How Democrats Lost the Cuban Vote and Jeopardized Their Future in Florida

“Democrats have abandoned the battlefield.”

Marcial, right, a Cuban immigrant, holds up a sign up to passing drivers at a pro-Trump event in Miami last month.Noah Lanard/Mother Jones

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Before Annette Collazo could introduce herself, the Cuban man whose door she’d just knocked on in South Florida wanted to get something out of the way. “Aquí no somos Black Lives Matter,” he said. We’re not Black Lives Matter here. Having made this unprompted declaration, he let Collazo tell him that she was running to represent him in the Florida state house. Then, as he peered skeptically over transition lenses, he interrogated her.

Was she a Republican? No, Democrat. Where was she born? The United States. She’d never lived under socialism? Collazo, a teacher running for office for the first time, knew how to answer. “Thank God, no,” she said in Spanish. “And I never want to.” Distancing herself from her party’s left wing, Collazo stressed, “I’m a Democrat from Hialeah.”

Addressing fears that Democrats will bring Cuban-style communism to the United States is a constant part of campaigning in her hometown. In Hialeah, a working-class city of about 230,000 that borders Miami, she estimated that 1 in 5 independent voters she talks to brings it up. It was something Collazo never heard when knocking on doors there as a volunteer on Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. It also wasn’t a major issue in 2016, when Hillary Clinton nearly won Hialeah and carried District 110, the seat Collazo is running for, by 7 points.

It’s not hard to see why a party that champions a stronger social safety net was competitive. At the elementary school near where Collazo was canvassing, 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. A few blocks north was the zip code that had the most Obamacare sign-ups in the country, until a zip code in the nearby Venezuelan enclave of Doral overtook it last year. The Republicans who represent the district in Tallahassee have voted against expanding Medicaid, even though it would give many of their constituents free health care, paid for mostly by the federal government.

Collazo after knocking on doors in Hialeah.

 Noah Lanard / Mother Jones

Yet in 2018, District 110 swung 17 points to the right after Florida Republicans made socialism a central issue in the midterms and prioritized outreach to Latinos. Only one other Miami-Dade County state house district, which also covers parts of Hialeah, moved further toward Republicans. Going into 2020, it was clear that Democrats had a major problem with Cuban voters, particularly among the more working-class recent immigrants that it once counted on to counterbalance the conservatism of older exiles.

Instead of dealing with the problem, many South Florida Democrats told me, the party let it fester. Fernand Amandi, who helped shape Hispanic outreach for Obama’s reelection campaign as president of the consulting firm Bendixen & Amandi, said Florida Republicans have been running an almost permanent campaign since nearly losing the Cuban vote in 2012. “We’ve seen firsthand that Democrats have abandoned the battlefield when it comes to the constant, one-on-one engagement necessary to define the Democratic brand with Cuban voters,” Amandi, who is Cuban American, explained. State Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Colombian American who represents a mostly Cuban district in Miami-Dade County, said it’s “almost like the Trump people have stolen the Obama playbook, which is be present, be visual, be constant.”

Raúl Martínez, a master of retail politics who served as Hialeah’s Democratic mayor for 24 years, knows his party has a strong case to make to his former constituents. “They wouldn’t be able to see a doctor if it wasn’t for Obamacare,” he said. “Food stamps? Yeah, they get a lot of food stamps…They always want Section 8.” But Martínez isn’t surprised they’ve drifted away from Democrats. “When you don’t pay attention to a community and someone else does,” he said, “they’re gonna go with that.”

While I was reporting from Miami last month, local Democrats kept offering me a history lesson. The traditional narrative is that Cubans Americans became overwhelmingly Republican because they blamed John F. Kennedy for the failure of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. That wasn’t right, Martínez and many others said. The data show that as late as at least 1976, Hispanics in Miami-Dade County, the vast majority of whom were Cuban, were more likely to register as Democrats. The problem, Martínez said, was that other Democrats didn’t want to share power with Cuban Americans by backing them in primaries. Local Democrats had a chance to welcome Cubans into the party, Martínez and others told me, and they blew it.

Jeb Bush is interviewed at a Miami radio station in 1980.

Tim Chapman / Getty

It’s also true that Miami Cubans, even those registered as Democrats, have long backed Republican presidential candidates by wide margins, especially during the Cold War, when Cuban Americans adored Ronald Reagan for his intense anti-communism. But it took a concerted push by the GOP to get them to switch affiliations on the state and local level. Several Miami Democrats brought up Lincoln Díaz-Balart, a nephew of Fidel Castro’s first wife who lost his 1982 bid to represent Little Havana as a Democrat in the state house. Two years later, a young political operative named Jeb Bush became the head of the Miami-Dade Republican Party. As William Finnegan reported in the New Yorker in 2004, Bush “simply looked at South Florida’s demographics, saw the opportunity, and went to work making the Republican Party the natural home for Cuban exiles.” In 1985, Bush persuaded Díaz-Balart, who ended up serving in Congress from 1993 to 2011, to change parties. (His brother Mario, who switched at the same time as Lincoln, took his old seat.)

As Democrats’ support among Cuban Americans plummeted in the 1980s, Cuban Democrats blamed their own party. In a 1985 Miami Herald article headlined “Have Democrats Written Off Cuban Americans?,” Luis Lauredo, a prominent Cuban Democrat, said his party didn’t “give a damn about Cuban voters.” Maria Elana Toraño, who’d been the highest ranking Cuban American official in the Carter administration, told the Herald she’d met separately with local, state, and national Democrats to offer to help the party rebuild support within her community, but her efforts went nowhere. “I don’t mind being called a Communist and a liberal because I am a Democrat,” she explained. “But when I go to my party three times and get turned down—that’s when I want to say, ‘forget it.’”

Three decades later, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s 2018 reelection defeat showed what it looked like in practice for one campaign to ignore Cuban Americans, while another obsessed over them. A postmortem from Politico explained that Gov. Rick Scott, Nelson’s Republican opponent, had picked a Cuban American to be his lieutenant governor, started learning Spanish after getting to Tallahassee, and showed up in Cuban areas like Hialeah so often “that locals joked that el gobernador must be one of them.” Nelson, on the other hand, didn’t even have a Spanish version of his website less than five months before the election.

Then-Gov. Rick Scott drinks a Cuban coffee at Versailles during a visit to celebrate the famous Cuban restaurant’s 40th anniversary in 2011.

Joe Raedle / Getty

Scott wound up winning by about 10,000 votes, with his biggest gains in Miami-Dade County coming in Hialeah and other heavily Cuban precincts. Martínez, the former Hialeah mayor, was unsparing in his assessment. “That campaign with Bill Nelson was the worst-run campaign ever,” he said. “I’ve known him for many years. The worst campaign ever.”

In the 2018 gubernatorial race, Republican Ron DeSantis followed Scott’s lead by picking a Cuban American as his lieutenant governor and falsely branded his Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum as a socialist. Like Nelson, Gillum lost by a narrow margin statewide after suffering dramatic losses in heavily Cuban precincts. Gillum’s surprise win in the primary had given his campaign little time to build its Hispanic outreach effort, and his director for Spanish-language media told Politico, “We had no infrastructure.” After Obama nearly won the Florida Cuban vote in 2012 following extensive on-the-ground organizing, Nelson and Gillum lost it by about 40 points.

The need to fix things before the presidential election was obvious. “Guess what was done?” said Amandi, the former Obama consultant. “Nothing.” Martínez agreed. “Where has the Democratic Party been? Where is it at? Nowhere to be seen.”

Republicans, on the other hand, kept showing up. Trump and his administration’s officials have remained a constant presence around Miami. It’s worked. Eduardo Gamarra, a political scientist at Florida International University, cited research from one of his graduate students showing that Cuban Americans feel even more influential under Trump than they did under Reagan.

“Trump is everywhere,” said sociologist Guillermo Grenier, a colleague of Gamarra’s. “The Republican party makes Cubans feel very, very important. The Democrats don’t know how to do that. They just haven’t got it.”

On a rainy September morning in Little Havana’s Plaza de la Cubanidad, state Rep. Cindy Polo stood with a microphone, wearing jeans and a Notorious RBG t-shirt. The goal of the press conference was for local Democrats to rebut the Republicans’ incessant charges that their party will turn the United States into a communist hellscape. Polo, the child of Colombian immigrants, spoke in Spanish and then English with the passion of someone who’d beat the odds as a first-time candidate in 2018. She’d been told that her hometown of Hialeah was a “city a Democrat should never walk, should never canvass, and would absolutely never win.” But she won by going door to door across the district and carrying the more liberal areas in nearby Broward County.

State Rep. Cindy Polo speaking at a Democratic event in Little Havana in September.

Noah Lanard / Mother Jones

 

Polo later told me that voters were often surprised to see a Democrat from Hialeah at their door asking for their vote. She warned against a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in which Democrats assume they can’t beat the local Republican machine, so they don’t try.

Taddeo, the state senator, was feeling better about Democrats’ prospects by the time I met with her in September. Kamala Harris had just come to town, and Michael Bloomberg had pledged $100 million to support Biden in Florida. Since then, Biden and Obama have visited Miami, and Bide’s campaign is outspending Trump in the Miami media market. His standing is improving: An October poll by Bendixen & Amandi found Biden 12 points closer to Trump among Cubans than a month before. He still trailed by 26 points but was only six points behind where Clinton ended up in 2016.

A boy holds a Biden sign at a Cubanos con Biden car caravan in Hialeah.

Noah Lanard / Mother Jones

If Biden wins the state, it will probably be because he did better than Clinton among seniors and Anglos—non-Latino whites—while doing about the same or worse among Latinos. But in the future, Democrats won’t have the advantage of campaigning in a state filled with retirees while the president ignores a pandemic that kills seniors by the tens of thousands. They’ll need to win back Cuban Americans and other Hispanic voters.

Collazo, the Democratic state house candidate I accompanied as she knocked on doors in Hialeah, is following Polo’s lead in a neighboring district. Before getting into the race, she’d taught social studies at the Miccosukee Indian School west of Hialeah, worked as a bartender, and founded a civic engagement group called ¿Que Pasa, Hialeah? When I asked what prompted her to get into the race, she choked up us as she mentioned the November 2019 murder of a friend and fellow activist, Gonzalo Vizcardo, that remains unsolved.

As we walked between ranch homes in Hialeah, Collazo told me she asked the state party for a field organizer but didn’t get one. It means that her campaign is largely a one-woman show, in which she spends hours a day knocking on doors. When people weren’t home, she left campaign literature and a sticky note with her phone number so people could call if they had questions.

Collazo leaving a door hanger while canvassing in Hialeah.

Noah Lanard / Mother Jones

Helping her that day was David Perez, a firefighter who had lost a state senate race in 2018. He directed Collazo with the canvassing app on his phone. Perez was frustrated that Democrats weren’t doing more in the district. “As important as Florida is,” he said. “As important as Hispanics are. As important as the county is. You have an opportunity to take the seat that was held by the Florida speaker with a very competitive candidate. And, again, where is everybody? Where is the support?”

A few doors later, Collazo met a voter whose story made clear why Democrats, with their support for the social safety net, should be able to win in Hialeah. The school where the woman teaches kids with autism had not yet reopened, and all three generations of people living in the home were unemployed. She and her partner hadn’t gotten married because they would lose their eligibility for Medicaid. Unemployment was about to run out, and the family already was behind on their water bill. Adding further stress was her new baby, who’d been born just before the pandemic. Collazo listened and offered to help if the woman had any trouble getting in touch with city officials.

“I feel confident that she will vote for me,” Collazo said as we walked to the next door. Then she added, “She’s Republican.”

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

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