Florida: Background on the LatAm Vote
The Hispanic vote in Florida will likely be analyzed in these last days of the election, and in its aftermath, in terms of its two largest subgroups: Cubans and Puerto Ricans. Less discussed, until very recently, is a constellation of some 18 national origin groups, including Mexicans, Colombians, and Dominicans, that make up a plurality of the Latino vote in the state.
While there is no common name for this group*, we’ll call it the broader/greater/pan Latin American vote. Or, simply, the “LatAms.”
Below are some resources on the LatAm vote for observers in the media or in advocacy groups.
1. The Latest Data
The release in recent days of new data from the American Community Survey provides an updated estimate on the size of the various subgroups in Florida’s Hispanic electorate. Here are raw counts of the Citizen Voting Age Population for the top 20 origin groups:
The first thing that jumps out is the sheer size of the two biggest blocs (Puerto Ricans and Cubans). There is a reason they are talked about as much as they are.
Yet voters of Mexican, Colombian and Dominican descent all have eligible populations in the six figures. (By voter registration, Colombians would move ahead of Mexican-Americans.) Venezuelans fall behind those groups in numbers, but are the subject of much press and attention — a sign of the salience of the fight against Venezuelan autocrat Nicolás Maduro, and of the Republican fixation with making Venezuelans “the next Cubans.”
As a category, the LatAm vote tends to be a little over 40% of the Hispanic vote, in terms of both registration and actual voting.
2. Why the LatAm vote matters (a cheat sheet)
- We’re talking about a lot of voters in a state decided by notoriously narrow margins. Florida’s Latin American voters represent a large block of nearly 3 million eligible voters (nearly 1 million registered voters). In Florida, any shifts in support among smaller communities can have a large effect.
- Biden’s path to victory in Florida likely requires him to get around 70% of the LatAm vote. We last polled him around 60%.
- The Florida GOP has been playing the Hispanic margins game in Florida for a long time. Statewide candidates from Jeb Bush to Rick Scott have won races, in part, through a strategy of picking off votes from Hispanic sub-blocks via catered outreach.
- The Trump campaign has been following this playbook — most visibly, through its blatant outreach to Venezuelan voters. Biden and Democrats have replicated this strategy of targeting sub-ethnicities, and put their own spin on it.
- There isn’t much public data about Latin American voters. They are harder to poll: the numbers are smaller, so differences aren’t picked up in a statewide poll, and oversampling them can be quite expensive. Because they don’t make the cut in exit polls, we don’t have much in the way of historic data on voting participation and partisanship. As a result, some of the most critical Hispanic voters in Florida are nearly invisible to political practitioners who aren’t already embedded in these communities.
3. The margins game in practice
Comprehending the Hispanic vote in Florida requires an appreciation for the margins game.
Let’s see how it works with the example of Venezuelans. There are some 88,000 eligible Venezuelan voters in Florida, around 60% of them in South Florida, per the Pew analysis of Census data. Of those Venezuelans, average rates suggest some 50,000 are registered to vote, with about half that number actually voting in the 2016 presidential race.
Those are, in all, fairly small numbers. But in a state decided by narrow margins, any shifts in support among smaller communities can have a large effect. Case in point: a swing of 5 points toward Trump among Venezuelan voters translates into an additional 2,500 net votes for him.
Picking up a few votes from any one of these groups is unlikely to swing the election. But adding them up across multiple groups starts to get you somewhere. Indeed, Rick Scott won his election to the US Senate in 2018 by 10,033 votes; he under-performed Trump’s 2016 number with white voters, but made it up by over-performing among Hispanics.
Famously, then-governor Scott visited an arepa joint in the Venezuelan enclave of Doral on six separate occasions, part of an outreach blitz tailored to the distinct communities that make up the Hispanic vote. His goal wasn’t to win a majority of Latinos, but to lose it by less, scraping together a few thousand votes wherever he could find them.
As we’ve identified, Joe Biden likely needs to win more around 70% of the non-Cuban vote this year to win Florida. For the Trump campaign, the goal is to keep him short of that number.
This year, Democrats have stepped up their own efforts. The Biden campaign, under the rubric of Todos con Biden, has taken a niche-targeted approach to Hispanic outreach. They have active groups like Colombianos con Biden, Dominicanos con Biden, Venezolanos con Biden, etc. that allow voters to bring their identities with them while collaborating on a larger whole.
On the independent side, the Florida for All coalition has stood up campaigns focused on individual origin groups, with acute cultural appeals: examples are the Venezuelan-focused Tufo a Tirano, and the Colombian-focused No Comamos Cuento.
4. Past results and current polling
What kind of support can we expect for Biden and Trump with the LatAm vote?
In 2016, Trump likely got into the mid-20s with the LatAm vote, per an Equis precinct analysis, while Clinton likely exceeded 70% based on her vote share in the most heavily LatAm precincts.
For 2012, exit polling from Bendixen & Amandi suggests a similar pattern: Romney in the 20s and Obama in the 70s.
Fast-forward to 2020: in the last two Equis polls in Florida, Trump has hovered around 30% with LatAm voters, after getting as high as 34% against a generic Democrat last year.
The numbers show Trump has, clearly, made gains among some LatAm subgroups relative to past GOP performance.
Most likely he improved with Venezuelans. There was certainly room for a Republican to grow with the Venezuelan vote: per the same Bendixen/Amandi exit polling, the 2012 vote of that group was 76–24.
However, we wouldn’t put too much stock in a recent online poll that showed 66% of Venezuelans supporting Trump; that survey interviewed Venezuelan adults, not registered or even eligible voters, using email addresses provided by an unnamed non-profit.
More likely we suspect we’re seeing marginal improvements for Trump among several origin groups.
5. Trump’s strategy: red-baiting, neo-fascism
Trump’s strategy to win over Hispanic voters in Florida hinges on a conflation of Latin American leftist regimes with the democratic socialism that came to prominence in the US in 2016.
Calling Democrats communists/socialists isn’t new, of course, but it has taken hold in a way it didn’t during, say, Obama’s 2008 run, because of the role of social media combined with the rise of figures like Bernie Sanders and AOC. The accusation is not that Biden himself is a radical leftist, but that he won’t stand up to the left-wing of his party (ironic, of course, for the president that has encouraged the extremists in his coalition).
Trump’s tough (and largely empty) talk on Venezuela, and his haphazard tightening of restrictions on Cuba, have been at the centerpiece of this appeal. But it would be a mistake to view the attack as exclusively a matter of foreign policy. The ads run by Trump and his allies are using “socialism” to prime concerns that are more about economics (e.g. taxes) and culture/race (Goya and “cancel culture”, Black Lives Matter) than about authoritarianism. That Trump himself acts as a caudillo isn’t incidental, our focus groups suggest, but that it’s part of the package: the same strongman appeal that bolstered Franco, Pinochet or, even, Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe.
The primary target of this strategy remains Cuban voters. But his campaign has tried to peel off votes from other small and growing blocs, starting with the Venezuelans and extending to the Nicaraguans and Colombians.
The Nicaraguan vote has not proven to be especially conservative, for all of Republicans’ wishful thinking (Obama won them 72–28, per Bendixen/Amandi). But Nicaraguans fled to Florida en masse during the Sandinista regime of the 1980s. With Daniel Ortega, the autocrat of that era, back in power today and allied with the governments of Cuba and Venezuela, the GOP hope is that messaging directed at the former two could well impact this vote as well.
And, though Colombians have been solidly Democratic, Trump backers are making a push that somehow tries to tie Marxist guerillas in their home country to the Democrats in the US. `
His campaign also released an ad with references to Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Colombia.
6. How to think about the swing in the LatAm vote
Is the Trump strategy effective? Both quantitative and qualitative research suggests some ways to think about an answer.
(a) The “socialism” attack works, up to a point.
Equis polling over the last year suggested Trump’s fear-mongering strategy resonated with a core set of Hispanic voters in Florida, accounting for his improvement since 2016, but beyond them seemed to stand up poorly to even average Democratic arguments.
The core hit from Trump — that “Joe Biden and the Democrats have embraced socialist ideas that will bankrupt our economy in order to give more handouts to people who don’t do their fair share” — was chosen over a Democratic counter-argument by, at best, 35% of Hispanics in the state. That included 45% of Cubans (lower than the 54% vote share he currently enjoys with that group) and 30% of non-Cubans (in line with the support he gets there now).
(b) Trump’s strongman tendencies do hurt him. So do the ways in which he is a weak leader.
Concerns about socialist tendencies in the Democratic Party have reached beyond the Trump base — but they don’t shape voter preferences. Why? Because Trump remains a scarier option.
In a late September poll we asked voters whether they were concerned that the Democratic Party is “moving too far left and embracing socialist policies.” We also asked whether they were concerned that Donald Trump is “acting like a dictator by refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if Joe Biden wins the election.”
About equal numbers of Hispanic voters gravitate toward one concern over the other. Some 36% of Hispanic voters think the Democrats have moved too far left but not that Trump acts like a dictator. Some 35% are concerned that Trump is acting like a dictator and don’t think the Democrats have moved too far left.
In the middle are a sizable 29% of Latino voters who are concerned both about socialism and authoritarianism. A large majority of this segment, 58%, already supports Biden, to 26% for Trump, suggesting that any wariness about the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party is overruled by other fears: whether it’s that Trump is acting like an autocrat, or that they distrust him to handle COVID, healthcare, or immigration, areas in which they think Biden would do a better job by a wide margin.
(c) Foreign-born voters are conscious of why they came to this country
A clear political divide emerged when we conducted a series of ethnographies in the homes of Venezuelan voters in late 2019 (with Myers Research and Castillo & Associates), a divide based on the reason they cited for migrating to the US. Those who reported that their migration to the United States was because they were escaping persecution and the threat of violence were solidly in line with Trump and Republicans — they were the anti-left warriors.
On the other side were those who said they came to the United States in large part to secure more opportunity for themselves and their immediate family. They were generally more open to Democrats, and had a far more mixed to negative view of Trump, with most making references to his divisiveness and rather harsh tone (including how he talks about immigrants).
Democrats do best among voters who are primarily here to chase opportunity and a better life for their families. But Trump could make in-roads with his economic arguments. That’s the terrain on which this final stretch is being contested.
7. The Biden opportunity (with a shout-out to to the Mexican vote)
The Biden campaign and other local Democrats have worked to counter Trump’s outreach to some of these origin groups. As discussed, Biden has natural advantages he can push with Colombians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, whether on COVID recovery, healthcare, or immigration (as in efforts to extend Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans, against steady GOP opposition and the Trump’s administration furtive deportation of Venezuelans).
The other part of the growth opportunity for Democrats is with groups who don’t receive as much attention from the Republicans. Look at Dominicans, or any smaller origin cohorts like Salvadorians or Honduras (whose compatriots were cruelly stripped of Temporary Protected Status by Trump).
Or take the Mexican-American vote in Florida. Trivia of the day: there are more eligible Mexican-American voters in Florida than there are in Nevada.
We hear less about this bloc (around 10% of eligible Latino voters, though closer to half that share of registered) in part because there isn’t a single Mexican enclave in Florida. Rather, the vote is spread out across the agricultural corridors of the state.
There has also, historically, been a large part of the population that is undocumented. The growth in the vote was driven by the children and, now, grandchildren of farmworkers and service workers. Three-fourths (77%) of eligible Mexican voters in Florida are US-born (compared to, say, Cubans, who are only 35% US-born).
The voting precinct with the greatest number of registered LatAms in the state is in Immokalee (Collier County), a farmworker hub.
Also of Mexican descent: 11-year-old Estela Juarez, from Polk County, who was featured at the Democratic Convention reading a letter to Trump. Her mother was deported by the Trump Administration despite being married to a US Marine. Her father voted for Trump in 2016. While Estela isn’t yet eligible to vote this cycle, her older sister now is — an additional vote for the Biden margin.
Increases in support and turnout among groups like these could offset, if not overshadow, shifts among other groups.
8. Geographic considerations
Some of the way we talk about LatAm subgroups is influenced by geography. The Latin American vote is heavily concentrated in Miami-Dade, with pockets in other metro corridors.
The disinformation-heavy media ecosystem in Miami — whether local TV, radio, print, YouTube or WhatsApp — is a challenge for Democrats.
Still, while more than half of registered LatAms reside in Miami-Dade and Broward counties (which share a media market), other significant chunks can be found in the Tampa (15%), Orlando (14%) and the less-discussed West Palm (10%) markets.
Notice in the collection of maps below how the groups with which Biden and Democrats have the most opportunity — Mexicans, Colombians and Dominicans — have clusters throughout the state, whereas most other groups are entirely concentrated in Miami-Dade.
*P.S. A note on nomenclature.
An ideal term doesn’t yet exist for the bucket of Latino voters we’re discussing.
Some pollsters, including the exit poll consortium, refer to “non-Cuban Hispanics” — which works in some circumstances, but (a) is named in terms of what it’s not, and (b) doesn’t let the Puerto Rican vote (now just as large as the Cuban one) stand on its own. Sometimes you’ll see the descriptor of “Central and South American voters,” but that excludes Dominicans, among others.
That’s why, for purposes of this article, we’ll talk about “Latin American Voters” — to be understood as Florida Hispanics who are of neither Cuban or Puerto Rican descent.
Occasionally we’ll use the term “Other Hispanic,” where it’s needed for clarity.
Our analysis doesn’t include Brazilian-American voters (not included in the Census definition of “Hispanic”), Haitian-American voters, or voters from any of the Black Caribbean nations that have gotten some due attention with the selection of Kamala Harris (a daughter of the West Indies).
Still, we hope it’s a start to expanding the lens of Latino outreach in Florida.
That’s all for now
If you liked that article, you might also be interested in our deep dive on the Cuban-American vote.