Florida: Deep-Dive on the Cuban Vote

Equis Research is going into its vault and releasing data that had previously only been available to its subscribers.

Today, we are looking at a survey of Cuban-American voters in Florida conducted in November 2019, along with focus groups from both then (September 2019) and now (June 2020).

Why we’re looking at Cubans:

  • Cubans still vote in large numbers. Puerto Ricans have become the largest origin bloc of eligible Hispanic voters in Florida, but Cuban-Americans are still the most represented at the polls. As such, changes in the vote preference of the Cuban electorate have a meaningful effect on statewide results.
  • There is lots of swing and uncertainty in the Cuban vote. Obama (’12) and Clinton (’16) made major inroads into the Cuban vote, but underperformance there doomed Nelson and Gillum (‘18). Equis polling shows Trump has gained among Cubans, an obstacle to Democrats’ efforts to build upon their 2016 coalition.
  • Public polls don’t always pick up shifts in the Cuban vote. A statewide sample of ~150 Hispanic votes isn’t enough to provide breakouts by national origin group, much less report on demographic variables beyond that (such as age, gender, place of birth, or year of arrival). Equis polled 600 Cuban voters in November 2019, in addition to 325 (August) and 162 (December) Cubans in our statewide surveys.
  • Narratives about the Cuban vote based solely on anecdotal data or outdated notions could make for some cringeworthy headlines — and campaign decisions.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Trump has already locked down his share of the Cuban vote

Our November survey focused exclusively on Cuban-American voters (sample n=600), with a look toward identifying partisan fault-lines along age, gender, wave of migration, and connection to Cuba.

What we found: Cuban voters are the rare demographic (anywhere in the country) with which Donald Trump has improved since 2016.

In November 2019, Trump’s job approval was at 66–31 with Cuban voters and tracked closely with his re-elect numbers: against an unnamed Democrat, 63% of Cuban voters would vote to re-elect Trump, versus only 29% choosing the challenger.

By comparison: in 2016, Trump won around 54% of the Cuban vote in Florida, per exit polling. (Latino Decisions’ Election Eve Poll had him at 52% with Florida Cubans.) At the support levels in our 2019 survey, Trump would have netted an additional 90,000 votes in 2016, per our analysis.

That said, much of this is a function of Trump seeming to have gathered up his support early. Democratic support, meanwhile, was still squishy. It remains to be seen how polls have changed since Biden became the nominee, and with the activity in the May-June period (including Trump’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests, the huge spike in COVID cases, and increased economic uncertainty) that has lowered Trump’s numbers among other populations.

2. Democrats have room to grow (and can’t afford not to)

Biden doesn’t need to win the Cuban vote, but the electoral math requires him to compete for increased support. Tens of thousands of votes are on the line in a state always decided by narrow margins. There is, after all, a big difference between finishing at 29% (where Dems were in late 2019), 35% (Obama’s 2008 number) or 41% (Clinton’s likely 2016 performance).

Again, at current Cuban support levels, Biden starts behind Clinton’s final overall margin in Florida.

Still, we estimate that up to 46% of Cuban-American voters in Florida are “gettable” for Joe Biden — this includes those who said they would vote for a Democrat, or are undecided, but also some voters who say they will vote for Trump but are negative toward Trump (or warm toward Democrats) on other measures.

Two audiences emerge as critical in growing Democrats’ vote:

  1. US-Born Cuban-Americans. To find the Democratic base, you have to look at Cuban-Americans born in the US: in November they were -11 on Trump job approval and favored a Democratic nominee by a +7 margin. They also now outnumber the pre-1980 arrivals (aka the historic exile). To repeat: the electorate now includes more Cuban-American voters born in the United States than Cuban voters who arrived during the 50s-70s, even though the latter dominate the popular imagination. Democratic success in Florida starts with maximizing turnout and support in this cohort.
  2. Cuban voters arrived in the 90s onward. For this cohort, we turn to a new section, because….

3. The post-’93 arrivals require more attention

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered into a deep economic crisis characterized by food shortages. When an anti-government protest threatened to destabilize his regime, Fidel Castro announced that anybody could leave the country, leading to the 1994 rafter crisis and a Clinton White House agreement with the Cuban government to stop the flow of refugees in exchange for the US pledging to grant 20,000 visas a year. (Here’s a poignant photo essay on some of the rafters twenty years later.)

The FIU Cuba Poll¹ has been tracking the political attitudes of Cuban-Americans since 1991, and offers some useful context for the Equis results.

According to the FIU polls, Cuban voters who’d come to Florida after 1993 were the most pro-Obama cohort in 2012 and the most anti-Trump cohort in 2016 (as measured in summer of that year).

Even allowing for methodological difference and sampling error, the FIU and Equis polling together would seem to indicate that the most recent migration wave of Cubans voters has shifted partisan preferences in just a few years time:

While we wouldn’t stake too much on the exact size of the swing, given smaller sample sizes (n=160 in the Equis poll), the trend is undeniable.

The impact is also clear on the Cuban electorate overall, regardless of year of arrival. Here’s a step-back look at party ID stretching back to 2004. Essentially the shift away from Democrats among the post-1993 cohort has reversed the gains of the Obama years (which peaked in 2014).

4. What’s happened since 2016: Trump, socialism and YouTubers

The research, both quantitative and qualitative, suggests some credible hypotheses for why post-’93 voters have swung toward Republicans:

Positive views on Trump’s handling of the economy. In November, 85% of post-93 voters approved of Trump’s handling, to only 9% disapprove. (That’s a slightly wider margin of approval than even among pre-80 arrivals.) While we haven’t polled Cubans specifically since then, in focus groups voters still seemed to believe he is a great steward of the economy, despite the pandemic. Tax reform, talk of bringing jobs back from abroad, and low unemployment were cited. More broadly, it is his image as a “businessman” who “does things differently” that has proven sticky, despite all real-world evidence to the contrary.

A bandwagon effect. Lacking a defined partisan ideology, these voters appear more swayed by candidates, and may be more likely to bet on the winning horse. (A deep-dive interview with a younger Cuban-born voter who’d supported Clinton in 2016, only to be with Trump today, cited the fact that Trump was likely to lose as a reason not to back him in 2016.)

The resonance of anti-socialism/anti-Left messaging. In a split sample question in our November poll, the mere mention of “socialism” flipped views on the government’s role in fixing healthcare.

The bogeyman of socialism came to life with the high visibility of Democrats associated with socialism — both in the ongoing presence of Bernie Sanders and the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

This also combined with Trump’s aggressive moves in Latin America: 75% of post-93 arrivals approved of his handling of Cuba, and a similarly large share (73%) approved of his performance on the issue of Venezuela, in what is essentially a proxy battle against the Cuban regime. While foreign policy played a smaller role in opinion formation than we expected, Trump’s tough talk on Cuba and Venezuela created a myth of Trump as an anti-socialism warrior — which even recent Trump remarks about Maduro haven’t seemed to shake. Policy specifics or outcomes seem secondary, in this regard, to attitude and optics. (This year’s FIU poll should be illuminating on the question of whether support for aspects of US policy toward Cuba have shifted along with increased approval of Trump.)

Even Cubans who disapprove of Trump’s toughening of restrictions on Cuba (in focus groups) think his strongman routine is better for the US economy, relative to a Democratic economic approach they view as “socialist.”

A proactive communications ecosystem. It isn’t just Miami radio anymore. In both surveys and focus groups we saw the impact of YouTube personalities like Alex Otaola, himself a member of the post-’93 generation. Otaola is a registered Democrat who voted for Clinton in 2016 and says he left the party because of AOC; he now talks up Trump’s policy in Latin America and attacks Democrats in daily live videos watched by tens of thousands of people. Of late, Otaola and his peers — including former Cuban dissident Eliécer Ávila — have turned to domestic affairs, organizing “law and order” events in counter to the Black Lives Matter protests and more explicitly pushing pro-Trump content. (For Spanish speakers: watch Otaola here interviewing the founder of Latinas for Trump. In a more recent video, he makes a case for voting for Trump predicated on Democrats being the party of “George Soros, Antifa & Black Lives Matter.”)

Again, many of these post-’93 voters seem gettable, but they are consuming information from only one side.

5. Hialeah as a case study in Cuban vote-switching

The research suggests that the political identity or ideology of more recent Cuban arrivals is still in formation. As such, past vote choice has at times been more candidate-driven than party-driven.

Let’s look at the city of Hialeah (official nickname: “La ciudad que progresa,” or “The City of Progress”). Hialeah is the heart of the Cuban-American community, and a landing ground for more recently arrived Cubans and other working class immigrants. The city, the second largest municipality in Miami-Dade County, was in the news recently for the lengthy line of people waiting for unemployment forms during the first peak of Coronavirus. Hialeah has been hit hard by the virus, and its mayor is in a very public dispute with the governor over the handling of the pandemic. Hialeah is also known as the “the unlikely epicenter of Obamacare, with more enrollees than anywhere else in the country despite its credentials as a Republican bastion.

As seen in the chart below, it’s clear that Democrats have a baseline of support in the 30s in Hialeah. However, both Obama and Clinton were able to reach higher levels of support. Yes, some of the dynamic is turnout. But vote-switching is a factor as well, as evidenced by the fact that Clinton won 50% of the vote in these precincts while Patrick Murphy, appearing on the same ballot, only got 38% in his bid for the US Senate (against, notably, Marco Rubio).

6. Voters don’t know much about Joe Biden — or Democrats.

Joe Biden was the best-liked (or least-hated) of the candidates we tested with Cubans in 2019, and did best with post-’93 arrivals.

Still, two sets of focus groups and some follow-up interviews show that Cuban voters, much like the Venezuelan voters we studied in a pair of ethnographies, know very little about Biden or Democrats.

Joe Biden is known but participants showed no familiarity with his record or life story. He is mostly undefined or else associated with negative characteristics drawn from Trump attack lines: “old,” “weak,” “career politician.”

7. What can Democrats do?

The research suggests it is not too late for Biden to cross the 40% threshold of support with Cuban voters. Some approaches would seem necessary:

Introduce Biden to Cuban voters. In particular, he needs to make clear he has always been on the side of change and has the know-how to get it done. Do not presume voters know his life story, record from the Obama administration or Senate experience. Optics matter too. “Showing up” in the Miami media market — whether virtually or, if health concerns ever permit, in person — is part of the equation; Trump and Pence have been a constant presence in local media through community visits, town-halls and rallies.

Focus on contrast with Trump, not purely negative attacks. Demonstrate that Biden can lead in areas where Trump is weak. Cuban voters are acutely aware of many of Trump’s shortcomings — even his supporters. (“He rants off on Twitter,” “nobody completely respects him,” “not a role model president,” “not a good leader.”) But low-information voters have been too unfamiliar with Biden to accept that he would represent an improvement.

Knock Trump on the economy (and forcefully present an alternative). Again, Trump’s shortcomings seemed generally known and accepted. But belief in his business acumen, and his ability to “do things differently” proved sticky, even among the most anti-Trump participants. To pick up votes among Cubans, Democrats have to make up ground on the question of who voters trust more to manage the economy.

Explicit comparisons on leadership could go far. This is especially true on the issue sets that are more likely to move this group: healthcare (recall the large number of Cubans enrolled in Obamacare) and the economy. In November, the Cubans voters we deemed “gettable” still approved of Trump’s handling of the economy (+13) but disapproved of him on every other front (healthcare, immigration, national security, and overall job performance).

Lay off the Castro analogy. When calling Trump a tyrant-- which partner research has suggested is effective for mobilizing other Hispanic audiences in Florida-- avoid explicit comparisons to Fidel Castro or Nicolás Maduro. To Cuban voters in Miami, there will never be anyone as bad as Castro. The comparison was deemed “insulting” and “offensive” by focus group participants. It could very well be counterproductive.

Show up across media platforms. Biden and his allies need to engage in the social media/influencer ecosystem where many Spanish-dominant voters are getting “news.” There are many compelling Cuban voices that oppose Trump, but they are currently being drowned out by loud, organized forces from the hard-line. To create a permission structure for progressive-leaning Cubans to vote Biden, he needs validators from their respective cohorts, voices of Cubans like them.

That’s all for now

Stay tuned for additional analysis on Hispanic voters in Florida.

For more from Equis, check out our Twitter account or sign up for our email list.

  1. The FIU poll only interviews Cubans in Miami-Dade County, whereas the Equis/Global Strategy Group poll surveyed Cubans across Florida. However, you’d expect less, not more, of a Republican lean on statewide results, given the high concentration of Republicans in Miami.

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