What the Hell Happened to Democrats in Miami-Dade?

Tessa Stuart
·6 min read

A few things have been relatively certain for several weeks. First, that Joe Biden’s clearest path to an Electoral College victory ran through the upper Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania). Second, that because of the volume of votes cast by mail this year, and the idiosyncratic rules governing those local elections, vote-counting would lag in the states most likely to lock the presidential race up for Democrats. Now, in the light of day, both of those things still appear to be true. The “red mirage” scenario that strategists warned about — in which votes cast on Election Day, which would more likely be for Trump, would be processed faster than the considerably larger number of votes that were banked early for Biden, creating the illusion that Trump was winning when he was actually on track to lose — has come to pass.

Biden is still favored to win the election, and — based on the number of ballots left to count, their location, and the demographic makeup of the voters who cast them — Democrats should feel relatively confident in the upper Midwest.

But here’s what else we know: Despite months of polling that suggested Biden was a slight favorite to win the Sunshine state, Florida has slipped out of Democrats’ grasp once again. Unlike the Trump campaign, which desperately needed to hang on to Florida to have any shot at retaining the White House, the Biden campaign was never counting on it to reach 270 Electoral College votes. Statisticians at FiveThirtyEight have consistently shown Arizona and Nebraska’s second congressional district as more likely to pad Biden’s electoral lead than Florida.

It couldn’t have felt good at Biden HQ when Trump pulled ahead in Florida on election night, but it was predictable: There have been clear signs in recent weeks that Republicans were turning out in higher numbers in a part of Florida where Democrats need to run up the score in order to win: Miami-Dade County.

On Election Day, Rolling Stone spoke to Maria Elena Lopez, first vice chair of the Miami Dade Democrats to get a sense of the situation on the ground. Democrats had a fragile, roughly 100,000 ballot lead in the early vote, and volunteers were still out knocking doors, frantically trying to get out the vote. At the time, Lopez said turnout was on track to match 2016 — a problem, considering Hillary Clinton lost the state and the election that year. Still, Lopez was hopeful Tuesday morning that Biden might do better than Clinton did in other parts of the state, like the I-4 corridor, home to a growing Puerto Rican population.

“My worst fear would be that our Latin community believes the bullshit that Biden is a socialist and communist, and doesn’t vote for him,” Lopez said bluntly on Tuesday. “That is my main fear. It is very hard to fight misinformation, and that has been the most frustrating part for us as a party. How do you go out there and try to have a logical conversation with people that do not believe what you’re saying?”

Lopez is Cuban-American herself; her family came to the U.S. in 1960. Her parents were staunch Republicans for most of her life, and she sensed that the Trump campaign’s simple messaging — Biden is a socialist — was resonating with members of the Cuban community, many of whom, including her family, fled a socialist regime.

When Florida was called for Donald Trump on Tuesday night, Biden was dramatically underperforming Hillary Clinton’s margins not just in Miami-Dade County, but almost everywhere, and it was clear Lopez’s worst fear was realized. Part of the reason, she said Wednesday, was that Republicans’ argument was just simpler. “The messaging by the Trump campaign that Democrats are socialists resonates because you’re bringing up people’s fears. And that’s what worked.”

Around 55 percent of Florida’s Cuban-American vote went to Donald Trump, according to exit polls, giving him huge gains over his 2016 performance in the county, swinging some 200,000 voters into his column. But it wasn’t just Cubans breaking for Trump — he won 30 percent of Puerto Ricans and 48 percent of “other Latinos” in the state.

Some critics have suggested that Florida Democrats should have pivoted their efforts away from Cuban and Venezuelan Floridians, and shore up support with Puerto Ricans and black voters.

Lopez, though, blamed the national party for not investing in a county that is overwhelmingly blue, and where the margins are key to Democratic victory statewide. “The DNC does not talk to the local parties. We are one of the largest Democratic counties in the nation. We don’t get any funding from the DNC. We don’t get any feedback from the DNC. They don’t come to us and say, ‘Hey, what is the messaging that would work in your community? Where are we weak?’ [The party] doesn’t do that, at all,” Lopez says. “We are on our own.”

Proof of the DNC’s dereliction of duty was clear in results on Tuesday night. Even as Biden struggled in Miami-Dade, Democrats managed to elect the city’s first Democratic mayor since 2000. Daniella Levine Cava will also be the first female mayor and first non-Hispanic mayor. Cava was able to pull out the win, despite Democrats’ poor performance, according to Lopez, because the local party invested early in its ground game — door knocking while the Biden campaign was still debating whether or not it would.

The local party not only began door-knocking earlier, Lopez says, “We hired our own people. We vetted them before we took them out to go door-knocking, which is a lot different from the Biden campaign that just basically came in at the last moment and subcontracted the work.”

Democrats can win in Florida, Lopez says, but not without attention and investment from the national party. But there isn’t a lot of evidence that that message is getting through. Instead, time after time, Miami-Dade is considered safe — until election night, when suddenly it’s not. “Unfortunately, this is not the first time that we’ve seen this. The same thing happened with the Hillary campaign, and the same thing, in a way, happened with the [Andrew] Gillum campaign [for governor]. It’s like Miami-Dade County is taken as a given, and it takes a lot to motivate people. People don’t want to feel like they are taken as a given.”

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