Sunday, June 16

Florida Democrats’ lesson for California: Don’t take Latino support for granted

Alejandro Rodriguez, a Nicaraguan supporter of former President Trump, wanted to make clear that he opposes open borders.

“The way I see it, if I have my door open, anybody can come in and out. Same thing with the borders,” Rodriguez said as he sold hats reading “Latina for Trump” outside a political rally in this 96% Latino south Florida city last week.

Rodriguez, who is not a U.S. citizen, cannot vote in next year’s election.

A man stands in a shopping center parking lot holding a large American flag by a wagon full of flags and Trump merchandise

As a Nicaraguan, Alejandro Rodriguez can’t vote in the U.S. But like many Latinos in Florida, he supports former President Trump and closed borders.

(Faith E. Pinho / Los Angeles Times)

But his support for the front-runner in polls for the Republican presidential nomination highlights a challenge for President Biden and other Democrats: They can’t take anyone’s support for granted. That includes Latinos, not just in Florida, but everywhere — even in parts of California that could help determine control of Congress.

In 2024, every voter should be treated as a swing voter, argued Ana Sofía Peláez, the co-founder and executive director of Miami Freedom Project, a group that aims to boost voter turnout and promote progressive politics among Miami’s Latino population.

“What we’re doing in Miami, what we’re doing in Florida, is what both parties need to do nationally,” said Peláez, a registered Democrat. “They need to make sure that they’re treating everybody like a persuasion vote and communicating to voters where they stand.”

New polling in the 2024 White House contest shows that Latino voters in particular are less enthusiastic about Biden than they were four years ago and are supporting Trump in larger numbers.

The former president, who launched his 2016 campaign by saying that Mexico sends rapists and other criminals to the United States, won the support of 42% of Latino voters in six battleground states in a New York Times/Siena College poll released earlier this month, although other recent surveys have shown his Latino support at lower levels.

Florida in particular has Democrats worried. Though the state’s Cuban Americans have historically been more conservative than Latinos in the rest of the nation, Florida used to be a swing state, with Democrats counting on support from these voters to compete here.

Then Trump won the state twice, and Gov. Ron DeSantis dominated in his 2022 reelection bid, getting 62% of the Latino vote in Miami-Dade County and becoming the first Republican to win the area in 20 years.

The 2022 results worried Democratic strategists. If their support could fall off so dramatically here, could it happen in Arizona, Nevada, or even parts of California?

The states, and their Latino populations, are vastly different. Most Latinos in Florida are of Cuban or Puerto Rican descent. Many Latinos in California, where Democrats dominate the state’s voter rolls, are of Mexican lineage. But politicians who make assumptions about whose support they can count on can lose anywhere.

Florida Democrats concede that they had taken key voters for granted.

“We didn’t do a good enough job of gaining the trust of our Hispanic communities, going out there, talking to our voters,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Nikki Fried told reporters in Miami last week. “Making sure that we understand their priorities … that we are understanding their interests and why they came here to Florida and to America to begin with.”

Immigration was a recurring theme inside the stadium in Hialeah, and Trump’s jabs at open borders earned him wild applause from the audience. His hard-line immigration policies are a feature, not a bug, to many of his Latino supporters.

“The fastest-growing segment of the Latino vote is the U.S.-born. That is fundamentally different than it was 20 years ago,” said Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant who has been studying this voting bloc for decades. “So the issues that used to drive it 20 years ago, like immigration, are no longer as animating as they were. Which in large part is why I think Democrats have missed the rightward shift. And the state they missed it the most in was Florida.”

For those in Florida with Cuban or Venezuelan backgrounds, Republican rhetoric labeling Democrats as socialists has “been very salient,” said Madrid, who has a forthcoming book called “The Latino Century.” In 2020, he added, a multi-generational, anti-communist bloc among Cuban Americans “caught Democrats really flatfooted.”

“They misjudged the Latino vote considerably,” he said.

Even the state’s usually reliably Democratic Puerto Rican population shifted toward the Republican Party, Madrid said.

“They won with Puerto Ricans, which, to me, is a much bigger shock,” he said. “That’s generally a 75/25 Democratic vote. … That was largely unforeseen.”

Visits from Democrats such as New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who came to Florida to “start preaching socialism,” according to real estate broker Christopher Jorge Lazaro — helped flip Miami-Dade red last year.

A man in a MAGA hat standing in a grassy field, hands on his hips, with people and merchandise tents behind him

Trump supporter Christopher Jorge Lazaro said Democrats such as New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited Florida to “start preaching socialism,” which undercut support for the party in a state where many are from places like Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

(Faith E. Pinho / Los Angeles Times)

“These words that they heard in Venezuela, that they heard in Cuba, that they heard in Nicaragua, that they heard in Argentina — nobody wants to hear that. Because it always ends up in catastrophe,” said Lazaro, 49, the son of a Cuban immigrant, attending the Trump rally from nearby Sunny Isles Beach. “You’re hearing the same things, only in English.”

Those issues might not be salient for all Latino voters. But inflation, gas prices and the cost of living affect everyone. And although the Biden campaign is pointing to statistics that show the nation’s economy is healthy and unemployment is low, many voters, regardless of their backgrounds, don’t feel it when they fill up their gas tanks or buy their groceries.

Ashley Fuentes, 29, an independent voter, has cast ballots for Democratic presidential candidates every cycle since she was old enough to vote, and is distraught by last year’s Supreme Court ruling overturning federal protection of abortion rights. But she doesn’t know whether she will support Biden next year.

She recently bought a condo in Coconut Grove, a leafy upscale Miami neighborhood near Biscayne Bay. But she can’t fathom purchasing a house in the future due to housing costs and interest rates.

“Even if you’re making what I once considered a lot of money, like $200,000, you really can’t afford what you thought would be a reasonable house for a four-person family,” the information technology worker said. “The last eight years or so have been very chaotic.”

Fuentes suspects that Democrats plan to nominate the 80-year-old Biden again because they want to stay in power, but she worries that “he’s getting too old to make decisions that literally impact the world.”

Fried, the state Democratic chair, said that although some of her party’s losses in Florida can be blamed on disinformation, Democrats have learned lessons from the shift among the state’s Latinos.

A load of merchandise including flags, red MAGA hats and a pink camouflage "Latina for Trump" cap

Some of the merchandise for sale outside the former president’s rally last week in Hialeah, Fla., targeted supporters with Latin American backgrounds.

(Faith E. Pinho / Los Angeles Times)

“I take ownership of this,” she said.

State Democrats’ new priorities include “making sure we’re going back to the basics … talking to our community members, and most importantly, we’re listening to what’s on their minds and not trying to push an agenda,” she added. “And trying to obviously overcome the misinformation and disinformation that has been spewed against Democrats here in Florida.”

The Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee have deployed Latino elected officials across the U.S. to promote the president’s message and aim to register many of the millions of Latinos who have turned 18 since 2020. The president’s campaign also launched Spanish-language ads in Florida during last week’s GOP debate in Miami and Trump’s rally nearby, highlighting Biden’s investments in Latino small businesses, opposition to dictators and extension of temporary protected status for Venezuelans in the U.S.

But veteran Democratic operatives are still worried.

“Democrats ought to take this very seriously. Hispanic voters are telling us we’re not doing enough for them,” said Paul Begala, a former advisor to President Clinton who led super PACs for President Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. “They are falling away from us, and Democrats gotta go back and earn them. I take it very seriously.

“If you feel a twinge in your chest, it could be heartburn or it could be a heart attack,” he added. “My advice would be to get your ass to the doctor, quit eating bacon and quit smoking.”

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