Miami was supposed to be Joe Biden’s launchpad to victory in Florida: the place where he could rack up huge margins in Democrat-friendly territory that would allow him to blunt President Donald Trump’s strength in the rest of the state. But almost as soon as votes began to roll in Tuesday night, it was clear Biden had a disaster on his hands. He was ahead of Trump in Miami-Dade County, but running behind every Democratic presidential candidate since 2004.
In the end, Biden won Miami-Dade by roughly 7 percentage points and about 85,000 votes, far short of the 24- and 29-point wins Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton achieved in the most populous of Florida’s 67 counties during the previous two election cycles. Biden, whose Miami margins also trailed those of the Democrats who lost races for governor and U.S. Senate in 2018, ultimately lost Florida by 3.5 points and nearly 400,000 votes, a veritable blowout by the standards of the tightly contested Sunshine State.
The struggles in south Florida seemingly point to one of the biggest apparent shortcomings of Biden’s campaign and Democrats’ approach to 2020 overall: While Biden appears to have come close to matching typical Democratic margins among Latino voters nationwide, he lost significant ground among specific Hispanic communities in key battleground areas, including Miami, where Cuban Americans and other Latino voters appear to have broken more heavily for Trump and the GOP than expected.
That is not what cost Biden Florida ― “the real under-performers were white voters,” said Andrea Mercado, who leads New Florida Majority, a progressive grassroots group that focuses on engaging and turning out Black and Latino Floridians. (Had white support for Biden matched its polling levels, he’d have won the state.) And Florida now seems unlikely to cost Biden the presidency.
But it proved devastating for other Democrats, including Rep. Donna Shalala, a well-known name nationally and in South Florida who unexpectedly lost her congressional seat. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, another Democrat, also lost.
A party that already had numerous questions to answer about its future amid a shifting electorate now may have to face a novel inquiry ahead of a 2022 election cycle that will include gubernatorial and Senate races against Republican incumbents: What the hell, exactly, happened in Miami?
To some observers, the answer is obvious: Democrats were too complacent in the face of withering attacks from Trump and the GOP, who spent the last two years blasting their opponents as “socialists” threatening to bring leftist tyranny to the United States ― a pitch aimed specifically at winning over Cuban American voters in south Florida, whom Trump saw as vital to his chances of victory.
“Trump made it clear in 2019 that he was going all-in in Miami, that he was going after the Cuban-American vote ... with a message that Democrats were going to introduce socialism into the United States,” said Ricardo Herrero, the executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a nonpartisan advocacy organization. “And the Democrats took it for granted.”
The Associated Press’ VoteCast data showed that 58% of Cuban American voters in Florida backed the president, a slight increase from four years ago. Voting data in Miami showed that Cuban- and other Hispanic-heavy precincts in south Florida broke Trump’s way more fervently than they had four years ago, suggesting that Biden potentially lost more ground among Cubans and other Latinos in Miami-Dade than he did statewide. Trump won Hialeah, a city in Miami-Dade where three-quarters of residents are Cuban, by 28,000 votes ― 27,900 more than in 2016. The VoteCast survey also found that South American voters across Florida were split evenly between the two candidates.
“It was absolutely all they campaigned on. It was all about holding back the tide of socialism. It’s completely fabricated, but it was constant, it was uniform, it was coordinated, and it’s been going on for two years.””
What makes the Miami collapse so frustrating to observers like Herrero is that it was so predictable. In January 2019, Trump launched an all-out effort to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a socialist, in an attempt to appeal to Cuban American voters (many of whom see Maduro as a puppet of the communist Cuban government), a growing population of Venezuelan Americans, and voters from other Latin American origins as well.
From the beginning, it was more of a political gambit than a foreign policy strategy, and almost every choice the Trump administration made took Florida into consideration first. Rarely a month passed without a visit from Trump or top GOP officials to Miami or an announcement of new sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela, which kept his message in the headlines of local newspapers and front-and-center in the minds of voters. On the ground, local GOP candidates and officials ― including Sen. Marco Rubio, who has served as a de facto secretary of state on Latin America issues and helped staff the administration with Cuba hardliners ― continued to bang the drum. (“People get on rafts to get away from socialism. People risk being eaten by sharks to get away from socialism,” Rubio told a Miami crowd on the night before the election. “We are not going to bring to this country the things that people flee.”)
“It was absolutely all they campaigned on,” Herrero said. “Not just Trump, but down ballot, all the local Republicans. That was their entire messaging strategy ― it was all about holding back the tide of socialism. It’s completely fabricated, but it was constant, it was uniform, it was coordinated, and it’s been going on for two years.”
Biden faced warnings early this year that he had vulnerabilities with Latino voters in Florida and elsewhere, especially among Latino men. But by the time Biden secured the Democratic nomination and turned his attention to the general election, it was probably already too late, said Carlos Odio, the co-founder of Equis Labs, a progressive polling and research firm that focuses on Latino voters.
Equis polling found in late 2019 that the “socialism” message had worked on Trump’s base of Cuban supporters, and that many Cuban voters ― including younger Cubans who’d trended toward Democrats in previous elections ― were still up for grabs. In retrospect, even that was probably too hopeful.
“I believe that it could have been stanched a little bit, but I think most of the shift was probably baked in over a year ago,” Odio said. “We lost a year ago in Miami-Dade. In hindsight, I just think that they created a machine, and they created a narrative to which any normal argument was not going to be a sufficient counter.”
For most of the election cycle, Democrats believed the failures of Trump’s Venezuela policy (Maduro is still in power today) would render the anti-socialism campaign strategy ineffective, and that Biden’s victory in the primary ― along with his repeatedly self-proclaimed lack of socialist beliefs ― would make it even more obvious that Trump’s plan was based on “calculated attempts to exploit community traumas/memories for electoral gain,” as Florida International University history professor Michael Bustamante, an expert on Latin America, described them this week.
They tried to turn the race into a referendum on Trump’s failures during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The president can yell ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ all he wants, but it’s what he’s actually done that will count against him,” Shalala told HuffPost in September. With Florida’s economy struggling and Latinos suffering disproportionately, they hoped the race would turn more on health care and bread-and-butter issues in an area that benefited heavily from the Affordable Care Act and with a $15 minimum wage increase on the ballot.
It wasn’t until August that Biden began to confront the “socialism” charges head on, when his campaign rolled out a message that painted Trump as the sort of caudillo-like leader Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans in Florida had once fled. The problem, though, is that the “socialism” narrative was never about actual socialism ― it was about culture, identity, and pushing back against the left more broadly.
“What they were doing is waging culture war, and creating a kind of MAGA identity within certain subgroups in Miami-Dade,” Odio said. “‘Socialism’ is shorthand for a more multipronged attack. It’s not just about foreign policy. It’s not just economics. It’s also about culture, and it’s also about race.”
The Trump campaign sensed that early on, too, and folded its arguments on other subjects ― the mask wars and nationwide racial justice protests, in particular ― into its broader anti-”socialism” campaign. And it filtered those to voters through a right-wing media ecosystem that could echo every argument it made with little pushback.
In one Spanish-language ad, the Trump campaign argued that Democrats were “puppets of the radical left, a gang that prefers anarchy and chaos.”
“You came to this country to live a calm and safe life, a prosperous life,” the ad said. “Joe Biden is kneeling in front of the violence and putting the future of you and your family in danger.”
Conservatives dominate Spanish-language radio in south Florida in ways they don’t in other Latino-heavy parts of the country, but the problem for Democrats goes well beyond the airwaves. In Miami, the right has also constructed powerful Spanish-language social media channels, through which it amplified Trump’s arguments and went even farther, often pushing blatant disinformation about Biden’s connections to a “deep state” effort to undermine Trump, pedophilia and the QAnon conspiracy theory, through WhatsApp groups, YouTube channels, and Facebook communities. (At least some of the disinformation was racist and anti-Semitic.)
“We’ve been saying for years that there needs to be year-round engagement. You can’t just build a sandcastle two months before Election Day, and then have it washed away the week after.”
Some experts credit a uniquely closed media circuit for many people in Miami. “For certain segments of Miami, you’re seeing what’s on the WhatsApp group. And that’s being repeated on what you’re hearing on the radio. It’s being repeated in what you’re seeing in the newspaper. It’s repeated on the local nightly news,” Odio said. “You’re getting validation of the garbage instead of getting a contradiction to it.”
The Florida Democratic Party tried to break into that bubble during the 2020 cycle, when it started its own Saturday morning Spanish-language radio show on a prominent Miami station. But it was meager investment compared to the behemoth it was up against. The Biden campaign, meanwhile, attempted to bolster its support in Florida’s diverse Latino communities with grassroots-style groups aimed at specific populations.
But it’s even clearer now, progressives in Miami say, that the efforts from both the party and the campaign were too late and too little, and that the Florida Democratic Party has to do more to match the GOP’s on-the-ground efforts to register voters and build support in Latino communities in between election cycles, instead of simply popping up when it’s time to run another race.
“We’ve been saying for years that there needs to be year-round engagement,” Mercado said. “You can’t just build a sandcastle two months before Election Day, and then have it washed away the week after. We need to be able to build much more long-term progressive infrastructure in the state, and in Miami-Dade in particular.”
The good news for Democrats, at least, is that they still appear to have won a majority of Latino votes in Florida, and that given that a sizable portion of the swing seems tied to Trump specifically, many of Democrats’ problems in Miami are easier to fix than the issues they face elsewhere. That’s especially true when it comes to Florida’s white voters. “We’re gonna have to strategize around what we need to build, and be honest about the deep racial divides that exist in our state,” Mercado said.
Online disinformation is a broader problem for Democrats and the country that traditional political infrastructure likely isn’t capable of combating on its own. But the weakness of Democrats’ infrastructure and their late recognition of the problem at hand, Herrero said, allowed Trump’s “socialism” campaign and total disinformation to fester and spread.
“The entire Republican strategy can be boiled down to one word: Fear,” Herrero said. “They were fear-mongering, creating this impression in the electorate that there was a genuine red threat in the United States. In the absence of any real response and in a sea of disinformation, that message penetrated.”