Did Trump draw out a new Latino Republican voter bloc in Florida?

Carmen Sesin

MIAMI — A national spotlight has been on Cuban American voters and their support for President Donald Trump in Florida since Election Day. But perhaps more influential in the red wave that helped Trump win the state were other Latino voters.

In all, support for Trump among Cuban Americans increased only slightly from 2016, but his backing among Latinos in Florida who do not identify as Cuban or Puerto Rican went up significantly, to 50 percent, according to NBC News exit polls. Some experts say the number may be a little lower. Still, this group is a significant part of the state's Latino electorate, at 40 percent, while Cubans, the largest Latino voter group, are 29 percent.

According to NBC News exit polls, 45 percent of Latino voters in Florida supported Trump, up by 10 percentage points from 2016.

Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic pollster, said Trump made significant gains among Colombians, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans compared to the 2016, 2012 and 2008 presidential cycles.

Miami-Dade, the state's biggest county, dramatically shifted from being a reliably blue county that Hillary Clinton won by 30 points in 2016 to what some experts are now calling a purple county — after Joe Biden won by only 7 points.

That led to Democratic congressional losses, with Reps. Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell — who was the first South American-born member of Congress — being defeated by Republicans.

Trump's targeting and messaging

Giancarlo Sopo, one of the Trump campaign's Hispanic media strategists, said Democrats lost a segment of Florida Latino voters who, like him, were upset at what they saw as the rise of the progressive wing, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

When Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, "said AOC is the future of the party, it became clear to me that I was then a part of their past," Sopo said. "As a party, the Democrats have always had far-left fringe voices — [but] the party leadership never empowered these voices."

"The Democrats either don't care or are incapable of understanding this," he said, "but it clearly didn't work in 2020."

State Democrats were sounding the alarm over a year ago about Trump's and administration officials' courting of Latino groups in the state, relentlessly portraying Democrats as "socialists."

This summer, in particular, the messaging painting Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, as "socialists" while attacking them for wanting to "defund the police" — which was false — played well among some Florida Latino voters.

Sopo said the Latino outreach strategy he helped craft was effective because Trump and other senior administration officials, like Vice President Mike Pence, had had a constant presence in Florida since 2017, coming down to announce new sanctions or measures against specific Latin American countries, such as Venezuela.

But years before that, messaging tailored to particular Latino groups based on their countries of origin was key.

Almost half of registered Venezuelan voters cast ballots for Trump, according to NBC News exit polls, a significant — and expected — increase from 2016. Trump made Venezuela a constant focus of his Latin America policy and his messaging.

While the national media captured Venezuelan Americans' enthusiasm for Trump, there are only about 80,000 eligible voters in Florida. That, however, could change in coming years as more Venezuelans become citizens. Florida's Venezuelan population exploded by 184 percent from 2008 to 2018, and it's the newer arrivals who appeared to be the more fervent Trump supporters.

Courting Colombians and Nicaraguans

The Trump campaign spent significant time courting the 250,000 eligible Colombian voters in Florida, a group that got far less media attention. The messaging often involved Colombian politics more than domestic policy, and it was covered extensively by news outlets from Colombia, which are frequently consumed by Colombian Americans, while getting scant attention in the U.S.

A Colombian ex- guerrilla and leftist politician, Gustavo Petro, ended up becoming a central part of the Trump campaign's messaging. It began with his appearance in a Republican ad released over the summer that attacked Biden for saying he would be the "most progressive" president in history — with video of leftist leaders like Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela using the word "progressive," which some Latinos equate with socialism.

The Republican ad prompted Petro to tweet that he would vote for Biden, which he repeated in a television interview. The Trump campaign capitalized on his comments in videos — and its anti-Biden ads got coverage in Colombian media.

Eventually, Biden penned an opinion piece in one of Colombia's leading newspapers, El Tiempo, where he discreetly pushed back against Petro's comments by denouncing the deadly 1985 attack on the country's Palace of Justice by M-19, the leftist guerrilla group to which Petro once belonged. But he didn't directly denounce Petro in the piece, which was published months after Petro's initial comments and just three weeks before early voting began in Florida.

There were campaign moments that went largely unnoticed in the U.S. but were picked up by the Colombian media, like a roundtable session in Miami with Trump and Colombian American business owners, as well as a rally in Florida in September at which Trump attacked Biden over the Obama administration's support for the peace accord between the Colombian government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

The peace agreement is a divisive issue among Colombians and one Biden has never explicitly endorsed. But conservative Colombian elected officials pushed the same message as they endorsed Trump and urged Colombians in the U.S. to vote for him. They echoed misleading socialist messages saying Biden is a "castrochavista" (referring to Castro and Chávez), a term popularized by former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe.

Trump also courted the more than 100,000 Nicaraguan eligible voters in Florida, although not as aggressively. For years, Nicaraguans who came to Miami in the 1980s leaned Republican, after leftist Daniel Ortega took over with the Sandinista revolution. President Ronald Reagan funded right-wing militias in Nicaragua to fight the Sandinistas, and many Nicaraguans became citizens under Reagan's immigration reform, igniting a loyal following.

Decades later, Ortega is back in power and the Trump administration's sanctions against officials and tough talk against the government have breathed new life into the group, which had been leaning Democratic in recent years. Ortega was also featured in an ad saying Biden had "betrayed" Nicaraguans by opposing Reagan's funding of the Contras in the 1980s.

Disinformation, misinformation helped Trump

Months before the election, a tide of Spanish-language disinformation via clips on social media and shared on WhatsApp groups linked Democrats to outlandish conspiracy theories. Some of it originated in Latin America and made its way to Florida through family and friends, while some was perpetuated on local radio. One linked Black Lives Matter protests to witchcraft and linked that to a vote for Biden.

Mucarsel-Powell lost her seat in Congress in a district with a heavy Latin American population, particularly Colombians. Clinton won the district by 16 points in 2016, and Trump won this month by 6 points. Mucarsel-Powell said she lost by only 3 points partly because of her constant presence in the district, massive outreach efforts to knock on over 20,000 doors, phone banking that reached over 130,000 people and robust ad campaign in English and Spanish.

Mucarsel-Powell said she believes the disinformation that circulated in Miami about QAnon and the so-called deep state, which targeted Biden and other Democrats, had a detrimental effect on the races in South Florida.

"It's very difficult when you have misinformation coming from family members in your home country, misinformation locally in mainstream media and then your Republican elected officials repeating the same misinformation," she said.

After Biden won the election, there was a new wave of false Spanish-language disinformation, which claimed voter fraud and insisted that Trump had won the election.

Democrats need to 'reframe' the narrative

Amandi, the Democratic pollster, said he thinks Democrats allowed Republicans to paint Democrats as socialists and communists like Chávez and Castro.

"It's going to be hard work just to reframe and redefine that narrative. But they have to get started on it," Amandi said.

Asked whether there could be a new Latino Republican voter bloc in Florida, Amandi said that if Republicans are allowed "to continue unabated in the direction that they're going, then there could be a recalibration and a realignment of Florida through the Hispanic vote."

In less than two years, there will be elections for governor, the Senate and the House. Democratic operatives and pollsters stressed the importance of having a strong, year-round presence in Florida, rather than leaving the bulk of the campaigning and messaging until the months before Election Day.

"Democrats have to start treating Florida the way the Republicans do: as a battleground state that requires a permanent sustained apparatus," Amandi said. "If they start doing that work well and immediately, then 2022 will take care of itself."

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