Conventional wisdom holds that President Trump is contemplating a Lagoa nomination to seduce Florida’s Latino voters before the election. It’s tempting to dismiss this as a desperate political ploy unlikely to make a difference. The thing is, thanks to Joe Biden’s near-abandonment of this crucial battleground state, the gambit might just succeed.
At the moment, Trump and Biden are basically tied among registered voters here. If past is precedent, Biden should handily win Latinos in Florida, as Hillary Clinton did in 2016 when she amassed more than 62 percent of the vote. But amazingly, one recent poll showed Trump leading with Latinos in Florida. Another showed him splitting the Latino vote with Biden in heavily Democratic Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county, which is 70 percent Hispanic. This week’s Post survey was more favorable, but it still shows Biden well behind Clinton’s pace.
This is a voting bloc Biden can’t afford to ignore. Florida had 2.2 million registered Hispanic voters as of January, about 17 percent of all registered voters in the state. And among Florida’s Latino groups, the state’s 1.2 million Cuban Americans are the largest.
It is true that, as first-generation hard-liners from the 1960s and ’70s are replaced by younger Cuban Americans, the group’s historical allegiances have shifted, with Republican voter registration in this community dropping from 70 percent in the 1990s to 54 percent in 2018. But it might not be changing fast enough for Biden. Trump won 54 percent of Florida’s Cuban American vote in 2016. And Latino voters — many of them Cuban — helped flip a Senate seat and hand the governorship to Republicans in the otherwise “Blue Wave” year of 2018.
This is where Lagoa comes in. Trump almost certainly needs Florida to win, so he has made a concerted effort to court Latinos, especially Cuban Americans, who love to hear him talk tough on socialism and hammer away at runaway radicals. Cubans are coveted because they zealously turn out to vote in larger numbers compared with other Hispanics, analysts say. But Trump’s anti-socialist message also resonates with Florida’s Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and Colombians, whose home countries have grappled with leftist dictatorships or movements.
Spanish-language radio in Miami applauds Trump every day. He campaigns here relentlessly. His followers are visible and loud. They lead caravans by car, boat and golf cart. They turn up en masse in shopping-mall parking lots, handing out pro-Trump placards with the swiftness of blackjack dealers. Trump gets that Florida Latinos are famously hugs-and-kisses people. They like to see you in person.
Biden, by contrast, has been invisible. The novel coronavirus has confined him to small screens or even smaller, last-minute, barely promoted campaign events. Many Latinos here don’t even know Biden’s powerful story or Senate track record. He visited Tampa this month, but almost nobody noticed.
He’s also failing to break through to Latinos with his messaging. South Florida Zip codes lead the nation in Obamacare enrollees — but Biden isn’t winning over voters on health care. We’ve reached into the Greek alphabet this year to name our hurricanes, but his climate change comments aren’t breaking through. Even Biden’s strong stances on defeating covid-19 and fixing our immigration system have fallen short. Florida, sadly, never took covid-19 that seriously to begin with. And immigration does not play as well here because Cubans, until recently, had their own privileged immigration status and Puerto Ricans — whose population numbers rival those of Cuban Americans — are U.S. citizens.
A Lagoa nomination, then, would be another key indicator that Trump is committed to, and connecting with, Cuban Americans and South Florida Latinos in a way Biden has not been. “If he nominates a Hispanic woman, I suspect it will have influence on two or three percent of the vote,” says Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic strategist and expert on the Hispanic electorate.
Two or 3 percent might not seem like much. But this is Florida, where presidential-election margins are so slim that tropical gusts can flip them. And among a large and passionate voting pool such as the Cuban American community — one Biden has done too little to court — that 2 or 3 percent could well prove decisive.