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Trump cultivated the Latino vote in Florida, and it paid off

NBC News logo NBC News 11/4/2020 Carmen Sesin
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MIAMI — From the time President Donald Trump took office, he focused on the Latino vote in Florida, and according to figures coming out of the state, it paid off on Election Day, especially in Miami-Dade County, the most populous in the state.

Around 55 percent of Florida's Cuban-American vote went to Trump, according to NBC News exit polls, while 30 percent of Puerto Ricans and 48 percent of "other Latinos" backed Trump. Trump won the coveted battleground state with its 29 electoral votes.

Trump drastically improved his support in Miami-Dade County, going from 333,999 votes in 2016 to at least 529,16 votes this year. Biden, however, wasn’t able to grow Democratic support in the county. Clinton got 624,146 votes there in 2016 and with 95 percent of the vote tallied, Biden had 613,086.

Trump's popularity also seems to have affected down-ballot races, with two House Democrats from South Florida losing in early ballot returns to Republican challengers:Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the first South American-born member of Congress, was trailing Carlos Gimenez, the Miami-Dade County mayor, and Rep. Donna Shalala was trailing TV host and commentator Maria Elvira Salazar.

The ground Trump gained in Miami-Dade came with constant courtship. Venezuelans in Miami were surprised and elated when the president, less than a month in office, tweeted a picture of himself at the White House with Lilian Tintori, the wife of a leading opposition leader in Venezuela who was jailed at the time.

Since then, Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials have made trips to Florida to make policy speeches.

The president announced the reversal of former President Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami to a crowd full of Cuban-Americans. And then-national security adviser John Bolton traveled twice to Miami to announce sanctions against what he dubbed “the troika of tyranny”: Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, all socialist countries.

Cuban Americans make up the largest share of Latino voters in Miami-Dade, and also have a strong turnout rate, at 58 percent, compared to other Latino groups.

Obama won the Cuban vote in 2012, but after the 2018 midterm, it was clear the tide had turned when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a protégé of Trump, garnered 66 percent of the Cuban American vote.

But it wasn’t just Cuban Americans that helped tighten the gap in Miami-Dade County. Venezuelan Americans, although smaller in numbers, shifted toward Trump, and Nicaraguans and Colombians, two important voter blocs, also had increases in support for Trump.

“We knew about Cuban Americans because we were studying them so intensely,” said Florida International University professor Eduardo Gamarra. “But we also have a 5 to 10 percent swing among all South Americans, even smaller groups like Peruvians.”

“Trump showed up in Florida. He asked us what our issues are and he addressed them. He didn’t take us for granted,” said Bertica Cabrera Morris, a longtime Republican strategist and one of the 20 board members of Latinos for Trump.

The Latinos for Trump coalition kicked off in Florida in June 2019, and Trump launched the Evangelicals for Trump from a megachurch in South Florida, El Rey Jesús. It’s the largest evangelical church in the country and with a majority Latino congregation.

By early 2020 Democrats in the state were sounding the alarm over the inroads Trump had been making with Latino voters. The Trump rallies in Florida seemed endless until the pandemic hit.

When Joe Biden became the Democratic nominee the messaging toward Latinos sharpened. Trump and Republicans misleadingly casting Biden as a socialist and even a “Castro-Chavista,” referring to Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The incessant messaging in Spanish language ads proved effective — as well as disinformation and misinformation about Biden and Democrats that was widely shared through social media. Many Latinos here came to believe the United States would become a socialist country if Biden were elected.

“Democrats didn’t have a very effective ground game in Miami-Dade County,” said Gamarra. “From the beginning they were trying to defend themselves from the communist accusations. So it was difficult for them to develop a ground game. They did, but it was late.”

Gamarra said the resources Democrats had came in late, while Republicans had a constant presence in the state.

On early Wednesday morning Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted out that while she wouldn't be commenting much on results as they are evolving, "I will say we've been sounding the alarm about Dem vulnerabilities w/ Latinos for a long, long time."

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