These events have left the professional political class searching for answers — about what happened and what it means for the future. But for anyone looking hard enough, the signs have been everywhere.
In Miami-Dade, they flapped from boats and bikes, were plastered across yards and walls, and stuck to cars and motorcycles — evidence of Trump’s courtship of Cuban Americans, a crucial Republican voting bloc. In 2016, Trump scarcely won Hialeah, which is dominated by Cuban Americans; this year, he earned about two-thirds of the vote there. He also captured 30 percent of the statewide votes of Puerto Ricans, the second-largest group of Latinos in Florida, and 48 percent of the ballots of “other Latinos,” the catchall label for Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Colombians and the rest of the state’s Latin American voters, according to exit polls.
Trump’s playbook for success is no secret. He’s worked South Florida’s Latino vote hard the past four years. He knows many Miami-based Latinos — Cubans, but also Nicaraguans and Venezuelans — were forced out of their home countries by leftist dictators. So he trumpeted the message that a vote for Biden was a vote for the hardcore, liberty-stealing, privacy-filching socialism they had fled. Trump also talked tough on Nicolás Maduro, the leftist president of Venezuela who has plunged the country into chaos.
Ever the showman, Trump knew how to exploit mass media and events. Disinformation was jackhammered into Latinos through YouTube videos and Facebook posts, which were shared widely and then repeated incessantly on old-school Spanish-language radio. Conspiracy theories proliferated on WhatsApp chats, popular among Latinos here, and were hard to combat because WhatsApp messages are encrypted. Trump also held dozens of rallies and frequently mentioned Cuban Americans in speeches and interviews. I saw evidence of his ground game when I walked my dogs the other day and found a faux Trump $100 bill with his face on it on my street.
For their part, Democrats have only themselves to blame. Instead of fighting back, Biden stayed largely invisible and silent, missing opportunities to build common ground with Latinos here. He’s a family man and a moderate. Cuban Americans love Obamacare and Medicare. Democrats want to give Venezuelans who live here a chance to stay until conditions in Venezuela change. They also want to make legal immigration easier. Yet none of this was effectively communicated to Florida voters.
By the time Biden stepped up, holding higher-profile events and dispatching powerful surrogates such as Barack Obama, it was too late. Not even Mike Bloomberg’s last-ditch $100 million ad blitz was enough to stop the Latino tide sweeping toward Trump. Democratic outreach here came too little, too late —as it has most election cycles.
This complacency “has come at an extraordinary cost,” Fernand Amandi, a Democratic strategist who successfully helped shape Hispanic outreach for Obama’s reelection and has been warning Democrats to pay more attention to Florida Latinos, told me. Democrats’ failure to aggressively refute Trump’s portrayal of them as socialists and communists, Amandi added, “borders on political malpractice.”
Biden wasn’t the only Democrat who suffered. On election night, the GOP Latino wave helped flip two House seats, surprising Democrats. Rep. Donna Shalala, former president of the University of Miami and Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton, campaigned as if her reelection were a slam dunk. She lost to Maria Elvira Salazar, a former Spanish-language television journalist who knew how to tap into Latino sentiment while also moderating her stance on Obamacare.
The other defeat belonged to Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who swiped her swing seat from a Republican in 2018. Despite spending heavily, she lost to Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a formidable opponent because of his name recognition and long tenure in office.
Those wins — plus recent political history — suggest Democrats’ troubles are not limited to Trump and will endure beyond 2020. Other Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott, have also aggressively tended to the Latino vote here. Their victories two years ago, when Democrats recaptured the House, should have been a clear harbinger of things to come.
Democrats now have another two years to woo Floridians and turn Miami-Dade back from purple to blue. They should start by learning the lesson of this election: They take Florida’s Latinos for granted at their own peril.
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