By 9 p.m. on November 3rd, it was clear something gruesome had transpired for Democrats in South Florida. Trump had carried the state by some 350,000 plus votes, a margin padded by a huge swing toward the president in Miami-Dade County, which Hillary Clinton had won by 30 percent in 2016 and Biden had now carried by just 7 points. “It was a bloodbath,” said the former chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic party, a metaphor used by almost everyone sharing their opinion on what happened in the state. The largest and most reliably Democratic county in the state had been hit with a red wave, led in part by Latino voters. Exit polls showed that Trump had won 55 percent of the state’s Cuban-American vote, 30 percent of the Puerto Rican vote, and 48 percent of the vote among other Latino communities. In the wake of those results, a question took hold: How, in a race against a president who was so fervently anti-immigrant, did the Democratic Party lose so much ground with Latino voters in South Florida?
Some answers surfaced almost immediately at an election night watch party at Gramp’s, a bar with a spacious courtyard in Miami’s Wynwood District. The host was Florida for All, a statewide coalition of progressive groups dedicated to racial justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive rights. Over the course of the evening, the Black and Latino organizers I spoke with offered a raw glimpse of the post-election debates that have been roiling the Democratic Party between its progressive and centrist wings—arguments over everything from the Biden’s treatment of the Latino vote as a monolith to the national party’s overreliance on TV advertising to the real impact of “Defund the Police” rhetoric and other “socialist” positions in places like Miami-Dade.
Among the groups present were the Dream Defenders, a racial justice organization formed in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killing in 2012 whose members canvassed for Biden in the state. Even though the Biden campaign didn’t give them the greenlight to go door to door in Florida until thirty days before the election—months behind the GOP’s own statewide work—the Dream Defenders and Florida for All say they made contact with over 1 million Florida voters, comprising much of the national party’s de facto on-the-ground campaign in the runup to the election.
But for some within their ranks, countervailing forces in Miami-Dade proved too strong. “Red-baiting works!” Rachel Gilmer told me early into the night, moments after introducing herself. The 32-year-old co-director of the Dream Defenders had to shout the point through her cloth mask in order to be heard over a hectic Rosalia remix filling the area. When we sat down at a table flanked by camera crews and TV lights, Gilmer expanded on how the right successfully whips up fears about socialism and communism in Miami’s immigrant community, where memories of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez loom large.
“The right is doing it here because it works,” she continued. “They try to polarize people around attacking Democrats as socialists or anarchists who support burning neighborhoods or defunding the police. And honestly, the socialism question is real. Our website says we’re socialist. I don’t know if it makes sense to be a socialist organization based in Miami if we are trying to win elections. We can try to push an economic agenda, but do we call it ‘socialist?’ I think it’s a thing that we’re reckoning with.”
She asked me if I had seen the Trump campaign ad about a petrified white granny attempting to call 911 during a home invasion only to be told that, sorry, Biden had defunded the police. “It’s terrifying, and it’s working,” Gilmer said. What isn’t working, she told me, is how the Democratic party and its strategists respond to red baiting and fear peddling. Which, she says, is by simply denying the charges, spending piles of money on television ads to drive the point home, and not much else. (According to a Politico report from early October, Democrats had, at that point in the race, purchased some $77 million in television ads across Florida—not including an additional $34 million of pro-Biden spots chipped in by the billionaire, and former Republican, Michael Bloomberg.) For Democrats hoping to turn the state blue, it’s an investment that essentially went bust within a half hour of tallying the votes on election night.
The short-sightedness of this approach might be baffling to outsiders who assume the Democratic party puts its all on the line to win. But for the organizers I spoke with on Tuesday, it’s a myopic habit that defines the national party’s political approach in the state—which many described as neglect and disinterest—when it comes to winning Cuban and Latino votes.
“Our work couldn’t compensate for the lack of party infrastructure set up to reach Cubans and Latinos in Florida,” said Maria Rodriquez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition. “We tried to diminish the impact of ‘socialism’ during the campaign because, give me a fucking break, it’s Biden, c’mon,” she said. “But we’ve overestimated, across the board, people’s electoral literacy. We would knock on doors and people wouldn’t even know Biden was Obama’s vice president. They didn’t even know that! And meanwhile, the Black folks we spoke to knew Kamala’s criminal justice history, which, I feel that. I understand it.”
A native of Puerto Rico, she explained that the election was her organization’s first foray into partisan electoral politics, having previously focused exclusively on immigrant rights issues in the state. She described the Cuban vote as a “Rubik’s cube” that had yet to be properly addressed by the Democratic party, but she also suggested that given the absence of any meaningful Democratic infrastructure, it might be the least of the party’s issues in South Florida.
For some voters in Miami, alienation was the most palpable offering of the Democratic ticket. “What are they gonna change?” said Fred, a part-time Uber driver who happened to be parked across the street from Gramp’s. Taking a momentary break from a slow night of rides, Fred, who described his ethnicity as half-Cuban, half-Black, was quick to call out Harris’s nomination as a roadblock to racial justice, the factor he claimed to be concerned about most. “Integrity, morals, and the economy—that’s all that matters to me, really,” he said, repeating his question about what would change as he sat on the hood of a worn-out looking Toyota Corolla. He told me that while he had voted for Obama in 2008, Trump had been his choice this time around (his first vote since Obama’s historic win). Fred went on to explain the choice with another familiar attack line used by the president during his campaign: “Biden and Kamala, they were just in office. They didn’t show me anything.”
The sense that Democrats simply failed to reach people in Miami, let alone offer them the most elemental idea of what their candidates offered, was echoed by Jason, another young Cuban voter I spoke with. Wearing a Kith shirt with Space Jam lettering and a gold Rolex watch, the 28-year-old, who works in retail, told me he didn’t really like Trump or Biden, but he wasn’t bothered by them, either. Still, he decided to vote for the president this time because, as he put it: “I knew what I was getting by voting for Trump. I’m not into politics, really. I just want people to be happy and healthy—to have a chance to make money.” When I asked him if claims about socialism and communism played a part in his choice, he paused to think about it, offering a qualified kind of explanation. “I know Trump has no sympathy for those kinds of people, and that’s not a bad thing in my book.”
When I spoke with Rodriquez on the phone days after the election, she pushed back against the narrative that Latino voters, specifically in Miami Dade, should shoulder the blame for Florida’s right-ward shift. “Even if Miami-Dade had performed at Hillary levels,” Rodriquez said, “Florida would’ve still lost by 170k votes. There’s a lot of talk about Florida being blamed, but the reality is white women voted for Trump in greater numbers than they did in 2016. Our Black and immigrant voters turned out. We engaged Haitan and Jamacian voters at a very high level. Puerto Ricans voted at 70 percent turnout. Salvadorians at 75 percent. So don’t blame us—we delivered.”
Instead, Rodriquez echoed the same criticisms made by members of the party’s progressive wing in recent days—that Democrats actually have no strategy to reach voters in any kind of tangible way in Florida. A post-mortem by Politico this week ranked the party’s losses in the state as among the worst in the country. One political reporter recently went viral for recalling eerily similar shortcomings in North Miami during the 2018 midterm elections, specifically in the 27th District, represented by Democratic Congresswoman Donna Shalala, where he observed a “stunning level of disorganization” by the state party.
“Look at the weakness of their approach, the late money, the lack of long-term investment, the lack of a basic cultural competency,” Rodriquez said. “Their people didn’t even speak Spanish! Yes, the Republicans hammered on the ‘socialism’ thing, but they had an asymmetric advantage in local media—the El Nuevo, all the QAnon influencers, the anti-semitic influencers, influencers like Alex Otaola—that reaches hundreds of thousands of people in Spanish-speaking communities. We did not have the same machinery. There was an onslaught.” Rodriquez paused her thinking for a moment, and added: “But again, why aren’t they blaming the white people in Florida?”
Florida had long been called for Trump by the time I spoke with Curtis Hierro on election night. It was nearly 10 p.m., and on a large projection of CNN at the end of the bar, John King could be seen gesturing in sweeping motions at a large map of Miami-Dade County. “That’s so heartbreaking,” Hierro said, nodding in the direction of the screen. An organizer with the Communications Workers of America, he adjusted a loose-fitting mask patterned with small Miami Heat logos. “The margin is astounding. I’ve never seen anything like that. I thought it would be super close.”
Hierro, who is half Cuban, started by insisting that the evening had been a profound victory for Miami residents, thanks to the election of progressive Daniella Levine Cava, the first woman to be elected mayor of Miami in twenty years. Levine Cava’s victory, plus the passage of Amendment 2, raising Florida’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, have complicated easy narratives about the statewide situation for Democrats—and for Miami. The high turnout of the presidential election is considered both a factor for Levine Cava’s historic win and for Joe Biden’s eroded margins. What’s indisputable, Hierro pointed out, was that the evening marked the third consecutive statewide loss for Florida’s left. (Technically the fourth, if you count Bernie Sanders’s loss to Joe Biden in Florida’s presidential primary this past spring.) Losses like these don’t so much sting the activists in Florida as haunt them daily.
“I constantly remind myself of 2018,” he said of the election that nearly led to Andrew Gillum becoming the state’s first Black governor. “I felt very confident about Gillum because of all the work we had put in. We were finally going to have state power. And we still lost by 30,000 votes. That’s always gonna stick with me. I thought we had a decent shot to help win the presidency this year, but I think there is a bigger and bigger divide in the country between college educated people and folks who aren’t and Trump exploited that. We just have to go back to the drawing board, I guess.”
Before I could ask Nailah Summer, Dream Defender’s communications director, who is also half Cuban, what else might go on that drawing board, a white, bald man began yelling at the few remaining stragglers at the bar. At that point, it was nearly midnight.
“FUCK Miami!” he shouted to no one in particular.
Under a tweed blazer, he wore a Biden Harris 2020 shirt. And as he headed to the bar’s exit, freakout seemingly concluded, he suddenly spun on his heels for one more angry spasm.
“FUCK Cuba!” he said, with his two small fists balled in spite. “You move here so you can live under a dictator?! FUCK YOU!”
When he departed for real, one Dream Defenders organizer with long braids and glasses broke into a chuckle.
“Okay!” she said, dismissing him with a wave. “Bye!”
The moment stuck with me in the days after the election—the man’s lashing, pointless rage. Was his anger that of a political class who expected victory simply because victory, after a year like this, felt inevitable? Was this the feeling of a rational outcome slowly warping into the irrational?
The week after the election, Summers wrote me an email that gave me a different perspective on that moment in Miami. It’s arrival coincided with moderate Democrats across the country performing something like a milder, slightly less profane version of the finger-pointing outburst at the bar. They blamed the party’s supposed leftward lurch, and by extension its left-leaning members, as a cause for the down-ballot bloodshed suffered by Democrats in the House. And they blamed the activists, too. One Democratic representative told the Washington Post that voters “get scared” when they see the “far left” getting media attention. And in Florida, the senator overseeing all Democratic state senate races suggested that the party should stop giving money to the third-party groups handling voter outreach, specifically calling out one of Florida for All’s member organizations, the New Florida Majority, because groups like it merely “move money around to each other.” (Of the claim, Summers said, “it’s bullshit.” She added: “It’s a shame that the [Democrats] are making the rounds putting down progressives in the party.”)
But it was her description of the state as an occupied territory that should stay with anyone wondering why Florida is a place where progressive hopes and Democratic dollars are wasted. Despite Barack Obama winning the state in 2008 and 2012, it’s home to one of the longest-running Republican trifectas in the nation. Since 1999, the GOP has retained fat majorities in the state legislature and persistently occupied the governor’s mansion. Election after election, for Democrats, few lessons have been learned and even fewer victories have been claimed. Summers wrote: “We’ve been under Republican rule for more than twenty years. Trump’s people never leave Florida. It’s a Republican stronghold, but we still come close every election. Any missed opportunity here could be catastrophic.”
So total is the Republican control of the state that Summers and her generation of activists often sound as if they’ve arrived at the scene of an ambush. “I don’t know whose idea it was to say ‘We’re not socialists’ over and over again,” she wrote, “but [the party] spent a lot of time doing that when they’ve could’ve been reaching out to Black and Latino voters, who weren’t trying to decide between Trump and Biden, but about whether they’d vote at all. Dems should have been talking about what they care about. The more you say ‘socialist,’ the more you fail.”
It was raining in Miami when I spoke with Gilmer on the phone one last time, following the election. In the pauses between her thoughts, the storm around her came through the speaker like white static. She told me she hopes to intensify the Dream Defenders’s own registration efforts across the state, in the vein of Stacy Abrams’s Fair Fight and New Georgia Project, initiatives that may have decisively turned that historically red state blue. “I feel sober about what we’re up against, but I also feel a lot of hope,” she said. The group had begun putting plans together for organizing in red counties, mapping flippable areas. “The solution isn’t moving back to the middle,” she continued. “People are looking for total transformation. The actual needs of working people and young people need to be addressed in this next period, or we’re going to have another Trump in 2024.”
Originally Appeared on GQ