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The Fight for the Latino Vote in Florida

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By Laura Castro Lindarte
Production Assistant

Both President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden held events this week to try to reach out to Latino voters ahead of November’s election.

Biden traveled to Florida for the first time since becoming the Democratic nominee Tuesday and attended an event in Kissimmee to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month.

“Donald Trump has done nothing but assault the dignity of Hispanic families over and over again,” Biden said. “More than any other time, the Hispanic community and the Latino community hold in the palm of their hand the destiny of this country.”

Trump, held a roundtable with Latino supporters in Phoenix, Arizona on Monday. This is the fifth time that the president visited Phoenix this year and capped off a weekend where the president participated in events for Latino voters including a rally and another roundtable in Nevada.

“My Latinos, I love the Latinos, but I've always known how great you were,” Trump said at the event in Phoenix. “I will never let you down. I will tell you, I'll never let you down.”

This outreach to Latino voters comes as recent polls have shown that, despite still leading the Latino vote nationally, Biden is faring slightly worse with Latinos than Hilary Clinton did in 2016 in Miami-Dade County, Florida and top Latino groups have raised concerns that the former vice president’s campaign has not done enough to reach the demographic.

Meanwhile, polls have found that Trump is doing slightly better in Miami-Dade County and that Trump has spent more on ads on Spanish-speaking media there.

Florida’s 29 electoral votes will be pivotal and the state has a history of being a key battleground and bellwether. No Republican has won the presidency without winning Florida since 1924.

Miami-Dade is Florida’s most populous county. 68% of the county’s population is Hispanic, 36% of which are from Cuba or have Cuban heritage, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Statewide, Latinos make up about 25% of the population with the largest communities being Cuban Americans and Puerto Ricans.

Guillermo Grenier, the chair of the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University, said in Florida it will all come down to those two communities.

"The Latino vote is Puerto Rican vs. Cuban," he said.

The Cuban American Community

Historically, Cuban-Americans have leaned Republican, making them an outlier among other Latino communities, which often vote Democratic. Grenier said this trend began back in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan reached out to the Cuban community in Miami and asked them to work with him against Communist revolutions in Latin America.

“It's not just an issue of ideology, it's an issue of identity,” said Grenier, who is the lead researcher in Florida International University's Cuba poll that has been measuring Cuban American opinions for 30 years. “Cuban American identity part of it comes from this political affiliation.”

Due to this, Grenier said that usually Democrats won’t try to win over the whole Cuban community, instead they focus on winning big enough chunks of the community that, with the majority of the vote in other Latino communities, will win them the Latino vote in Florida. President Barack Obama did this in 2008 and 2012, getting about 40% of the Cuban vote, according to Grenier.

To do this, one thing is key above everything else, the candidate needs to show up and have an active campaign on the ground.

“Rule of thumb is you got to show up,” Grenier said.

Right now, Democrats in Florida have limited their on-the-ground campaigning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, instead using technology to reach their base. Meanwhile, Republicans continue business as usual, knocking on doors and running a state-wide bus tour to reach voters across the state.

"Biden has been pretty invisible in the community,” Grenier said. “The Trump campaign is omnipresent."

Part of Trump’s strategy to reach the Cuban American community is his rhetoric regarding socialism. The president has frequently attacked Biden on this, claiming that he is just a puppet that the radical socialist Democrats will use to take over the country.

This played out at last month’s Republican National Convention. Maximo Alvarez, a Cuban refugee, spoke at the convention about his own experience fighting communism on the island.

“I'm not sure how effective those kinds of attacks will be in the long run,” said Louis Caldera, a professor of law at American University who specializes in campaigns, voting and elections. “Biden obviously has to counter them and to point out Trump has been president for four years, what exactly has he done about Venezuela or Cuba."

The Puerto Rican Community

In response to increasing pressure to show up on the ground in Florida, Biden took his first trip to the state, but instead of going to Miami-Dade, he visited Kissimmee, a city in Central Florida.

Osceola County, where Kissimmee is located, is 53% Latino, of which about 31% are Puerto Rican, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“There's still a lot of time between now and Election Day to make more trips to Florida,” Caldera said. “The Mexican American and Puerto Rican vote is a huge target of opportunity and that's more of a Central Florida vote so that's a great place for him to be."

Puerto Ricans are unique among the Latino community since the island’s territory status makes them U.S. citizens from birth. This means that, unlike other communities where many have to wait to become citizens to vote, Puerto Ricans are able to vote as soon as they move to the mainland.

“In many ways, the barriers that a lot of other Latino communities face, this community doesn't,” said Jessica Lavariega Monforti, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from California Lutheran University and an expert on Latino politics. “This could be a really key community not just in Florida, but also in the Northeast."

There was a huge influx of Puerto Ricans into Florida after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. The U.S. Census Bureau data shows that nearly 37,000 Puerto Ricans moved to Osceola County following the hurricane, increasing the Puerto Rican population in the area by 22%.

In addition, many Puerto Ricans already living in the mainland U.S. returned to the island to help friends and family living there after the hurricane and “really experienced that devastation” firsthand, Lavariega Monforti said. 

“To see President Trump go to Puerto Rico and start throwing paper towels rolls as a way to symbolize his support for Puerto Rican communities I think was devastating,” Lavariega Monforti said. “It was the ultimate condescension. It's looking at someone who has a mortal wound and giving them a Band-Aid."

Biden was not shy in showing that his goal Tuesday was to reach out to the Puerto Rican community. In addition to mentioning Hurricane Maria in his speech, Biden also unveiled a plan to create a working group to help with the ongoing recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

“I am running to be a president for all Americans, including three million American citizens living in Puerto Rico,” Biden said. “I’m not going to throw paper towels at people whose lives have just been devastated by a hurricane.”

Only time will tell who will win the Latino vote in Florida. But there is no question that winning this community over will be key to winning the Sunshine State.

“It’s really about enthusiasm,” Lavariega Monforti said. "If you're asking someone to come to basically risk their health and risk their pocket book and you don't highly motivate that person, if you don't really excite that person, I'm confident enough to tell you that those people aren't coming."