Will Florida’s Latino voters pick the next president?

The nation’s fast-growing Latino population could be a decisive force in key battleground states such as Arizona and Florida.

An election worker places a vote-by-mail ballot into an official drop box outside an early voting site, Oct. 19, 2020, in Miami. With its 29 electoral votes, Florida is crucial to both candidates in order to win the White House.

Lynne Sladky/AP

The colorful party bus winds its way through residential Miami, Colombian and American flags flying, salsa and Latin pop blaring. A caravan of cars follows, “Vota Biden” scrawled on each in large white letters.

A woman driving a minivan flashes a thumbs-up. Most passersby ignore the parade. But to Serena Perez-Ellis, the public show of enthusiasm for former Vice President Joe Biden on a recent Sunday is essential as Election Day approaches. 

“Our goal is to make some noise and be out in the community,” says Ms. Perez-Ellis, organizing director of the progressive group New Florida Majority. “We like to have fun. That’s part of organizing.” 

Post-truth politics: As Trump pushes ‘fraud,’ partisans pick their own reality

In these final days of the 2020 presidential campaign, noisy car caravans for both sides – some attracting thousands of participants – have become the flashiest part of the intense battle for south Florida’s Hispanic voters. 

Now that in-person early voting has begun in the state, the contest has only intensified, with the two presidential candidates making regular stops in Hispanic-heavy areas. 

The battle for Florida’s Latinos, in fact, could determine the outcome for the entire state – and, by extension, the country. If President Donald Trump wins Florida, the largest swing state with a whopping 29 electoral votes, he can still win reelection. If not, it’s almost certainly game over. 

Nationally, for the first time, the fast-growing Latino population is expected to be the largest minority ethnic or racial voting bloc, at more than 13% of eligible voters. Given Latino voters’ overall tilt toward Democrats – two-thirds voted for Hillary Clinton four years ago – the growth in the size of that bloc could have far-reaching consequences for American politics. 

In the 2018 midterms, Latino turnout increased more than that of whites, helping Democrats take control of the U.S. House. And in 2012, Latino turnout in Florida roughly matched white turnout, helping President Barack Obama win the state narrowly.

Actor Eva Longoria speaks before the arrival of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at a Hispanic Heritage Month event at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Florida, Sept. 15, 2020.
Leah Millis/Reuters

“The idea that Latino voters are a sleeping giant is a myth,” says Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy and an expert on the Latino vote. “It suggests that Latinos are politically apathetic, which is not the case at all.”

Even though disparities in election participation by race and ethnicity are entrenched in the U.S., smart, well-resourced outreach can make a difference, she says.

In south Florida, after the 2016 vote, Republicans kept their campaign operation going, giving them a jump on 2020. By September, Democrats were starting to replicate the Republican efforts. “But the question is, have they started those efforts a little late?” says Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster in Miami.

A major political force

In solid-blue California and New Mexico, Latinos are already a major political force in statewide politics. This cycle, they could be decisive in presidential battleground states, including Florida and Arizona – and perhaps soon, Texas. 

Latinos in Arizona, who make up 24% of eligible voters, are distinct from those in Florida, says Eduardo Sainz, the state director for Mi Familia Vota. They come mostly from northern Mexico, and while they faced hardship, they did not experience the dictatorships of Florida’s migrants from Cuba or Venezuela who are motivated to participate in civic life. Mr. Sainz sees more voter “apathy” from Mexican Americans in the Grand Canyon State.

And yet, Arizona saw record turnout among Latinos in 2016, 2018, and the 2020 primary. In the last midterm election, 70% of them voted for Kyrsten Sinema, giving the state its first Democratic U.S. senator since the 1980s. Despite the pandemic, grassroots organizations such as Mi Familia Vota have registered more than 185,000 Latinos for this election cycle, almost doubling the 100,000 voters they registered in 2016, says Mr. Sainz. “The momentum is there.”

In Florida, Latinos now make up 20% of eligible voters, and a record 17% of registered voters. Here in south Florida, the large, vibrant Latino community is unique, dominated by conservative-leaning Cuban exiles and their progeny, plus more than a dozen other Hispanic subgroups. But no group, including Cuban Americans, is politically monolithic, and with less than two weeks to go until Election Day, the region’s Latino community is as engaged as ever – in the streets, at voters’ doorsteps, on social media and the airwaves.

A Latino supporter greets President Donald Trump as he arrives in Miami, Oct. 15, 2020. Latino voters could be a decisive force in key battleground states this cycle. Florida’s Latino community includes right-leaning Cubans and dozens of other subgroups.
Cover Images/AP

The Republican messaging is clear: Reelect President Trump, and keep the “socialist and communist” forces powering the Democratic Party at bay. Look no further than Cuba and Venezuela, his supporters say, for America’s future under a President Biden. 

Mr. Trump’s style also plays well with some Latinos. 

“We like that matter-of-factness,” says Jessica Fernandez, chair of the Florida Federation of Young Republicans and a daughter of Cuban exiles. “President Trump has spoken out defending our freedoms – First Amendment, Second Amendment – and the rights of people across the world, like in Cuba, Venezuela, and Hong Kong.”

Latino Democrats are more focused on kitchen-table issues – health care and jobs, urgent issues for many in a community hit especially hard by the pandemic, as well as voting rights and immigration. 

“The Homestead child detention center is just an hour and 10 minutes from here,” says Carlos Naranjo, a Latino outreach organizer for the New Florida Majority, speaking in Miami’s Tamiami Park as the pro-Biden car caravan gathers. 

Late last year, the Trump administration shut down the Homestead facility, then one of the nation’s largest detention centers for young migrants. But for some south Florida Latinos, it remains a potent symbol of the administration’s now-suspended family separation policy for those who enter the U.S. illegally. 

Latino Democrats, too, look to the autocrats of Latin America for campaign messaging: A second Trump term could make the president even more authoritarian, they warn.  

The door-knocking debate 

While caravans are a fun and flashy way to encourage turnout, the hard work of contacting potential voters, one by one, and getting them to register (if they haven’t already) and then actually vote is what counts.

In 2020, COVID-19 has complicated everything. The Trump campaign and Republicans overall have kept knocking on doors. Activists rattle off statistics on hundreds of thousands of voter contacts made, be it knocks on doors, texts, phone calls, or postcards. 

“I was nervous when I started doing door-knocking,” says Ms. Fernandez, who says she wears a mask and practices social distancing. “But I will say the reception at doors is overwhelmingly positive.” 

In fact, she says, people seem more willing to open the door and talk than in past election cycles. 

The Miami-Dade County Democrats, too, are stepping up their ground game, bolstered by a $500,000 donation from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Though the Biden campaign is still not knocking on doors here, Miami Democrats began paid in-person canvassing last month, also with masks and social distancing. 

“If you’re not showing up in person, folks think you’re not showing up,” says a Miami Democratic official. 

By early October, the Miami-Dade County Democrats had about 200 neighborhood organizers out knocking on doors, according to county party chair Steve Simeonidis. 

“You knock, step back eight feet, and have a conversation,” he says. 

Florida’s Latino melting pot

Until recently, any conversation with a Latino Democratic strategist would spark an outpouring of frustration: The party, once again, was failing to energize Florida’s diverse Latino electorate. But the Biden campaign has revamped its efforts, and Mr. Bloomberg pledged to spend $100 million in Florida helping the former vice president – much of it on TV ads, including in Spanish. 

A recent poll of the state’s largest county, majority Latino Miami-Dade, shows a modest shift in Mr. Biden’s direction. Overall, by early October, Mr. Biden led there by 20 percentage points, up from 17 points a month before, fueled by growth in Latino support, according to the poll by the Democratic firm Bendixen & Amandi International. 

Even among Cuban Americans, Mr. Biden picked up ground, shrinking his deficit with that strongly Republican cohort from 38 to 26 percentage points.

But Mr. Biden still trails Mrs. Clinton’s overall performance in Miami-Dade in 2016, when she won the county by almost 30 percentage points. One factor that could be dragging down Mr. Biden’s numbers is the reported disinformation that is flooding YouTube and the WhatsApp chats of Spanish-speaking residents.

Mr. Amandi, the pollster, says it’s risky to draw conclusions about Florida as a whole based on Miami-Dade. 

“But it goes without saying, the better Joe Biden does in Miami-Dade, particularly with Hispanic voters, the more likely he will be able to win Florida,” Mr. Amandi says. “That’s especially true if he is able to improve statewide upon Hillary Clinton’s performance with white Anglo voters.”

In Florida, famous for its razor-thin margins, every vote matters. In 2016, Mrs. Clinton lost the state by 1.2 percentage points. Thirteen days before Election Day, Mr. Biden leads the state by 3.6 percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight. At this point four years ago, Mrs. Clinton led in Florida by 3.2 points.

Cuban Americans remain the largest segment of Florida’s Hispanic vote, at 29%, according to the Pew Research Center. But Puerto Ricans, centered in Orlando, are close behind at 27%.

After Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, many Puerto Ricans fled to the mainland United States – especially Florida. But many have since gone home, and it’s not clear what the impact will be, if any, on Florida’s presidential vote, says Fernando Rivera, director of the University of Central Florida’s Puerto Rico Research Hub in Orlando. 

Mr. Biden is already popular with Puerto Rican voters, though “he needs to do more than just criticize President Trump, he needs to emphasize what he would do,” says Mr. Rivera. Last month, Mr. Biden released a plan for Puerto Rican recovery.

Overall, says former Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, a moderate Republican, Mr. Biden can work harder to show that he’s not the socialist Mr. Trump is making him out to be. And Mr. Curbelo sees potential for Mr. Trump to pick up Cuban American votes in Florida that he didn’t win four years ago.

“In 2016, a lot of Cuban Americans were skeptical of him,” says Mr. Curbelo, himself the son of Cuban exiles. “He had beaten and mistreated two favorite sons here – [Sen.] Marco Rubio and [former Gov.] Jeb Bush. A lot of people were just turned off and either voted for Hillary Clinton or didn’t vote.” 

Now, many of those Cuban Americans have “come home,” Mr. Curbelo says. Also, “politics has become further polarized, and the perception that Democrats have moved even farther to the left has pushed Cuban Americans to Trump.” 

Not all Cuban Americans, of course, are Republican – and some laugh at the idea that Mr. Biden could turn the U.S. into another Cuba or Venezuela. 

“There’s no communism, just dictators,” says Xuchitl Coso, president of the Democratic Women’s Club in Lakeland, Florida, who left Cuba in 1961. “Fidel was a dictator. He became rich by ripping off everyone.” 

Bottom line: There’s no predicting anyone’s politics by their or their family’s country of origin.

Federico Arango Paez, a 30-year-old videographer in Miami, voted twice for Mr. Obama and then for the Libertarian, Gary Johnson, in 2016. Now he’s all in for Mr. Trump. 

“Most Hispanics tend to grow up Democratic,” says the New York-born son of Colombian immigrants. “We were taught that Republican was synonymous with racist, Republicans were scary, typical country folks that chase you down and hate anyone that doesn’t look like them.”

Now, Mr. Arango Paez says, the internet has “democratized” information and allowed people to think for themselves. He doesn’t like that “the other side is constantly talking about race and skin color, which sows division and hatred.” 

Back at Tamiami Park, before the pro-Biden caravan was ready to roll, Ms. Perez-Ellis – the organizing director for the New Florida Majority – spoke of the group’s purpose: to build “an equitable Florida so that Black and brown communities can thrive.” 

Last November, the group had endorsed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president, and voted to back Mr. Biden only in September. And she made clear that a President Biden would face immediate pressure from the left to enact its agenda. 

“First we need to defeat Trump and Trumpism up and down the ballot,” says Ms. Perez-Ellis, an Ecuadorian immigrant. “We’re charging Joe Biden to do that. The day after the election, accountability will start.” 

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report from Phoenix, Arizona.