Will flag-waving Latinos win Florida for Trump?October 17, 2020
HIALEAH, Fla. — President Donald Trump has long known that his reelection hinges on him winning the battleground state of Florida — and part of that strategy means getting Cuban Americans in South Florida to the polls in large numbers.
But in Hialeah, a working-class, predominantly Cuban city just outside of Miami, a vote for Trump has become about more than just him, or even the Republican Party. It’s about patriotism.
A drive past the city’s biggest intersections shows vendors selling Trump 2020 swag and American flags. And car caravans with dozens of Trump supporters around the city have become a regular occurrence, filled with loud honking and Trump and American flags flung outside windows.
It’s a level of energy for Trump’s reelection — and a show of unabashed nationalism — that Republicans and Democrats alike here agree was not as visible in the past. Many immigrants are deeply patriotic, and for some of them, Trump’s tactics, from flag-hugging to the demonization of Democrats as lefty socialists, resonate. That’s what’s playing out in Hialeah, known as la Ciudad que Progresa, or City of Progress. And countering that is no small challenge for Democrats.
“It’s about patriotism. If you love America, you hate socialism. And with Democrats moving toward a socialist agenda, that’s what’s got so many Cubans and other immigrants supporting Trump. They’re not supporting him necessarily. They’re supporting America,” said Nelson Diaz, chair of the Miami-Dade Republican Party.
“Trump just so happens to be the standard bearer now, or the flag bearer I should say, but it’s really about saving America,” he added.
Cuban Republicans in Hialeah aren’t the only ones that feel this way, according to GOP and Democratic strategists. The nearly 30 percent of Latino voters who support Trump are drawn to his America First, anti-socialist rhetoric, despite his tough-on-immigrants stance and incendiary language about Latinos. For these voters, contradiction is the norm. Cubans, as well as Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, fled countries with a history of strongman leaders. Now they’re embracing Trump, whose speeches often take an authoritarian, strongman tone.
Of course, the flag-waving among Trump supporters in Hialeah doesn’t mean Republicans have a lock on patriotism. Democrats wave the American flag, too. But it’s part of a larger trend that Republicans have been able to take advantage of: partisan gap in perceptions about patriotism. A Gallup poll last year showed that only 22 percent of Democrats were extremely proud to be American, compared with 76 percent of Republicans.
People differ about how to show love for their country. For Trump, it’s pushing a pro-American curriculum in schools and arguing Democrats hate the United States. But others argue patriotism means reckoning with America’s problematic past — and calling out their country when it falls short of its ideals.
Those opposing definitions have allowed Trump and South Florida Republicans to use overt nationalism — think: Trump’s America First agenda — to court votes. And while the majority of Latino voters favor Democrats, this proud-to-be-an-American trope helps explain part of Trump’s appeal with some Latinos, whether they’re immigrants or born in the U.S.
“Trump just knew how to hit a nerve. What group in this country is more proud to be American than immigrants that fled any kind of country where there was tyranny, chaos or communism?” said Republican state Sen. Manny Díaz Jr., a native son who represents Hialeah.
But that doesn’t mean Joe Biden is unpatriotic or that Democrats are un-American, Diaz said. Trump is just willing to “carry this banner” in a time where Cubans and other Latino immigrants in the area are worried about Democrats moving too far left, he said.
Democrats, however, have repeatedly rejected the GOP labeling Biden and members of the party as socialists — or anything similar to the dictators Cubans, Venezuelans and other South Florida Latinos escaped when they left their home countries. They say, instead, the Trump administration uses anti-socialism to divert attention from Trump’s disdain for the Affordable Care Act. (Hialeah at one point led the country in Obamacare enrollment. )
“Donald Trump can’t run on his record,” said Kevin Munoz, a Florida spokesperson for the Biden campaign.
“From his intentional downplaying of this pandemic that continues to take the lives of Floridians, to his efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act that has helped thousands of people in Hialeah get access to health care, Donald Trump has failed the community.”
Nationally, GOP and Democratic strategists have attributed much of Trump’s popularity among Cuban Americans to his hard-line approach to Cuban and Venezuelan regimes. Trump has sanctioned both countries as part of an effort to show he cares about restoring democracy there.
But Michael Bustamante, a Cuban American history professor at Florida International University, argues the dynamic at play is more complicated than just Trump’s hard-line rhetoric on Cuba.
Rather, he said, it’s part of the “cognitive dissonance” that’s prominent in Hialeah and Miami’s Cuban communities — captured by Cubans, for example, that still send remittances back to family on the island or travel to visit, but then support Trump imposing more restrictions.
“Trump’s hard-line narrative, particularly for recent Cuban immigrants, is cathartic, but it’s utterly divorced from any policy analysis about what his measures on Cuba have done for the country or will do,” Bustamante said.
Beyond that, Bustamante points to Trump’s image in many Miami Latino circles as a successful businessman. “He’s viewed as a magnate, a successful businessman despite all evidence to the contrary. He’s an incarnation of some kind of version of America and that has translated well for some parts of the Cuban diaspora today,” Bustamante said.
For some local Trump supporters it goes beyond that. Alex Otaola, a YouTube personality who came from Cuba in 2003, describes Trump’s approach to Cuba as just one of the many things he’s handled correctly as a “true American president.”
Otaola voted for Obama in 2012 and for Clinton in 2016. But now he’s a strong Trump supporter, a switch he credits to both disillusionment over the lack of results from Obama’s Cuba policy and the rise of self-described democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic Party.
His viewers, many of whom live in Hialeah, feel the same, he said.
“He’s defending the United States. He’s not a president that’s working for the world to like him,” Otaola said. “He doesn’t care if the president of X country thinks that he’s stupid.”
Biden, for his part, has also been traveling the state touting his plans to respond to the pandemic to avoid more defections to the GOP. But the former vice president is being forced to play defense, insisting he’s not a socialist.
“I look like a socialist? Look, I’m the guy that ran against the socialist,” the former vice president said during an NBC Town Hall held in Miami earlier this month.
Still, with the election less than three weeks away, Trump’s campaign is making the rounds throughout Florida, banking on his anti-socialism rhetoric to get Latinos in Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county and a liberal bastion, to go vote. His campaign even organized a “Fighters Against Socialism” bus tour through Florida last week, which ended in Miami with an event headlined by Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Republicans have long considered Hialeah a reliable spot for conservative votes — and it’s expected to turn out even more this year given that Hialeah-raised Republican Esteban Bovo is running in a competitive race for Miami-Dade mayor.
Plus, Hialeah still has significantly more registered Republicans than Democrats. The city counted more than 44,000 registered Republicans, 29,000 Democrats and 36,000 not affiliated with a party as of last month, according to the Miami-Dade Elections Department.
So far, however, it looks like Democrats are voting by mail at higher rates in Hialeah. More than 28 percent of Democrats that requested a vote by mail ballot have returned it already, while just under 24 percent of Republicans have submitted theirs, according to county figures as of Thursday. Still, there are significantly more Republicans enrolled to vote by mail than Democrats.
Meanwhile, Trump is leading Biden, 61 percent to 35 percent, among Cuban Americans, according to a recent poll by Bendixen & Amandi International and the Miami Herald. And Florida International University’s 2020 Cuba Poll found that more recent arrivals from Cuba — who frequently settle in Hialeah — have swung to Republicans even more since 2016, when Hillary Clinton nearly tied with Trump.
But some Democrats insist the show of flag-waving is just that: all show.
“My own Republican friends are starting to acknowledge more that ‘Este viejo está loco.’ [This old man is crazy.],” said Raul Martínez, a Democrat who served as mayor of Hialeah for 24 years.
“They just won’t go out on the street and fight about it because we know who’s the loudest in Hialeah,” Martínez said. “It’s a lot of hype for Trump, but I think people are going to be surprised by the numbers next month.”