The mythology of the Cuban American voter
The botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion is often described as the reason Cuban Americans attached themselves to the Republican Party. According to this story, exiles felt betrayed by President John F. Kennedy’s last-minute decision to withdraw air support for Cubans during the invasion and vowed never to back Democrats. Though this story is simple and elegant, the truth is more complicated. Democrats were still winning in Cuban enclaves late into the 1970s; Republicans gained over 15 points of support in these neighborhoods between 1976 and 1980. Indeed, newspaper reports suggest that, as late as 1982, Republicans held only a 15-point party registration advantage over Democrats among Miami-Dade County’s Cuban Americans. This suggests that Ronald Reagan, not the Bay of Pigs, was the major catalyst for Cuban conversion.
Further, although many portray Cuban Americans as a unified voting bloc motivated by Cuba policy, the community divides starkly over precisely this issue. The 2020 Cuba Poll conducted by Florida International University reveals that 66 percent believe the embargo has not worked to dislodge Cuban communism but that 54 percent support continuing it and 56 percent prefer maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba. These small majorities suggest that even on the foundational issue of Cuba policy, Cuban American opinions are far from uniform.
Though Americans of Cuban descent pull the lever for the GOP more often than those from other Latin American groups do, that still varies dramatically within the community. The Cuba Poll reveals that among those who arrived between 1995 and 2009, 49 percent identify with the Republican Party — but among those who arrived between 2010 and 2015, 76 percent do. Further, only 40 percent of those born in the United States identify as Republicans, while 36 percent identify as Democrats for a nearly even split.
Attitudes vary by where individuals live, as well. More than 70 percent of Cuban Americans live in Florida, with most residing in Miami-Dade County. As research on partisanship among Black Americans has shown, social pressure from other group members can enforce political unity. Cuban Americans who live farther from the Miami exile community are more likely to support Democrats. In Union City, N.J., the second-largest enclave in the country, Cuban American elected officials tend to be Democrats. While politicians seeking Cuban American votes might focus on South Florida, in fact, Cubans do live elsewhere — and do not necessarily vote in lockstep with their Miami compatriots.
Cuban Americans, like most people, vote on party identity
During 2020’s election season, Trump tightened sanctions on Cuba; Democratic nominee Joe Biden criticized Trump for meeting with the authoritarian Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro; and Trump’s violation of the Cuba embargo to explore building a Trump Tower in Havana received renewed attention. But short-term electoral appeals and potentially damaging news stories are unlikely to change whom these citizens vote for; candidate support is mostly set at this point.
Political scientists have long established that for most people, partisanship is a social identity, as stable as other such identities, like religious and ethnic affiliation. Like most people, partisans interpret news through a process called “motivated reasoning,” retaining information that confirms their beliefs and being less responsive to facts that threaten their party identity.
As a result, trying to win over Cuban Americans through Cuba policy is unlikely to be successful because it assumes voters support candidates based on issue positions, which they often don’t, rather than party identity. It assumes that Cubans are united on foreign policy, which they are not.
If parties and candidates want to court Cuban American voters, they might want to acknowledge the community’s internal diversity. For the GOP, this could mean encouraging older exiles who might be worried about contracting the novel coronavirus to vote by mail and solidifying bonds with the recent arrivals who are the most ardent Trump supporters. For Democrats, this might involve boosting registration and turnout rates among the native-born Cuban Americans who are more evenly split between the two parties.
During every election cycle, pundits discuss the expansive category of “Latino” as if it were unified, treating Cuban Americans as an exception to the general observation that people of Latin American descent vote for Democrats. But even Cuban American politics are complicated, often interpreted through myths, exaggerations and stereotypes. Much like the island nation and its iconic classic cars, common understandings of Cuban American politics can seem frozen in time. Because Cuban Americans make up 29 percent of the Latino electorate in Florida, it may be time to defrost them.