Florida Hispanic voting patterns serve as warning for Democrats

Florida has become the worst-case scenario for Democrats, a glaring warning about other states if the party does not aggressively court Hispanic voters

Jan Mendez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, gives David Bolivar, who is from Colombia, a haircut at the Visionary Barbershop in Kissimmee, Fla. on Aug. 31. (Octavio Jones/For The Washington Post)
16 min

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The first major indicator that Democrats might be losing their hold on the Hispanic community here came during Sen. Bill Nelson’s 2018 reelection bid.

Gov. Rick Scott, his Republican challenger, was making inroads with Puerto Rican voters after his engaged response to Hurricane Maria. Hispanic political strategists tried to sound the alarm, warning the Democratic Party committee in Washington that Nelson’s outreach to the Hispanic community was close to nonexistent. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee told them not to worry, according to people who took part in the discussions: The Democrats had Florida locked up.

Nelson ended up losing by 10,000 votes, a slim defeat that strategists from both parties concluded could have been avoided had Democrats aggressively targeted Florida’s 2.5 million Hispanic registered voters.

A Democrat has not won a national race in Florida since.

This year’s midterms are expected to feature historic Democratic investment in advertising and outreach to Hispanic voters, an effort to stunt significant GOP gains and prevent similar inroads in states with burgeoning Hispanic communities.

Despite the investment, Democratic strategists and party leaders are pessimistic about their prospects among Hispanic voters in Florida after losing ground with that demographic in the state in the two most recent election cycles. Strategists privately admit that Democrats are still not investing enough to attract Florida’s Hispanic voters as the party sees that years of neglect and cultural conservatism has made the voting base too partisan to sway.

Florida is emerging as a glaring warning for Democrats about what can happen if they do not aggressively court Hispanic voters in other states, some party strategists say.

As the fastest-growing U.S. voting bloc, Hispanics could reshape the landscape of electoral politics for decades, making them essential in races that are determined at the statistical margins. Strategists for both parties said Latinos should now be viewed as swing voters, a group that needs constant persuasion and engagement because their turnout rate could determine close elections. Spanish speakers also have been targeted with misinformation and disinformation, which could further depress their turnout.

Although a majority of Latinos voted Democratic in 2020, the erosion of their support for the party in Florida and South Texas shook the long-standing notion that demographic change in the United States would automatically benefit Democrats.

The shift in those regions reflects the complexities of Hispanic communities in different parts of the country — and the fact that the political leanings of Latino voters are shaped by what country they hail from, generational differences, gender, religion and number of years spent in the United States.

A Washington Post-Ipsos poll released Friday finds that 63 percent of Hispanic registered voters would support Democrats for Congress if the election were held today, while 36 percent support Republicans. While Democrats’ 27-point advantage is similar to Biden’s support in 2020, it is smaller than Democrats’ roughly 40-point advantages in 2018 and 2016 in exit polls and validated voter surveys.

Many Democratic strategists consider Florida a lost cause for the party, specifically because of its unique makeup. Roughly 30 percent of the Hispanic population in Florida is Cuban, a group that nationwide favors the GOP by 20 points, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. South Americans, another large and influential group in Florida, comparatively favor the Democratic Party nationwide by 12 points, according to Pew.

“There’s definitely an outlier that makes [Florida] very different, which is this huge population of civically minded, engaged, older, solidly Republican Cubans that you’re never going to persuade to vote for a Democrat. That sets it apart from every other state in the union,” said Chuck Rocha, a Latino campaign strategist credited with attracting Hispanic voters to the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Nevada and Texas’s Rio Grande Valley.

Puerto Ricans are the second-largest Hispanic population in Florida, with most residing between Tampa and Orlando. And they remain a historically reliable voting bloc for Democrats nationwide, with 52 percent of Puerto Rican likely voters saying they support the party this year — a 30-point advantage over Republicans, according to Pew.

But strategists are warning Democrats that many Puerto Ricans who have relocated to Florida from the island in recent years because of Hurricane Maria or economic instability are showing similar skepticism toward Democrats as some South American immigrants who fled extreme or socialist regimes.

“The Democrats have been caught a little flat-footed,” Rocha said.

A shifting landscape

President Donald Trump realized a 12-point gain in support among Latino voters in Florida in 2020 compared with 2016, narrowing the advantage Democrats have had in previous elections. Mike Madrid, a Latino Republican strategist who has publicly condemned his party’s move toward Trump, said Democrats are betting on racial politics and issues of racial discrimination to motivate Latino voters. But Republicans are focusing on the economy, using “literally the exact same playbook” with Latinos as they have with White blue-collar workers.

“There’s no economic messages coming from the Democrats. None. So they’re not only losing White blue-collar workers, they’re losing Brown blue-collar workers,” Madrid said. “The Democrats really don’t understand the size and scope of their problem, and they’re stuck in their own cultural cul-de-sac.”

Democratic strategists argue that their party can now tout that it is helping Hispanics after the Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, an infrastructure package and bipartisan gun legislation. The Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness plan also significantly benefits Latinos, who carry a disproportionately large amount of student debt.

“I think people have been asking, ‘What are Democrats in the administration doing?’ ” said the pollster Matt Barreto, who advised the Biden campaign and now helps the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We’re finally, in my opinion, starting to see progress on multiple items that I think Democrats can do a good job selling to Latino voters.”

Democrats explain the shift to Republicans in 2020 by pointing to the lack of canvassing during the pandemic and to Republican attacks that highlighted socialism and defunding law enforcement — topics that resonate with specific populations of Latinos.

“I do not think there has been a massive national correction or erosion of Hispanic voters who are flocking to the Republican Party,” said Fernand Armandi, a Florida-based pollster who surveys Hispanic voters. “I don’t think that’s borne out by the data that I’ve certainly seen and conducted, with a couple exceptions — namely Florida.”

As economic worry grows, Democrats face weary Vegas voters

In Rocha’s view, Democrats took the wrong lesson from the presidential victories of Barack Obama in Florida when they saw an already reliable Hispanic voting base turn out overwhelmingly for him in 2008 and 2012. Rocha said that under an assumption about those voters, Democrats for years made little effort to court Hispanics, focusing instead on other persuadable voting blocs without realizing that Republicans were making inroads and that the population was changing.

In the 2020 election, Joe Biden underperformed Hillary Clinton’s showing four years earlier in Hispanic-heavy South Florida by double digits. Democrats in 2020 would end up losing two House seats in Miami-Dade County, a Latino stronghold, after having just flipped them in 2018. Farther north, turnout for Democrats did not meet expectations around the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando — a harrowing sign after the Biden campaign heavily targeted Puerto Rican voters there.

“Many of us were telling the DSCC [in 2018], especially in Florida, that Republicans were putting in the work. Rick Scott put in the work,” said Cristina Antelo, a Cuban American lobbyist who was among those issuing warnings about the race. “Then came 2020, and [Democrats] finally saw that after taking the Latino vote for granted, they saw the trends moving towards the GOP. It wasn’t just an anomaly in Florida anymore.”

How Democrats have adjusted

After the startling results in 2020, Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s chief of staff, Mike Lynch, convened a meeting with several strategists. The group wanted to avoid in the 2022 elections losses such as what occurred in Florida and South Texas, according to Antelo.

The collective advice was that the DSCC, headed by Schumer (N.Y.), should invest earlier, invest often, direct campaigns to hire Hispanic strategists and have candidates show up in communities that rarely get attention.

Democrats have already made historic investments in Hispanic voter outreach this cycle, the most the party has ever devoted to any midterm elections, according to Democratic National Committee staffers and strategists. So far, the DSCC has invested $46 million across nine Senate battlegrounds that includes funding to hire organizers focused on reaching Latinos. And the DSCC is coordinating with senators’ reelection campaigns in Arizona, Colorado and Nevada to mobilize the vote. The DCCC has reserved more than $1.5 million for Spanish-language advertising in key districts nationwide on top of a historic $30 million investment to engage minority communities.

Build Back Together, a nonprofit group launched by Biden campaign alumni to tout the administration’s policy achievements, has prioritized outreach by hiring Latino strategists and Latino-run campaign firms to inform communities about what Democrats have accomplished over the past year. The Democratic National Committee and the nonprofit group have been running ads in key states earlier than usual this year, specifically targeting Hispanic communities.

But Rocha criticized his party for historically “obsessing” over campaign models to determine which voters to target. The lack of Hispanic consultants at the table meant that much of the population was targeted with ineffective advertising or was ignored entirely, he said.

Ignoring Hispanic voters is becoming less of an option as the population grows. The Senate majority will run through several states with large Hispanic communities, among them Florida, Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania. And strategists from both parties see the path to the House majority through the margins, particularly in districts with Hispanic populations of 30 percent or more, as is the case in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and California.

“Latinos will determine who controls Congress and in the Senate in the next election,” Rocha said. “The Senate is doing a great job to make sure that they do get that vote, and the House candidates are not.”

Several strategists agreed. Senate campaigns, which have to mobilize an entire state of voters, tend to get more attention from national organizations, meaning more money and resources. But House races, which require smaller, more targeted campaigns, typically get less attention, funding and advice to hire Hispanic staffers, so investment in Latino turnout tends to suffer, three campaign strategists said.

In defending the House majority, the DCCC also focuses its resources on competitive swing districts rather than contributing a set amount to all races. BOLD PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s fundraising arm, however, gets involved in races according to whether a Hispanic incumbent or candidate is running, regardless of how safe the seat may be.

The DCCC is invested in a toss-up race in Miami-Dade County this cycle but is not helping in other Florida districts considered Democratic strongholds. Although some members in safe districts across the country have privately expressed that such decisions make for a missed opportunity, Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) — whose reliably blue, Orlando-area district is one-third Hispanic — does not expect any help from the DCCC.

“Look, we’re an expensive swing state. We win less times than we lose,” he said. “I’m not in a particularly swing seat. We want [the DCCC] to spend money on those top races, so I think they’re doing what they need to do. I don’t begrudge them any way. In fact, I pay them money to help other candidates.”

Republicans still have work to do nationwide, even though they have a more favorable base in Florida. The Pew poll found that a majority of Hispanic registered voters believe the GOP is less empathetic to Latino voters, but nearly half — 45 percent — say the party is working hard to earn their vote. Still, that is considerably less than the 71 percent of respondents who said they think Democrats are working to earn their votes.

Republican House Latinos mobilize to bolster ranks and influence

Bertica Cabrera Morris, a longtime Republican Latina consultant based here, thinks Hispanic voters are becoming more receptive to the GOP because more of the party’s candidates look and sound like them.

“I would tell you that 10 years ago, we didn’t have the number of Hispanic candidates that we have today,” she said. “That is what is encouraging people to vote in the election. They see people that look like them, that are good candidates running for office.”

Antelo agrees, warning that the GOP “has hacked the playbook and knows the game better than Democrats do.”

But the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade could dent Republican efforts with Hispanic voters, particularly women.

Republicans have often sought to appeal to socially conservative Latinos on the issue of abortion, though the Post-Ipsos poll shows that the issue is a strength for Democrats among Hispanics. A 67 percent majority of Hispanic voters oppose the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, including over half of whom strongly oppose it. Two thirds of Catholic Hispanic voters oppose the overturning of Roe along with about 8 in 10 Hispanics with no particular religion.

The results mirror what Rocha and Barreto have seen in internal focus groups and polling data, especially among Latinas.

Soto, the congressman from Florida, thinks that Hispanics will vote with his party on abortion but that it will be a decision voiced in the ballot box rather than publicly, given that it is a private decision for many.

“It will be a factor among Latina turnout. I’m convinced on it, in Florida,” he said.

The Republican Party’s efforts to downplay issues of racial discrimination, including states’ efforts to censor books and minimizing the role of slavery in American history in schools, could also be problematic with Latino voters. The recent Pew survey found that 61 percent of Latino adults think people not seeing racial discrimination where it does exist is a bigger problem for the country than the reverse — people perceiving racial discrimination where there is none.

Voter burnout challenges Democratic turnout

Voter apathy has long left millions of Hispanics up for grabs by either party. Those voters have been caught in a cycle where a lack of engagement by political parties leaves them disinclined to vote, which in turn leads political parties to redirect their attention to other groups.

Jose Vazquez, 52, used to be deeply engaged in politics as an independent and would always vote according to which candidate and party he perceived as delivering results. But now, like many others interviewed in the Orlando area, he said he did not vote in the primaries in August and does not plan to turn out in November because “nothing changes” when he casts his ballot.

“What’s the point of voting? Sincerely, does it matter?” the native Puerto Rican said in Spanish outside his condo here. “Latinos will protest, but what happens? Nothing. Just talk” by politicians.

In 2020, Latinos had the lowest voter turnout among all race groups, at roughly 54 percent, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. That’s roughly 17 percentage points behind the White voter turnout and roughly eight and six percentage points behind Black and Asian turnout, respectively.

Inside a barber shop, Armando Arollo, the 20-something store manager, says he has never voted because no politician has ever really shown up. Other colleagues agreed.

“I don’t see many politicians who care about visiting small businesses or the Latinos. I haven’t seen much of that; I’m not really interested in voting,” Arollo said.

Several other voters, many of whom declined to give their names, said that although they are budgeting much more carefully than before because of higher prices, they do not plan to turn out for either party in November.

Just down the street, Vazquez worries that neither party is capable of calming the extremes and adequately fixing a country he believes “is crumbling little by little, following Venezuela’s path” because of the unstable economy and tendencies to stray away from helping the middle class.

Rocha said Democratic success in mobilizing voters and countering voter apathy comes down to how Democrats talk about their policies. Even though Sanders is a declared “democratic socialist” — a term on which the GOP has capitalized to scare Hispanics, especially South Florida Hispanics, who fled such regimes — he still won every county in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley in the Democratic primary because “he showed up” and “had a debate about the system being rigged against working-class Americans,” Rocha said.

Soto, like many strategists, acknowledges that Democrats can win the presidency and majorities in Congress without Florida — which is an expensive state in which to campaign — while Republicans cannot claim the same. Even if resources are moved to other states, Democrats in the Sunshine State hope to work to turn the ship around.

“It would be foolish to concede on a state that we could win even without their help,” Soto said. “But we’re going to keep fighting. We got no other choice. We live here. This is our home, right? And you have communities around here who want us to keep fighting.”