To win in Florida, Republicans don’t need a Hispanic majority; they only need to capture enough votes at the margins. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won a smaller majority of Latino voters there than Barack Obama in 2012 – and lost the state to Donald Trump. In 2018, the GOP flipped a U.S. Senate seat and took the governor’s mansion in two high-profile races that split the Latino vote more narrowly than in other states with big Hispanic populations.
Now, with 2020 on the horizon, both parties are ramping up their efforts. Last month, the Democrats dispatched 90 community organizers to Hispanic-heavy precincts, with the goal of registering 200,000 new voters.
Yet some strategists worry the party’s failure to take a strong position on Venezuela could cost them. “Foreign policy towards Latin America has always been where the Democrats fall short,” says Helena Poleo, a communications specialist and Venezuelan immigrant.
At the rollout for the Latinos for Trump coalition in Miami, Vice President Mike Pence hit hard against socialism. “It’s impoverished generations and stolen the liberty of millions,” he told the cheering crowd. Daniel Fontan, a Cuban exile at the rally, says he sees President Trump as a bulwark against that: “This man is defending me.”
Helena Poleo couldn’t believe her ears.
The Democratic debates in Miami, which had spanned four long hours over two nights, were over. And no one had even mentioned the crisis in Venezuela.
Candidates made obvious plays for Latino voters, says Ms. Poleo, a communications specialist and Venezuelan immigrant who’ll be voting in the U.S. for the first time in 2020. Onstage, some vowed to decriminalize illegal border crossings and showed off their Spanish-language skills. Many also took time to visit a nearby migrant children’s detention center and denounce the Trump administration’s border policy.
But Florida is home to the nation’s largest Venezuelan population. To Ms. Poleo, the candidates’ failure to address the situation in her home country – where a struggle over the presidency has fueled an economic crisis that’s led to starvation and mass migration – was a stunning disappointment.
“They missed a huge opportunity,” she says.
Ms. Poleo’s view, echoed by political observers, underscores one of the challenges facing Democrats in their bid to secure a larger share of Florida’s Latino electorate in 2020.
It’s true that Hispanic voters lean Democratic, and Mr. Trump’s immigration policies aren’t terribly popular with a majority of them.
Yet the results of recent elections show that the Democratic Party has underperformed in engaging Latino voters here – enough for Republicans to gain an advantage along the margins. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won a smaller majority of Latino voters in Florida than Barack Obama did in 2012 – and she lost the state’s 29 electoral votes to Donald Trump. In 2018, the GOP flipped a U.S. Senate seat and took the governor’s mansion in two very tight, high-profile races that split the Latino vote more narrowly than in other states with big Hispanic populations.
Now, with 2020 on the horizon, both parties are ramping up their efforts in the state, with Republicans looking to build on their recent victories and Democrats laying the groundwork for a new grassroots push. A strong position on Venezuela and its neighbors, coupled with boots-on-the-ground campaigning, could help tip the scales here, political analysts say.
“Foreign policy towards Latin America has always been where the Democrats fall short,” says Ms. Poleo, who runs the Miami-based public relations firm Influence Communications. “This is a huge issue. If we don’t hear the right things from the Democratic candidates, we’re going to swallow a bitter pill and vote for Trump – or not vote at all.”
The Cuban effect
Though still largely Democratic, Latino voters in Florida have always leaned more Republican than those in other states. About 30% are Cuban, a population that has historically leaned more conservative than other Hispanics.
Republican candidates don’t need a Hispanic majority to win in Florida; they only need to capture enough votes at the margins.
Former Florida Gov. Rick Scott famously spent years reaching out to a broad range of Latino communities well before he ran for Democrat Bill Nelson’s long-held U.S. Senate seat in 2018. He regularly dropped by local Cuban and Venezuelan communities and businesses, flew to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and learned to speak Spanish.
Last November, Governor Scott won the Senate race with 45% of the Hispanic vote to Mr. Nelson’s 54%. In states like Nevada and Arizona, where Democrats won a larger share of the Latino vote statewide, Republican candidates lost their races.
Florida state Sen. Annette Taddeo, who also serves as the state committeewoman for the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, says Senator Scott’s victory shows how crucial it is for Democrats to prove that they don’t take Hispanic voters, or their issues, for granted. Like Ms. Poleo, she worries that the party isn’t doing enough to show they care about what’s happening in Venezuela – even as the crisis dominates South Florida news coverage, prompts protests, and brings Latinos from different communities together in common cause.
“It affects the Cuban vote, the Colombian vote, the Nicaraguans, the people who have been here 30, 40 years and have generations of families voting,” Senator Taddeo says. “While the rest of the country may not be as acutely aware [of the Venezuelan crisis], South Florida is.”
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has aligned behind the Trump administration against Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan president whose socialist regime is being threatened by opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
At the rollout for the Latinos for Trump coalition in Miami on June 25 – a day before the Democratic presidential debates were set to start less than 10 miles away – Vice President Mike Pence hit hard against socialism, making it the central theme of his speech. “Latin Americans know better than most about the cost of socialism,” he told the cheering crowd, which included Venezuelan and Cuban exiles and their children. “It’s impoverished generations and stolen the liberty of millions.”
Daniel Fontan, a Trump supporter at the rally who fled Castro’s Cuba in the 1960s, says he has no desire to live in a country like the one he left behind. “People suffered so much,” he recalls.
He says he worries the U.S. is marching in that direction as liberals push back against the values that have made America so exceptional. “We are losing traditions. We are not allowed to have faith of any kind. We have to only go in one way: Their way,” Mr. Fontan says.
President Trump, he says, has been a bulwark against all that. “This man is defending me,” Mr. Fontan says.
A real advantage
To be sure, Democrats still have a real advantage among Hispanic voters. Despite losing Senator Nelson’s seat and the governor’s race, Democrats in Florida scored key wins in Republican-held congressional districts in 2018. And a recent poll for Telemundo found that only 34% of Florida Hispanics say they would reelect Mr. Trump.
Among Venezuelans in Florida, more than two-thirds say they agree with Mr. Trump’s policy regarding their home country. But when asked which party is better able to address the problems that affect them here, 42% choose the Democrats, while just 28% choose Republicans, according to a June survey by Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University.
That said, the party is working to strengthen its foothold. In June, 90 community organizers – nearly half of whom speak Spanish – were dispatched in Hispanic-heavy precincts across the state, with the goal of registering 200,000 new voters for 2020. The party has also hired former Nelson campaign staffer Luisiana Peréz Fernandez to serve as its first Hispanic press secretary.
The Friday after the Democratic debates, Ms. Peréz Fernandez was at the studios of Actualidad Radio, a Spanish-language talk station in Doral, just outside Miami, overseeing another of the Florida Democrats’ Latino engagement efforts: a 30-minute weekly radio show called “Democracia ál Día,” which focuses on Democratic issues and is hosted by veteran broadcaster Julio Cesar Camacho.
The program, which cost the party about $80,000, launched in May and is projected to reach about 6,000 people in Miami. The goal is to eventually expand the show to Tampa and Orlando.
“Things like this are important because it goes more directly to people,” Mr. Camacho says when they finish recording the show.
But he laments that he didn’t have time during the episode to discuss Venezuela – where he himself is originally from – and that Democrats haven’t seen its importance the way Republicans have. “They’re wasting that opportunity,” Mr. Camacho says. “Who doesn’t want to bring their family here at this moment because of what is happening in Venezuela?”
Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the 30% of Florida’s Hispanics who are Cuban represent a majority.