A week before the originally scheduled 15 October debate in Miami between US President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the committee in charge of the event proposed holding it virtually. The recommendation was promptly rejected by the US president, who said he would not participate in a virtual format. The debate has now been cancelled and a rescheduled date is uncertain.
Trump held a rally in Miami on 12 October and the discussion inevitably turned to Latin America and US policy to Cuba and Venezuela. Cuban-Americans and the growing community of Venezuelan Americans have a unique hold on the swing state of Florida and on US policy toward its southern neighbours. Trump’s support is also dwindling with older voters, a key demographic in Florida, which makes the Hispanic vote all the more important.
President Trump’s road back to the White House runs through Florida and its 29 electoral college votes. While the president can win re-election while still losing a few of the swing states that he won unexpectedly in 2016, such as Wisconsin and Michigan, winning in 2020 means re-winning the Sunshine State that former President Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012 and before him George W. Bush in 2000 (when the state’s controversial vote count tipped the national election in his favour) and 2004 and before him Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Other states may serve as a bellwether of US voters’ moods and the direction of the country (such as Ohio), but Florida is critical to tip the electoral college scales with its diverse bloc of Hispanic voters.
What makes the state atypical is not just its unique place as a what is a called a ‘purple state’ – meaning it can flip red (Republican) or blue (Democrat) from election to election – but also its diversity. With a large Hispanic population, Florida stands out from other more Caucasian, homogenous purple states in the American Midwest – though that too is changing rapidly. But it’s also the composition of that Hispanic population that makes Florida different from other states with a high concentration of Hispanics, such as California, Arizona, New Mexico, New York, and Texas, comprising primarily citizens of Mexican or Central American descent.
Florida’s Hispanic voter base is made up primarily of Cuban-Americans – with just under a million Cuban-American voters registered in the state – who fled the Communist regime of Fidel Castro after 1959 and, more recently, Venezuelan Americans (50,000 of whom can vote in Florida) who left their country after the election of self-proclaimed 21st century Socialist president Hugo Chavez in 1998.
Both of those groups of voters tend to skew Republican, with 58 per cent of Cuban-American registered voters nationally affiliated or leaning Republican. To that historically solid bloc of Republican voters have been added Nicaraguan refugees who fled the autocratic, corrupt Sandinista governments of the 1980s and after 2007 and an influx of Colombians during the guerrilla-fuelled civil war of the 1990s and early 2000s. Individually, these communities may not represent a large share of the national vote or even in all of Florida (which has just over 14 million registered voters), but in a state which Trump only won by just under 113,000 votes in 2016 they are critical, not just for winning the state but also the White House.
For many of these voters, anti-communism and a desire for the US government to be tough on real and imagined leftists and their sympathizers in Latin America (and even in the US) is an overriding political issue. Since President Ronald Reagan, Republican administrations have taken a hard line on enforcing a US trade and investment embargo on Cuba and denouncing and isolating leftist governments in Nicaragua and Venezuela. Those measures have reinforced the Republican Party’s base among those communities, whether or not the promises and policies have succeeded in producing the promised regime change; for many of these voters, virtue signalling and tough talk is more important than the efficacy of the policy in achieving its stated goals.
It was this time-honoured fealty to the hard-line anti-communist Republican base in Florida – primarily in Miami Dade county in south Florida – and an eye towards the 2020 elections that Trump and his foreign policy team made repeated trips starting in June 2017 to Miami to announce tougher measures against the Cuban government and the so-called Troika of Tyranny (Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba) as their central Latin America policy agenda.
Given the personal, political history of these communities, traditional issues of immigration and treatment of immigrants from Central America and Mexico are much further down the list of policy priorities than foreign policy and denouncing and rooting out communism. For that reason, Florida’s Hispanic voters support Trump at higher rates than Biden (50 per cent versus 46 per cent) compared to Hispanics nationally, which according to the Wall Street Journal, Biden leads with 62 per cent support among Latino voters.
In recent years, younger generations of Cuban-American voters and migrants from Puerto Rico have changed the partisan demographic in Florida. Puerto Ricans – who are US citizens and so can vote in the elections – today represent 27 per cent of Florida’s Hispanic vote and tend to vote Democrat. And younger Cuban-American voters have drifted away from their parents and grandparents partisan loyalty and singular policy focus on punishing the Castro regime.
Despite these trends though, Trump’s support among Cuban-Americans appears solid, even among younger members of the community with 59 per cent of Florida Cuban-American voters pledging their support for the president (compared to only 25 per cent for Biden), and only slightly fewer Cuban-Americans (55 per cent) between the ages of 18 and 35 supporting the Republican candidate.
For that reason, candidate Biden was in south Florida earlier this month, speaking at a townhall meeting and making the obligatory stop in Miami’s Little Havana neighbourhood. His case that the harder line policy has failed may have made some inroads in Miami-Dade with a survey conducted at the same time showing him leading Trump in the politically and ideologically diverse county that includes Cuban-Americans as well as more progressive residents of Miami. Meanwhile, though, the Trump campaign has continued to hammer away in Spanish language media in the state with a uniquely south Florida message: linking Biden to Castro and Chavez and calling him a closet socialist.
With Biden only leading Trump by four percentage points in the state according to a recent CNBC poll, expect the theme of Cuba, Venezuela and socialism to continue to be raised as Trump tries to mobilize a conservative Miami-Dade base and Biden appeals to swing voters. Lost in all of this, unfortunately, will be a broader discussion of US policy toward the rest of Latin America, about 600 million of it, minus Cuba and Venezuela.