With the 2020 Presidential election reaching its closing stages, the competitiveness of Florida, the nation’s premier swing state, is in no doubt, despite large national Democratic leads. Certain early forecasters, such as the Cook Political Report, initially gave Joe Biden an advantage in the state. However, all of the “big three” major elections forecasters (Cook Political, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and Inside Elections) have since long rated the state as either a tossup or a tilt, and FiveThirtyEight’s election model shows the race as being within a margin of just 3 points.
But Florida is a diverse state — and one that also bucks national trends. Certain parts of the state, such as the more “Southern” Florida Panhandle, have trended rightwards in recent years. But the 2016 Presidential election also saw leftward swings in places like Orlando, Jacksonville, and Miami. As a result, many national observers expected Democrats to pull off statewide wins in the 2018 midterms. This would have reversed a trend of state-level Florida Democratic failures.
But to the contrary, Republicans pulled off upset wins, even defeating incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson. Furthermore, they did so with a coalition that the Trump campaign is coming to rely on as the 2020 Presidential race approaches a close. One crucial aspect of which is returning Cuban voters to their historical Republican habits, as Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis were able to do in 2018.
The History of South Florida
When Fidel Castro defeated the Cuban Batista government in 1959, his takeover set off a chain of refugee flight. This helped the population of Miami-Dade County to more than double between the 1950 and 1960 censuses. Since then, Cuban-American voters have played a major role in Florida politics. They’ve elected two of the state’s Senators and play an important role in both local and national politics.
Like many other groups of dense and urban Republicans, however, Cuban-American neighborhoods saw a major leftwards swing in the 2016 presidential election. Miami-Dade County, the most populated county in Florida and the only county in the United States to have a Cuban-American plurality, swung left by 6 percentage points between the 2012 and 2016 elections. This was even as the state as a whole swung right.
However, unlike many other groups of suburban Republicans, the 2018 midterms saw many Cuban-American voters return to the GOP fold. In Florida’s 25th, 26th, and 27th Congressional Districts, all of which have significant Cuban populations, Republican House candidates all overperformed the Trump campaign’s 2016 results. In some cases, this was by as much as 20 points. Furthermore, shifts in Miami-Dade County, which had the biggest rightward swing of any Florida county between the 2016 and 2018 elections, gave the victory to several Republican statewide candidates. This included surprise wins in the Gubernatorial and Senate elections. Exit polls showed outright Republican victories with Hispanic men.
The Geography of South Florida
Specifically, even with Miami-Dade, one geographically small enclave can be held responsible for a major role in this reversal. Running from Hialeah in the north to Homestead in the south, this collection of heavily Hispanic and Cuban neighborhoods is home to over 950,000 residents. Almost 90% of them are Hispanic.
But unlike similarly populated areas elsewhere in this country, these neighborhoods actually voted for Donald Trump. This was albeit by a margin of just 0.1%. At the same time, they gave local son Marco Rubio a whopping 22-point margin. And while this was a decrease from historical Republican margins in the area. John McCain, for instance, won the area by 25 points in 2008. Florida Republicans have come to rely upon a reversal of those trends heading into the 2020 elections.
Here, one can see the direct shifts in this enclave between the 2016 and 2018 statewide elections. Going from a 229 vote margin to a 45,000 vote margin in just 2 years is an impressive swing. It is all the more impressive when it not only bucks national trends, but also provides the deciding margin in a host of statewide races all at once. For instance, DeSantis won by 32,000 votes statewide but would have lost by 12,000 without the Cuban precinct subset.
Many Florida Democrats point to a lack of Hispanic outreach as a primary cause for Gillum and Nelson’s losses. This is not without due cause. One point in their favor is, potentially, turnout. Party officials can point to the greater fall in Democratic raw votes between 2016 and 2018. On the other hand, no noticeable turnout gap can be seen between turnout levels within the subset and nationally. This was 81% and 82% of Presidential levels, respectively. A decrease in Democratic raw votes could be attributed to relative turnout differences. However, it would seem unlikely in the context of the 2018 Democratic wave.
Republicans would, by contrast, point to the historical conservatism of Cuban-American voters. The Trump administration’s tough stance on Cuban and Venezuelan relations is cited as an even greater cause. In an election in which both parties have sought to tie either themselves or their opponents to the Obama Presidency, the contrast that the Trump Administration has sought to build versus Obama-era Latin America policy could play an important role. In cities such as Hialeah, 92% of its predominantly Cuban population of 230,000 reports speaking Spanish at home.
Regardless, it is clear that Cuban voters will play an important role in the 2020 election. It’s also clear that both the Trump and Biden campaigns have recognized this. A recent ad from the Trump campaign sought to tie Biden to Latin American dictators as well as the Columbian socialist Gustavo Petro. Recent polls have shown the President leading among Cuban-American voters.
But in a state decided by close margins, this may not be enough, as the Biden campaign well recognizes. Speaking in Little Havana recently, for instance, the Vice-President labeled the administration’s efforts as fruitless. He stated that “Cuba is no closer to freedom and democracy than it was four years ago.” For a state that has been hot in contention even in some of the largest victories of the 21st century, there are many factors in play, and the Cuban-American vote is set to be just as important now as ever.