For months, Trump’s re-election campaign regularly charged that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were at minimum the puppets of the “radical left.” At worse, the Democratic nominees were themselves socialist extremists who were pals with left-wing governments in Havana and Caracas. Across most of the United States, the fictional claims failed to capture much appeal outside the MAGA crowd. But one place where Republicans’ anti-communism played just as intended was south Florida—where Cuban exiles make up a substantial segment of voters.
A number of media reports have pointed to Trump’s improved performance among Latino voters as being key to his Florida victory, but closer analysis shows that the broad category of “Latino voter” obscures major class and social distinctions.
The data is early, but information from exit polling in counties like Miami-Dade suggests Trump managed to squeeze even more turnout than expected from the typically Republican-voting Cuban-American community—helping to hand him the state’s 29 Electoral College votes—even as other Latino voters overwhelmingly went for Biden.
Compared to the general Latino population in the U.S., Cuban immigrants tend to have higher incomes, higher education levels, and own more assets. Initial waves of Cuban migration to the U.S. consisted mostly of wealthy families and professionals who departed Cuba in the years following the 1959 socialist revolution that upended the privileged positions they had held—including ownership of most of the country’s industry and resources.
Though the class background of Cuban immigrants has become more diverse over the decades, the right-wing political inclinations of the earlier generations have continued to dominate the Cuban-American community. In 2016, more than half of Cubans in Florida voted for Trump, compared to just a third among Florida Latino voters generally.
In 2020, the statewide margins were similar, but exit poll information shows that Trump pushed Cuban turnout higher in places such as Miami-Dade County—enough to drastically shrink the usual Democratic advantage in highly-populated areas. Last time, Hillary Clinton carried Miami-Dade 63% to 34%. It looks as though the win under Biden has declined, 53% to 46%—a more than seven-point gain for Trump.
Guillermo Grenier, a Florida International University professor who conducts the bi-annual Cuba Poll, estimated Wednesday that Trump will ultimately win the Cuban vote by over 120,000. That total would surpass even his campaign’s most optimistic target.
Trump’s cultivation of Cuban votes in Florida has been an ongoing focus throughout his presidency. He repeatedly returned to Miami every time he was announcing aggressive measures against socialist Cuba, such as tightening the U.S.’ six-decade-long economic blockade of the island, reversal of the diplomatic openings made by former President Barack Obama, and the imposition of fresh travel and financial sanctions.
Anti-communist rhetoric was consistently aimed at the Cuban exile community—and the entire country—by Trump and the GOP, especially in the last stretch of the 2020 campaign. At the Republican National Convention, Cuban-American businessman Maximo Alvarez was put on stage to praise Trump for standing against “the forces of anarchy and communism.” He even implied Biden might be “possessed by the ghost of Fidel Castro.”
The same messaging has also been used by Republicans to harvest votes from wealthier (and often whiter) immigrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua, and other nations who oppose socialist or left-leaning governments in their home countries. The number of eligible Venezuelan voters in Florida grew by 184% in the ten-year period from 2008 to 2018. Though still a small group overall, their politics largely mirror those of Cuban-Americans.
“Biden is indeed underperforming here [Florida], and the most logical explanation is the movement on the part of…Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans but also other South Americans who were very susceptible to the Republican message about socialism,” Eduardo Gamarra, another professor at Miami’s FIU, told ABC.
The larger working class share within other Latino communities has produced distinctly different political outlooks. The Cuba Poll illustrates the contrast.
Nearly 80% of Miami-Dade’s “Hispanic” voters are registered Democrats; within the Cuban-American subset, however, 67% are registered Republicans. For newer Cuban arrivals to the United States, the margin is even more dismal for Democrats, with 76% of those immigrating since 2010 opting to register Republican.
A Telemundo exit poll released early Wednesday provided further insight into the lopsided story of Florida Latino voters. Cubans in Florida appear to have voted 71% Trump and 23% Biden. Puerto Ricans in Florida, who tend to be from more working-class backgrounds and bring less wealth with them when they arrive in the mainland United States, only gave Trump 23% support but handed Biden 66%.
The right-wing politics and preferences among Cuban exiles also showed up in the 2020 Cuba Poll. Some 64% of Cuban-Americans approve of Trump’s immigration policies, which have centered on shutting out new immigrants, building a wall along the Mexican border, and ending all refugee entrants. Unlike other groups of migrants, Cubans have long enjoyed privileged access to U.S. immigration, benefitting from easier entry policies, and poll numbers show a relative lack of concern for the situation of other immigrant groups.
Fifty-five percent give Trump positive marks for his handling of race relations. The same proportion approves of his aggressive stance toward protests and racial justice demonstrations. Two-thirds say his health care policies are positive, even as he plans to destroy the Affordable Care Act. A stunning 65% say the president has done a good job of handling the coronavirus crisis, and 80% believe he’s best for the economy.
And when it comes to the strangling economic blockade of their home country—a holdover from the Cold War—60% think it should continue and even be tightened further.
The Biden campaign knew the Cuban-American vote in Miami-Dade County and other places could make the difference in Florida and did expend some effort to try to counter Trump—but they did not do so by challenging his anti-communism. Instead, Biden and the Democrats tried to prove their own anti-communist credentials.
At an October speech in Miami, Biden argued he was better able to combat Cuba’s socialist government than was Trump. “Cuba is no closer to freedom and democracy than it was four years ago. In fact, there’s more political prisoners, the secret police are as brutal as ever, and Russia is once again a major presence in Cuba,” Biden said. He also said Trump was not doing enough to overthrow Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolás Maduro.
In a Biden television ad, Santiago Morales, a veteran of the CIA’s 1961 attempt to reverse the Cuban Revolution at the Bay of Pigs, denounced Trump and endorsed Biden. The ad was funded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who spent nearly a million dollars on Florida advertising.
The attempt largely fell flat, however. Frederick Vélez III, national director of civic engagement for the Hispanic Federation, a nonpartisan Latino organization, told Politico, “Trump did a really good job of staying on message with the socialist, socialist, socialist thing. I don’t necessarily blame the DNC or Biden campaign, but Florida Democrats did not do a good job combating this.” He said, “They knew better and should have been less focused on Venezuelans and Cubans and more on Puerto Ricans and Black voters.”
The outcome in Miami-Dade County and across Florida suggests that accepting the anti-communist premise does not help Democrats. Anti-communist politics have long been intertwined with and run parallel to anti-worker policies and racist appeals. Attempting to outdo the right wing on such fronts has long proven to be a losing strategy.
C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People’s World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People’s World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.