulsen and other supporters.
“There’s been good changes for the jobs and the economy with Trump,” said Juan Garzón, a 46-year-old IT worker originally from Colombia.
Other voters were more conflicted.
“I’m not a Trump supporter, unless things change,” said Rose Santana, 58, whose family is from Puerto Rico.
She didn’t think Republicans were totally wrong on immigration. The laws should be enforced, she believed. But it was the way Trump went about it — popping off with negative comments about Latinos and separating children at the border last year — that turned her off.
Other issues were important to her, like healthcare and the economy. A registered Independent, she said she planned to keep an open mind to see what Democrats said about those topics. “I like to watch the debates and see who is doing what, and then make my decision on Election Day,” she said.
She took a flier anyway.
Independent voters like Santana make up a growing portion of the Florida electorate, including Hispanic registered voters, according to MacManus. That makes them a prize for both parties.
At the Hillsborough Democratic voter registration table, there was no salsa dancing, costumes or cutouts. That was partly because Democrats have yet to decide who will be the face of the party in the general election.
Voters would get more excited “as soon as we have a candidate,” predicted Donna Harwood, 69, treasurer of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party
In the meantime, volunteers invited people to sign petitions for two Democratic priorities: A $15 minimum wage and a gun control bill.
MacManus said the rise of younger voters in Florida will be just as important to watch in 2020 as it overlaps with Hispanic voters. Voters age 18 to 53 now make up 52 percent of Florida’s registered voters and a large portion of that group did not register with either party.
Jerreth Escobar, 20, strolled the festival eating a peach and mango Sno-cone. He had recently joined the Marines and was enjoying the festival with his girlfriend.
The 2020 election would be Escobar’s first time at the polls and, though he said he was open to voting for either party, he had registered with the Democrats because he admired former President Barack Obama’s leadership.
“I think Trump is not a good president,” he said. “It’s probably the way he talks and the way he describes people and how he doesn’t respect different cultures.”