Here’s why Trump made gains with Florida’s Hispanic voters

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Despite an extremely tight race and some expectations that Joe Biden would gain ground among Hispanics in Florida (in a similar fashion to Hillary Clinton’s 62 percent Latino support in 2016), the state went to Donald Trump. 

The state’s large and diverse Hispanic population — estimated at 5.7 million — seems to have played a major role in which way Florida leaned. According to the latest projections, Trump garnered 55 percent of Florida’s Cuban American vote (up an estimated 1 percentage point from 2016), a surprising 30 percent of the state’s Puerto Rican vote, which has tended to lean Democratic, and an estimated 48 percent of Latinos from Central and South America and the Caribbean. This diversity among Florida’s large immigrant communities have made the state fascinating to examine and critical to electoral politics.

As a reminder of just how heated the Florida contest can get, in 2016 Trump won the state by just over 1 percentage point, around 100,000 votes. Trump’s win this year appears to be by a margin of just over 375,000 votes. It’s interesting to note that four years ago, Florida’s Hispanic community represented roughly 14 percent of the state’s eligible voters. Today it is estimated at 20 percent, a gain that may have worked in Trump’s favor. 

But what other factors were at play in Florida?

The Cuban-American community, which largely resides in Miami-Dade County, one of the state’s Southernmost districts and a region that proved critical to Trump’s Florida win, is still the state’s largest Latino cohort, representing almost 30 percent of the state’s Hispanic electorate. Though some generational differences have driven down GOP support in recent years, Cuban-Americans still largely lean right. In 2016, Trump won the Cuban vote by 13 percent. He made slight gains on that support this year. The Republican National Committee convention, in which two Cuban American speakers were featured, was indicative of the party’s understanding of the critical role this demographic would (and can) play.

But that’s not all that Trump did to court Cuban-American voters. In fact, his policy efforts were extensive. Beginning in 2017, Trump began to enact a series of measures aimed at reversing President Obama’s liberalization efforts with the island nation, calling them “one-sided” and without pressure to change Cuba’s human rights record. Given that the bulk of Obama’s Cuba measures were executed via executive order, these were somewhat easy to unravel. Since then, the Trump administration has implemented restrictions on travel and remittances, implemented sanctions on financial, trade and business transactions, allowed for lawsuits related to previously confiscated properties and ordered the curtailment of U.S. embassy operations in Havana. These measures no doubt resonated with members of the “historic exile” referring to those who left Cuba in the late 1950s and 1960s and were the most affected by Fidel Castro’s rise to power. The extent to which these new measures appealed to more recent Cuban arrivals is less certain and will be an important issue both parties should examine prior to the next presidential contest.

Puerto Ricans make up Florida’s second largest Hispanic cohort, representing 27 percent of Florida’s Hispanic voters. They reside primarily in Central Florida, near Orlando, and have grown in numbers as a result of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Puerto Ricans largely lean left, though there are some who argue that support for the GOP may be growing among some middle class and evangelical Puerto Ricans, and to some degree that seems to have played out. 

The remaining 44 percent of Florida Hispanics voters represent a mix of voters of Central and South American origin. This last group includes Venezuela Americans, whom Trump also worked hard to win over. While they only represent 2 percent of the state’s Hispanic electorate, they are a rapidly growing demographic fueled by the failed policies of the Nicolas Maduro regime. While Trump’s efforts towards Venezuela have not yielded their intended outcome, these hard line policies likely paid dividends for him. These measures include U.S. recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaido as president, backing of the 2019 failed uprising against Maduro and enacting numerous sanctions.

In addition to understanding these important cohorts, there were other factors at play this year that will need to be weighed and considered in the weeks to come. As has been widely reported, Hispanics have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in terms of the number of infections as well as pandemic related employment layoffs — two trends that may have worked against Trump. But it’s also the case that in the year prior to the spread of COVID-19, Hispanic unemployment was at historic lows (near 4 percent), and for some Latino voters, that may have helped Trump recover their support.

Undoubtedly, there were lots of moving parts in this year’s election season making this an unsettling time for good predictions. And the diversity of Florida’s Hispanic mix in a crucial swing state make forecasting all the more challenging. But a detailed understanding of Latino cohorts, their preferences and unique political histories, can go a long way towards predicting voter trends. 

As the nation’s Hispanic population continues to grow in the years and decades to come, future election outcomes will depend on this nuanced understanding and both parties would be wise to pay attention.

Cristina Lopez-Gottardi, PhD, is an assistant professor and research director for Public and Policy Program at The Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 election COVID-19 Cuban American Donald Trump Evangelical voters Florida elections Florida Latinos Hillary Clinton Hispanic voters Joe Biden Latino voters Latinos for Trump Miami-Dade County presidential election Puerto Rican voters Trump supporters

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