MIAMI, Fla. – Annette Collazo, a Florida Democrat who is running for a seat in the state legislature, was campaigning at a constituent’s home when she heard a TV ad that caught her attention.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, and other Democrats, were shown side-by-side with Latin American leaders like former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The ad was paid for by President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and played on Spanish-language television.
“It is a concern because it’s such a very offensive accusation,” said Collazo, who is Cuban American. “It’s preying on people’s vulnerabilities, their sensitivities, their family trauma of having to leave everything in their home country to come here.”
“I think it’s deceptive,” Collazo said of comparing Democrats to communist dictators.
The ad is one of many that have dominated TV and radio in the state and its message appears to be resonating with an influential group of Latino voters in Florida: Cuban Americans.
Biden is underperforming with Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade, the largest county in the state, as well as with Latino voters across Florida, according to recent polling. The lack of support from Latino voters could cost Biden a win in Florida, which has backed the national winner in every election except one since 1964.
Trump narrowly won the state four years ago by a little more than 1%, a margin of fewer than 113,000 votes out of more than 9.5 million cast.
Weeks of anxious prodding from Florida Democrats that Biden has taken the state for granted could finally be paying off.
On Tuesday, Biden will make his first visit to the Sunshine State since he secured the Democratic nomination. The former vice president also is doing more to take on the round-the-clock attacks that he’s a socialist, a potent message when delivered to Latinos who fled repressive regimes. And key allies, notably former New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, are pledging to expand their efforts to help Biden win the state.
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The importance of Miami-Dade County
Biden’s visit Tuesday comes a few days after his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, campaigned in Miami, meeting with Black leaders at Florida Memorial University, a historically Black college. She also stopped for arepas at Amaize, a Venezuelan restaurant in Doral – also known as “Doralzuela” to locals due to the large Venezuelan population.
The president and Biden are virtually tied in the Sunshine State, according to an NBC News/Marist poll, after several polls over the summer had showed the former vice president with a lead over Trump.
The poll also shows Biden trailing Trump among Latino voters in the state, 46%-50%, a group Hillary Clinton won by nearly 30 points four years ago.
Hispanic people in Florida make up about a quarter of the state’s roughly 21.5 million population and 17% of its registered voters. As the single biggest Hispanic ethnicity in the nation’s biggest swing state, Cuban Americans in South Florida wield big influence on the political stage. They have generally leaned Republican but younger generations are more liberal.
A poll of Miami-Dade County voters by Bendixen & Amandi International and the Miami Herald, also showed Trump with a slight lead over Biden among all Latino voters. But the survey also found that among Cuban American voters, Trump led Biden by a whopping 38 percentage points.
Miami-Dade alone represents about 10% of the state’s votes. In 2016, Clinton won the county over Trump by more than 290,000 votes; President Barack Obama won the county by about 200,000 in 2012. While Clinton in 2016 also beat Trump statewide among Latino voters, 62% to 35%, she trailed him in support among Cuban American voters, 41% to 54%.
Biden doesn’t need Florida to win the presidency, but capturing the Sunshine State would likely portend an overwhelming victory nationally and be an embarrassing setback for the president who made the state his primary residence after complaining about being treated “very badly” by political leaders in New York. No Republican since Calvin Coolidge in 1924 has captured the White House without winning Florida.
Biden has cut into Trump’s support with older votersin Florida and nationally but some of his strength with that demographic has been offset by his weakness with Latino voters, including Cuban Americans.
Biden could get a boost from outside his campaign. A top aide to former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg confirmed media reports that the former New York City mayor plans to spend at least $100 million to help Biden in Florida.
Nuestro PAC, a group focused on Latino voter outreach created by former Bernie Sanders advisor, Chuck Rocha, also is investing millions into bilingual mail outreach to newly registered Latino voters in Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Some Democrats also want to see Biden hit back more strongly against Trump’s characterization of the party as “radical socialists.” The message has struck a nerve with many Latinos who are Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, some of whom have fled communist regimes or have family members who did.
‘Democrats have gone silent’
Al Cardenas, a Cuban American activist who once chaired Florida’s Republican Party, said the Trump campaign has successfully wooed South Florida Latinos largely because the president’s frequent broadsides against the Castro regime in Cuba and the Maduro regime in Venezuela have gone unanswered.
“Democrats have gone silent on the subject, so he filled up that silence to satisfy significant portion of the exile communities,” said Cardenas, who opposes Trump’s reelection but has not endorsed Biden.
Latino activists in the state have been pressing the Biden campaign to do more outreach with Hispanic voters.
In July, a seven-page letter from Florida Democratic Party field organizers accused the Biden campaign of lacking a “fully actionable field plan” as moves into working with the Florida party on voter outreach, according to the Miami Herald. Last month, Voto Latino CEO Maria Teresa Kumar said the Biden campaign nationally has not done enough outreach to the Latino community.
Susan MacManus, political science professor emeritus at South Florida University, said the letter “was no surprise to us because it happens every four years.”
“People from outside of Florida think the Latino vote in Florida is cohesive and it’s very diverse,” MacManus said.
Dario Moreno, a political professor at Florida International University who specializes in Cuba politics, said Democrats sensed momentum in Miami-Dade after they flipped two congressional seats there from Republican to Democrat in 2018 with the victories of Rep. Donna Shalala and Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
“After 2018, when (Democrats) won the two congressional seats, they really took the Latinos for granted and haven’t really worked that community as much as they should have,” Moreno said.
Door-to-door versus social media
The Trump campaign has invested heavily in Miami-Dade County. Politico reported last week that the campaign has outspent the Biden campaign by nearly $4 million in TV ads for the Miami-Fort Lauderdale media market, with much of that spent on Spanish-language ads.
While the Trump campaign has an extensive strategy of door-to-door campaigning, Democrats are relying far more on social media. Obama’s Cuba policy, which many older Cubans objected to, remains a millstone for Biden, some analysts said.
Moreno said the Biden campaign needs to invest more resources into courting Latino voters in Florida, especially given the anger among many Cuban Americans at Obama’s efforts to restart diplomatic relations with Havana. Biden’s serious consideration of California Rep. Karen Bass as a running mate also was damaging given her past praise for Fidel Castro, which she later renounced.
“Given the margins that Hillary Clinton won Dade County by and given how close Florida is, the Democrats have to put real resources in the Hispanic community,” Moreno said. “And they have to stop offending Cuban voters.”
Cardenas said the competitive presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who describes himself as a Democratic socialist, also appears to have turned off older Cuban Americans from the Democratic ticket, he said.
But the Biden campaign says it is not taking the Latino vote for granted. During Harris’ visit in Doral, she spoke briefly with diners in the restaurant and met with political strategist Ana Navarro and Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo. Navarro, who wore a Biden-Harris T-shirt, has participated in virtual roundtables with the campaign for Latino voters in Florida and Wisconsin.
The campaign this past weekend also launched a series of television and radio ads aimed at appealing to Latino voters in Florida. Two of the ads focus on Trump’s handling of the economy and how Latino small business owners contribute to the economy. A third ad is focused on outreach to Puerto Rican voters in Florida that criticizes the president’s response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in 2017.
Ahead of the Florida primary in March, the Biden campaign also created Latino organizing groups in the state, such as Cubanos Con Biden – “Cubans With Biden” — and Boricuas Con Biden, or “Puerto Ricans With Biden.”
The groups have done digital organizing, phone banking and caravans, called “Ridin’ With Biden.’ Cubanos Con Biden has called into local radio shows to amplify Biden’s campaign message and have held counterprotests to Trump supporters.
Biden’s Florida press secretary Kevin Munoz said the groups “ensure that members of their own community are communicating to their friends, their families about Joe Biden and doing this really culturally competent organizing.”
“It speaks to the fact that we cannot just use a one-size-fits-all approach to reaching Hispanics,” he said.
The Biden campaign has tried to hit back against Trump’s messaging by doing interviews with local stations, including with Spanish-language stations Telemundo and Univision.
During an interview last week with NBC’s local Miami station, Biden said Trump “has done nothing to advance democracy and human rights; on the contrary, the crackdown on Cubans by the regime has gotten worse under Trump, not better.”
‘Do I look like a socialist?’
Biden also accused Trump of failing Venezuelans, adding that he would extend Temporary Protected Status to undocumented Venezuelans fleeing a humanitarian crisis in their country, which Trump has not done.
“Venezuelan people are worse off, living in one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world,” Biden said, adding that the country is “no closer to a free election.”
Visiting Pittsburgh last week, Biden also pushed back hard against being labeled a socialist.
“Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters. Really?” Biden said during a campaign event.
Collazo said some Democrats are have tried to combat the “radical socialist” messaging from Republicans on their own. She said she has a shirt that says “Anti-Communist” and wears it proudly.
But for Trump’s Cuban American supporters, it still comes down to that one word: socialism.
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Ricardo Gomez, a former police officer turned criminal defense attorney in Miami, said his family fought too hard to flee Fidel Castro’s Cuba only to end up with a socialist-leaning administration in the United States. Gomez, whose father fought in the Bay of Pigs invasion and was held captive by Castro’s forces for seven months, doesn’t believe that Biden and Harris are moderates, but have instead adopted the most radical ideals of the Democratic party.
“They’ve adopted Bernie Sanders, they’ve adopted the AOC model,” said Gomez, 60, referring to progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “They’re not calling the anarchists in the street burning and looting what they are … street thugs.”
Gomez supports the idea of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – limited government programs that provide a last-resort safety net for people facing difficult times. But he said a Biden administration would push to vastly expand those programs, allowing people to become dependent on government handouts. And that, he said, strikes fear into the hearts of immigrants from Cuba or Venezuela or Nicaragua.
“The way communists and socialists work is they start taking from the top and distributing, but sooner or later they run out of stuff to distribute,” he said. “Do we want this to become another Cuba? Do we want this to become another Venezuela?”
Mike Rivero understands that fear. The 30-year-old Cuban American has heard the anguish in the voices of his relatives and friends when talking about the upcoming election. But Rivero, who sells cruise packages, accused the Trump campaign of exploiting those fears by exaggerating, and oftentimes lying about, what a Biden presidency would look like.
“The ads down here, it’s Biden with a red background, he’s there saying he’s going to take your house,” Rivero said. “Yet we know that Joe Biden is a centrist. He’s more in the middle than Hillary (Clinton) was, he’s more in the middle than Obama was, and we know he’s not a socialist, he’s not a communist. But the Trump campaign, hats off to them. They’re basically using that fear to re-traumatize people. It’s triggering people to close up and refuse to have a conversation.”
He likens it to the psychological concept of “ancestral trauma” – when the agonies endured by one generation are passed down to the next.
Pushing back against Trump supporters
Cardenas said he doesn’t understand why so many fellow Cuban Americans who fled the repressive Castro regime support the president, given his embrace of autocrats such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
“They haven’t learned their lesson from 1958 when Fidel said he was not a communist and he would provide good governance for everybody. And people bought into that, including everybody who came into exile a year later. And now we have Trump who made all these promises, none of which have been fulfilled and people are buying into it again,” he said. “Clearly his authoritarian style seems to be a hit among some folks.”
But Rivero said he’s hearing – quietly – from more friends and relatives that they’re leaning toward Biden. He joined Cubanos Con Biden. He’s taken part in caravans flying the Biden/Harris flag and been shocked to see so many people honking, giving them the thumbs up and asking for lawn signs.
In the predominantly Cuban American neighborhood of Westchester, Trump supporters have held rallies nearly every Saturday outside Tropical Park going back to 2016. But now, Rivero said he and other Biden supporters have set up a competing rally at the same park each Saturday and have been getting similarly sized crowds.
“We do that so when people drive by it’s not all Trump,” he said. “They’ve tried to rent every corner of the city and tried to paint it as a Trump town. We’re trying to provide that outlet and say, ‘No’.”