When Donald Trump’s campaign manager said in Miami recently that he planned to launch a national Hispanic outreach effort in Florida, Democrats took notice.
The state’s 2.2 million Hispanic voters make up an outsized portion of Florida’s electorate, and nearly two-thirds voted in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. Last year, Trump’s hard-line immigration policies and rhetoric contributed to sweeping Republican losses around the country as strong Hispanic turnout helped Democrats take the House of Representatives.
But the belief in demographic destiny is dead among Florida Democrats, crushed in November by victorious Trump-backed candidates who more than reversed his 2016 losses among Sunshine State Hispanics. In races decided by the thinnest of margins, Florida’s Hispanic voters swung back to the right just enough to deliver wins to two of Trump’s top allies, keeping the governorship in conservative hands and turning over a Democratic U.S. Senate seat to the Republicans.
So as the top 20 Democratic presidential candidates descend upon Miami ahead of next week’s primary debates, their ability to communicate with South Florida’s massive Hispanic population will be front and center. Because among Florida’s fastest growing voting bloc, Trump merely needs to lose by less in order to once again take Florida’s 29 electoral college votes in 2020.
“Republicans are not in any effort to win the Hispanic vote. That’s never their objective,” said Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi. “Their calculus is how do we manage the margins and do what’s necessary to squeeze out an extra 4 or 5 percentage points, which in the state of Florida represents the margins between victory and defeat.”
That’s exactly what happened in 2018.
Following Trump’s election, Democrats lost 8 percentage points at the top of the ticket. Hispanic turnout nearly doubled compared to the previous midterm election in 2014, but data suggest turnout skewed older and Cuban, a demographic group that votes reliably Republican. Exit polls showed Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson earning only about 54 percent of the Hispanic vote against Congressman Ron DeSantis and then-Gov. Rick Scott, respectively, in the races for governor and U.S. Senate.
In their campaigns, the Republicans provided a playbook for Trump in 2020 by aggressively courting exile communities in Miami — home to nearly half the state’s voting Hispanic population — and, in Scott’s case, traveling to Puerto Rico at least a half-dozen times. They also waged an aggressive straw man campaign against socialism, casting their opponents, including the centrist Nelson, as leftists in the mold of Fidel Castro and Nicolás Maduro.
Now, the question is whether 2018 was an anomaly made possible only by Trump’s absence from the ballot, or whether it was the beginning of a trend in which Republican candidates are making inroads with the state’s largest minority voting bloc. Polling has varied, but Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale says internal data show the president is in better shape with Hispanics than in 2016 — a scenario that would jibe with Trump’s aggressive efforts to crack down on Cuba through sanctions and support in Venezuela for opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
“The Trump brand and Trump personally, as you would expect, is rather toxic, but his policies are not — even the ones people would ordinarily think are anathema to Latino voters,” said California Republican John Jordan, a prominent donor who commissioned a national Latino voter survey last month.
The poll of 1,000 people by McLaughlin & Associates found that Trump was underwater against Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders but also found reason to believe that a messaging campaign can boost the president’s numbers. Nearly half of those queried, for instance, believe the country is “headed in the right direction.” Amandi, the Democratic pollster, also noted that there is a statistically significant population of Hispanic voters in Florida who traveled legally to the country and agree with the president’s immigration stance.
Democrats, on the other hand, generally admit that they were out-strategized last year. But they believe that the jump in Hispanic support for the Democratic nominee in Florida from 2012 to 2016 is the more telling trend than the drop-off from 2016 to 2018. A Democratic National Committee official said Monday that Trump is “maxed out” with white voters in Florida, and that the party is already on the ground working to claw back its margins with Hispanics.
Already mobilized, the party this month sent the first 90 of 300 organizers — many of them bilingual — into South Florida and Central Florida in order to register voters and talk shop. And party leaders recognized the gaping hole they left in their media strategy by failing to promote Hispanic party surrogates on Spanish-language media. Since the midterm elections, the state party has gathered at least 78 surrogates to promote on news and social programs in Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Puerto Rico.
“We’re right on the issues, we’re just not communicating it as effectively” on Spanish radio and TV, Miami-Dade Democratic activist Ricky Junquera said this month during the Democratic Party’s leadership conference in Orlando. “Republicans are dictating what’s being said and how it’s being said.”
A key test on whether Democrats can successfully counteract Republicans’ inroads with Hispanic voters will come over the next two weeks as the top 20 presidential candidates descend on Miami ahead of the party’s first primary debate of the 2020 cycle. Their debates will be broadcast live on Telemundo, and 8 of the 20 will participate Friday in a National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials (NALEO) forum at the Telemundo Center in Doral.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said he believes the party’s presidential candidates have an opportunity next week in Miami to leap forward in the fight for Hispanic voters. He says Democrats need to explain that they’re pushing to grant temporary protected status to Venezuelans and trying to improve medical access for the working class.
Whether those efforts are effective could determine the results of the coming election in Florida, where the party believes there are 400,000 Hispanics in Florida who are both unregistered and likely Democrats.
“We’re making sure voters understand that [Republicans] don’t have any ideas,” Perez told the Miami Herald in a recent interview. “While we’re trying to build an America that works for everyone, they’re trying to give tax cuts to wealthy people. Capitalism is at its best when it has guard rails.”