How Miami Cubans disrupted Biden’s path to a Florida win

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MIAMI — President Donald Trump’s obsession with Cubans has paid off.

After four years of non-stop outreach to Miami’s Cuban exile community, Trump cruised to victory in Florida thanks to their heavy turnout that also helped the GOP flip two congressional seats and win big in state House and Senate races.

Cuban Americans have long been Republican leaning but began drifting toward the Democratic fold during Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaigns and Hillary Clinton’s run in 2016, when she blew Trump away in Miami-Dade.

Republicans responded by focusing more on the community and stepping up their anti-socialist messaging, often depicting Democrats as radical leftists and socialists, labels that former Vice President Joe Biden and his campaign struggled to shake off.

Republicans attribute the good night to four years of staying on message in Miami-Dade, with the president and administration officials repeatedly coming to Miami to roll out crackdowns on Cuba and Venezuela. And now some question whether Miami-Dade should be considered a liberal bastion at all.

“This mini red wave came through. It was a foreseeable trainwreck for Democrats when you saw Cuban Americans,” said Guillermo Grenier, a pollster and Florida International University professor, who conducts the state’s highly watched Cuba poll.

“The air you breathe here is Republican. It’s hard for Democrats to show up here and try to create a different atmosphere,” Grenier added.

The Biden campaign and Democrats running statewide campaigns have long known they need a strong margin of victory in Miami-Dade to help offset tighter margins or red wins in counties across the state. But on early Wednesday, Biden was only leading 53.3 to 46 percent in Miami-Dade, up by 7.3 percent, with some mail-in ballots left to count. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beat Trump won Miami-Dade by almost 30 points, 63.2 to 33.8 percent.

Grenier and other strategists are estimating that Trump will have won the Cuban American vote by more than 120,000 Cubans — even higher than the campaign’s target going into 2020.

And it’s not just about Trump. Cuban turnout for Republicans translated into down-ballot wins for the party. Republican Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez unseated one-term Democrat Rep. Debbie Mucarsel Powell in Florida’s 26th congressional district race. That’s after campaigns and outside groups spent $21.5 million on the race.

In another big blow for Democrats, Rep. Donna Shalala lost to GOP’s Maria Elvira Salazar. It was a dramatic turnaround for Shalala, who beat Salazar in 2018. And further down the ballot, Republicans won big in state House and Senate races in South Florida. The only major victory for Democrats was in the competitive race for county mayor.

“It’s fair to say Miami-Dade is now a purple county. Yeah, it’s competitive,” said Frederick Vélez III, national director of civic engagement for the Hispanic Federation, a nonpartisan Latino organization.

In many ways, the energy for Trump’s reelection among Cubans in Miami was predictable as much of Trump’s support here has long hinged on the appeal he has for his America First, anti-socialist rhetoric. And it’s not just with Cubans — his campaign made a concerted effort to target other South Florida Latinos, like Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, who fled countries with leftist regimes, as well as conservative Colombians.

“Trump did a really good job of staying on message with the socialist, socialist, socialist thing. I don’t necessarily blame the DNC or Biden campaign, but Florida Democrats did not do a good job combating this. They knew better and should have been less focused on Venezuelans and Cubans and more on Puerto Ricans and Black voters,” Vélez said.

Republicans attribute the inroads made in Miami-Dade — a county where more than half of the residents are born outside of mainland U.S., mostly in Latin America — to four years of staying on message. The Trump administration’s repeated visits to Miami to announce new sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela and rhetoric against socialism has always been part of an electoral calculus — not just foreign policy, former administration officials and strategists on both sides of the aisle say.

Trump, for his part, has made his narrow focus on Cuban Americans known in his first term — often coming back or sending officials to South Florida to talk up his hardline Cuba policy. He’s also tied Cuba to Venezuela policy in an effort to court Miami’s growing Venezuelan population to become reliably Republican, too.

Privately, Trump has gone so far as to explicitly tell administration officials that he wanted to keep Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Cuban American from Miami, and the Cuban American community happy in an effort to ensure a 2020 win in Florida. And publicly, he’s repeatedly touted Cuban American support for him, even inviting veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba to the White House in September to “reaffirm our ironclad solidarity with the Cuban people.”

“We’ve been on the ground quite frankly since 2016. We — Trump, the state party, the local party — never left and that coupled with Trump’s messaging helped,” said Nelson Diaz, chair of the Miami-Dade Republican Party.

Trump also has benefited from recent trends among younger Cubans and recent arrivals from the communist-led island. Grenier’s poll showed that relatively new arrivals from Cuba who immigrated to the United States starting in 2010 were registering Republican over Democrat by a whopping 76 percent to 5 percent.

“Miami Dade is really just less Democratic than it used to be — and that’s because of the groundwork that Republicans have done with Cubans over the years. Republicans have historically been so good at knowing which buttons to push to get attention from Cubans and get everyone on Miami talk radio and media covering it,” Grenier said.

“It’s playing out very well in young arrivals and that’s what you’re seeing this year,” he added.

Local Democrats had been warning Biden’s campaign for months about the former vice president’s tepid support among Democratic-leaning, non-Cuban Latino voters here and throughout the state. And they knew it was even worse coupled with Trump’s outsized support among Cuban Americans.

That’s part of why they mounted a late fight in South Florida to build up support — and they were able to benefit from Michael Bloomberg’s move to spend up to $100 million in ads targeting Florida voters. But many argued it was too late.

Plus, Spanish-speaking residents of South Florida have been inundated for months with disinformation aimed at stunting Biden’s growth with Latino voters. A chunk of the wild conspiracy theories and disinformation being widely shared falsely painted Biden as a socialist and friend of dictators like Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Cuba’s Raul Castro.

“That message just reverberates in South Florida more. It’s like you’re shouting it in a church where it echoes. It always stirs Cubans’ passions up,” Grenier said, adding this year is another lesson for Democrats: “They can keep coming back every four years and whine about what happened with the Cuban vote — or they can try to harness it.”

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