“It was a McCarthyism type of pounding,” said Congresswoman Donna Shalala, looking back on the election she narrowly lost this month. Shalala had spent eight years serving in the Cabinet of Bill Clinton, the paragon of Democratic moderates, but by the end of her reelection campaign, she told Intelligencer, people were coming up to her and saying, “You’re a communist.”
“It was nasty, I’ve been in politics for a long time, this was vicious,” she said, as it was for a number of other Democrats in south Florida who lost their seats in races up and down the ticket in Miami-Dade County as it shifted over 20 points toward Trump. Hillary Clinton won the county by almost 300,000 votes in 2016, Joe Biden won it by only 85,000 — which made winning the state’s 29 electoral votes all but impossible for him. By the end of Election Night, Florida had been called for Donald Trump and the traditionally swing state was starting to look red.
The dramatic and unexpected shift in Miami-Dade was concentrated among Hispanics, who make up 71 percent of the county’s population. According to over a half dozen current and former Democratic and Republican elected officials and operatives who spoke to Intelligencer, the biggest factor in the swing toward Republicans was that these voters had a negative response to the Democratic Party’s shift to the left nationally and the rise of self-described democratic socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In south Florida, many Hispanics are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants from countries with left-wing dictators, fleeing countries like the Cuba of the Castros and the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. “Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, and Nicaragua are local issues [in south Florida] and these are things people follow and talk about every day,” former Republican congressman Carlos Curbelo told Intelligencer.
Republicans hammered the theme that Democrats were socialists across up and down the ballot. Outside groups repeatedly tied Democratic Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in their ads to Ocasio-Cortez and the left of the Democratic Party. The Trump campaign ran a YouTube ad falsely claiming that the Maduro regime backed Biden. Trump even had microtargeted tweets for the Colombian community in South Florida where he claimed Biden was a “a PUPPET of CASTRO-CHAVISTAS” and that the Democrat was “weak on socialism and will betray Colombia.” There also was a potent disinformation campaign that amplified these attacks on Biden and Democrats in the Hispanic community via text message and WhatsApp.
As Rick Wilson, a longtime Florida-based Republican consultant, put it: “Socialism broadly speaking in the United States is a bad brand. In Florida, it is a horrific brand.” Wilson, who is now a leading “never Trump” voice through his perch at the Lincoln Project, noted that to south Florida Hispanic voters “socialism isn’t universal health care and day care, socialism was secret police knocking at their door and shooting a family member in the head.”
Republican messaging tying Democrats to the hard left was not new this year. Fernand Amandi, a veteran Democratic pollster in the state who has long warned about Republican gains with Hispanic voters, noted that it was first unveiled to great success in 2018, when “they defined the Democratic Party as being the brand of socialism and communists.” Amandi said Democrats then “dismissed the charges as absurd on their face. Through that dismissal of the charge and inability to adequately refute it that allowed those impressions to harden especially in the minds of low-information voters and new voters.”
It became more effective this year with progressives growing in number in the Democratic Party, according to Republican Carlos Giménez, who defeated incumbent Mucarsel-Powell in Florida’s 26th District, a majority Latino area that includes southwest Miami-Dade County. “We didn’t have to call them socialist, they called themselves socialists,” he said. Even after the election, Giménez derided his opponent as “always trying to be the fifth member of the Squad,” referring to Ocasio-Cortez and her allies on the far left wing of the Democratic caucus. (Mucarsel-Powell is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus but does not identify as a socialist.)
Shalala thought the rise of “the Squad” and their disproportionate attention from the media “reinforced” Republican arguments that Democrats were the party of socialism. Even when she tried to argue that there were far more problematic outliers in the Republican caucus, it fell flat. “These were three or four people, we have a big tent. You have a big tent and you have a bunch of people who are racist and they are white supremacist, that didn’t fly,” she said.
For Democrats, what was frustrating about these Republican attacks was that they did not believe that Trump’s hard-line rhetoric on Latin American dictators was accompanied by sufficient concrete steps to promote democracy in the region. Although Trump has issued new sanctions on the Cuban regime and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the leader of Venezuela, after Maduro held elections in 2018 that were widely condemned for massive irregularities, he hasn’t followed through. Trump has since backed away from his support of the Venezuelan opposition — even after the Department of Justice indicted Maduro for narco-terrorism. Trump has also refused to back temporary protected status from deportation for Venezuelans who have fled to the United States. “Trump hasn’t done anything on Venezuela. He had wielded a big stick but didn’t have a big impact, he didn’t help the people of Nicaragua, he did not extend TPS,” said Shalala.
It would be facile though to credit GOP success in south Florida simply to that issue — as Amandi put it, “It’s not the silver-bullet explanation for the Democratic debacle in Florida.” Trump gained ground among Hispanic voters across the country, like Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley and Puerto Ricans in metro Orlando. Furthermore, his campaign built a much stronger organization to knock on doors in south Florida than Democrats — a criticism that Ocasio-Cortez echoed in her postmortem on the election that rejected criticism that socialists tarred Democrats broadly. As Shalala noted, “They have been working south Florida and Miami-Dade in particular for years.” Curbelo pointed to the number of “Latinos for Trump events” in the community and contrasted it with Democrats outsourcing a lot of this work to an independent expenditure effort funded by the billionaire former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In contrast, Democrats shied away from door-knocking because of the pandemic. Shalala said that her campaign “decided not to do a ground game” because of the virus and noted that “none of us had budgeted for it because in a presidential year, the presidential candidate pays for it.” Biden’s campaign did not door-knock until the last weeks of the campaign due to the pandemic. (Shalala said her campaign did fund a “ground game in the African American community” that made a difference). While they “pummeled” Hispanic voters with phone calls and text messages in a bilingual outreach effort, she conceded that that was “not as effective” as knocking doors.
Many voters just simply liked Trump and thought he had been a good president in his first term. Giménez talked about his door-to-door canvassing where he only knocked the doors of independents and found what he described as “surprising levels of support for the president among non-Cuban Hispanics.” He said, “They were surprisingly strong supporters of the president, unsolicited,” and noted that, in his experience, even among those voters who didn’t support Trump that their opposition “was based on emotion and the way he expressed himself” and not policy.
The question is whether the results in 2020 will represent a more permanent shift in voting patterns in south Florida or if it is just a blip. After all, as Shalala put it, “We didn’t lose the entire Hispanic vote, we just lost enough to lose.”
Curbelo noted that while “there is fear or concerns that a lot of Latino voters have about Democrats moving sharply to the left … Joe Biden is kind of the perfect Democrat to fight that image or that characterization but they actually have to make the effort.” Shalala echoed this: “Joe Biden is going to need a big Latin American strategy.” Combined with stronger organizing efforts, she thought that “Biden demonstrating his firmness against communism and socialism and getting something done in Venezuela will make a big difference.” In addition, she pointed to the need to invest in Central America for the new president to and “put conditions on every negotiations on Cuba [so that] he’s tough with the leaders of Cuba, but soft on the people, it will make a big difference.” But these efforts need to be made. As Amandi argued, “If Democrats don’t admit that [their identification with socialism] is a real problem that needs to be confronted … it could be permanent.”
Florida is always going to be a tough state for Democrats moving forward. Even as the state has gotten more diverse, it has trended toward Republicans. But although Biden did better than Hillary Clinton in most of Florida — becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Duval County (Jacksonville) since Jimmy Carter — the collapse of the Democratic vote in Miami-Dade doomed his chances in the state. And, unless something is done to reverse Republican gains in the area, it’s likely to leave Florida a red state for the foreseeable future.