MIAMI — The basic electoral math in Florida looks something like this: Democrats roll up their votes in South Florida and Miami-Dade County, Republicans pad their numbers in the north and statewide races are decided in the Interstate 4 Corridor in between.
This year, however, the I-4 Corridor is taking a backseat in some of those calculations. President Donald Trump’s campaign and Republicans are making inroads in Miami-Dade County, the state’s most populous, forcing the Biden campaign to scramble in response to the threat to the wellspring of Democratic votes.
In a county where more than half of the residents are born outside the mainland U.S. — mostly in Latin America — Trump has outspent Joe Biden’s campaign by about $4 million on TV in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale media market, much of it on Spanish-language ads. The president’s conservative allies have dominated Spanish-language social media and WhatsApp messaging to Spanish-speakers. And the Miami-Dade County GOP has fielded at candidates in five key local races, all of whom are Cuban-American, which could help turn out the pro-Trump Republican vote.
A new poll of local voters found that Biden is underperforming Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margins over Trump in the county, where Democrats needed to run up the score to offset losses elsewhere.
“They’re not hearing enough from the Biden campaign, and I think the Biden camp has seen that and beefed up their programming the last two weeks to head into the general,” said Ricky Junquera, a state House candidate and vice-chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. “I’m sure they’ve obviously identified that’s a problem and they need to correct that quickly.”
Miami state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat, said the raft of polling and the late-breaking response to Trump’s threat in Florida has the party taking the matter seriously after months of discarding warnings.
“Some of us have been warning about this, but it was kill the messenger: ‘you just bitch about everything.’ And now they’re like ‘ahhhhh! What do we do?’” she said.
Biden’s campaign has reacted by beefing up Latino staff in the state, and rapidly closing the gap in Spanish-language ads and ads run in Miami-Dade while dispatching running mate Kamala Harris in person on Thursday.
In the chess game that is the Florida campaign – a dead heat, according to an NBC News/Marist poll released Tuesday — Trump is wagering that, by competing so hard on what should be Biden’s terrain, it gives him room to go on offense in other parts of the state where Biden is running well with non-Hispanic white voters.
“We are focused on every part of this state, not ceding any place, and it would be politically foolish otherwise,” said Susie Wiles, who leads Trump’s campaign in Florida.
Trump’s traction with Cuban-American voters, who tend to vote Republican, is driving his gains in Miami-Dade. After drifting toward the Democratic side during President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 bids, many have returned to the GOP fold amid Trump’s crackdown on Cuba and his constant outreach. In Miami-Dade, about 72 percent of the registered Republicans are Hispanic, mostly Cuban-American.
“Throughout the 2016 election and during his time in office, President Trump has developed a personal connection with the Cuban community in Florida and he would never allow that to be ceded unilaterally to anyone,” Wiles said.
The Cuban vote isn’t monolithic, however, nor is the Hispanic vote in either Miami-Dade or across Florida, where Democratic-leaning voters with roots in Puerto Rico are challenging Cuban-American dominance statewide. A growing wave of Pan-Latin American voters who have neither Cuban nor Puerto Rican roots could account for nearly half of all of Florida’s registered Hispanic voters.
Many of the non-Cuban Hispanics, especially in Miami, are registered as independents but vote Democratic when they turn out. That places an extra burden on county Democrats who have to run a turnout operation just to get their base — Black voters and progressive whites — to the polls and requires a persuasion campaign, often in Spanish, to get these Hispanic voters on board.
“The campaign has realized for us to win Florida, we need to go all-out in Miami-Dade. And they are doing that,” said Christian Ulvert, a veteran Democratic specialist in Hispanic outreach who was part of a wave of hires by Biden to counteract the rising Trump threat.
If there’s one person whom Republicans and Democrats credit with helping Trump among Miami-Dade Hispanic voters — specifically Cuban-Americans — it’s Alexander Otaola, who emigrated to Miami in 2003 and launched a popular Spanish-language YouTube show that morphed from covering culture and music into politics. Along the way, Otaola went from a Barack Obama voter to an evangelist for Trump.
Otaola told POLITICO that Trump is proving relatively popular with Latinos in the county because he is “synonymous with prosperity and success. We are tired of politicians who say the right thing and do the wrong thing. And we have changed to whoever speaks the wrong thing; but does the right thing.”
Carlos Odio, who heads the Democratic Latino research firm Equis Labs, said he learned of Otaola organically in a focus group studying Hispanic voters, where a participant brought up his conservative messaging.
Odio calculated this summer that Trump, who had lost Cuban-American support in 2016 relative to other Republicans, made up so much lost ground since then that, if the 2016 election were held under current conditions, he would’ve added 90,000 net votes to his total statewide margin of 112,911 over Clinton.
“Part of that is the olds coming back to Trump,” Odio said. “The other part is the growth of these recent arrivals. That part is Otaola. If he did not exist, I don’t know if you would see the swing the same way.”
In a recent statewide poll of Florida, Odio found that Biden had made up some lost ground with Cuban-Americans. But, relative to Clinton in 2016, he was still trailing her margins, partly a function of being relatively unknown with a large segment of Florida’s broad, dynamic Hispanic community that consists of people with roots throughout Latin America, although voters with roots in Cuba and Puerto Rico account for more than half of the Latino vote in the state.
In a poll of likely Miami-Dade voters by Bendixen & Amandi International released Tuesday for The Miami Herald, Biden led Trump by 17 points, a margin that gives Democrats shivers in a county that Clinton carried by nearly 30 points. Pollster Fernand Amandi found that Trump was winning Cuban-American voters 68-30 percent while Biden was carrying what are called non-Cuban Hispanics 58-32 percent.
A Democratic survey conducted in the county by veteran pollster Tom Eldon and shared with POLITICO found Biden doing better with non-Cuban Hispanics, winning them 62-32 percent and losing Cuban-Americans by 61-33 percent, according to a memo from Ulvert.
Amandi, whose firm was a lead consultant for Obama’s Hispanic voter research and messaging in 2008 and 2012 said it’s a warning sign for Biden.
“There’s no path to victory for Trump in Miami-Dade, but there’s a path to manage Miami-Dade margins, which could allow Trump to carry Florida by minimizing his losses here,” Amandi said, adding that Biden has an advantage that Clinton didn’t: he’s pulling more white voters elsewhere in the state, and they’re a supermajority of Florida’s electorate.
“If Biden overperforms with white voters in Florida, it doesn’t matter how much he underperforms with Hispanic voters,” Amandi said.
Evelyn Perez-Verdia, a Democratic political consultant and Spanish-language media commentator in South Florida, blamed much of Biden’s standing Latino voters on a “massive disinformation campaign in Spanish in Florida.”
“I get WhatsApp videos from every single person I know calling Democrats socialists,” she said. “And they go into this dark side about how Democrats support things like ISIS. It’s totally crazy. They’re using fear and, unfortunately, fear can work.”
The socialism attack, which Florida Democrats say they ignored to their peril in 2018 elections, has particular salience among Cuban-Americans, but also is utilized to persuade voters with roots in Venezuela, Colombia and Nicaragua.
It’s a substantive messaging point in two Florida state Senate races, two South Florida congressional contests to unseat Democratic incumbents and the county mayor’s race. Republican consultant David Custin, who is advising the competitive Miami-Dade mayor’s race, said Democrats are deluding themselves when it comes to how far left their party has moved and don’t realize how much Hispanic voters in the state are turned off by that.
“Look at what happened to the Democratic Party: you had a Kennedy who just lost a Democratic primary in Massachusetts because he wasn’t liberal enough,” Custin said. “The Democratic Party has changed.”