Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at Trump National Doral, Wednesday, July 27, 2016, in Doral, Florida. AP Images
To call a ten-point lead huge is something Donald J. Trump might do—and he might be right, were we not speaking of Florida’s Cuban American electorate. But among the roughly half-million individuals in this demographic, most of whom reside in the same county, ten points is actually a slim margin. And it could doom Trump’s quest to capture the state’s crucial twenty-nine electoral college votes.
Who wins the presidency in November could hinge on a precious few geographic areas. One is Florida’s Miami-Dade County, where once upon a time 80 percent of the Cuban American population reliably voted for Republican presidential contenders. Had Romney gotten this share of the vote in 2012, he would have won. Had even 60 percent of Miami-Dade County’s estimated 420,000 registered Cuban American voters cast their ballot for Romney, as they did for McCain in 2008, the former Massachusetts governor still might have won. But he drew just half this demographic, and lost Florida to Obama by about 75,000 votes.
Evidence, both anecdotal and statistical, abounds that Trump has dragged that GOP nadir even lower. He’s been neck and neck with Democrat Hillary Clinton in statewide polls, in part because he has such a small lead among the state’s Cuban Americans.
I set out to learn why.
On the eve of the Florida primary in early March, the air was still hot as people gathered in an end zone of the Milander Park stadium in western Miami-Dade County for Marco Rubio’s last rally before the vote. Rubio would get about 70,000 more votes in the county than Trump, who nonetheless won the state convincingly, forcing Rubio’s exit from the race.
As they waited for their candidate’s big black bus to appear, Rubio supporters sweltered. I spied Pedro Garcia, Miami-Dade County’s seventy-seven-year-old elected property appraiser, strolling among the Rubio fans who were seated in rows of folding chairs.
“I always vote. And I will vote Republican no matter what,” Garcia told me in fluent English, vocalizing what remains a mantra for most Cuban Americans of his generation. But the prospect of a Trump presidency scares him. “Because he’s arguing with other countries, like Mexico. I don’t think that’s a conversation for anybody who’s going to be a President.”
Yet Garcia seemed to think that, were the real-estate mogul elected, his pugnacious proposals would be checked. He noted that Trump had been “a tremendous actor” during the primary season and that, as President, he would “have a Congress and everybody watching” his every move. Garcia added that even in local elected office,
“I’m not allowed to do whatever I feel. We have laws! I have to follow these laws.”
After Rubio’s speech, I spoke with David Garcia (no relation to Pedro), thirty-one, a pumped-up carpenter who was as pro-Rubio as he was anti-Trump. “Trump is a shark, a salesman,” he declared. David was at the event with his father, Enrique, who arrived in Florida in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift. He also was down on the boastful billionaire. “His campaign is mocking everybody!” Enrique complained.
In late June, I phoned the younger Garcia to see how he planned to handle the reality of Trump’s win. “I’m just going to abstain from the presidential [vote],” he said, sounding exasperated. He added that he couldn’t vote for another Clinton, either. “They patented cronyism. That’s what I think.”
Some of Florida’s most prominent Cuban American Republicans are also not planning to vote for Trump, including Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado; former Florida GOP chairman Al Cardenas, who had backed Jeb Bush; and U.S. Representatives Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “I don’t feel in my heart that I could support him,” Ros-Lehtinen told a Spanish-language network. Rubio himself has gone from calling Trump a con artist to backing him.
Polling outfits specializing in the Cuban vote have calculated Trump’s support in the demographic is well below Romney’s roughly 50 percent. One such firm, Bendixen & Amandi International, reported in May that Cuban Americans were favoring Trump over Clinton 41 to 29 percent, with the rest undecided. Florida International University’s Dario Moreno found a narrower Trump lead, 37 to 31 percent. Moreno’s polling also showed 10 percent of likely Cuban American voters rejecting both Trump and Clinton.
In short, if Trump gets just 10 percent less of the Cuban demographic than Romney—a difference of about 50,000 votes—he will probably lose Florida. University of North Florida political scientist Matthew Corrigan calculates that the Democratic share of presidential votes in Miami-Dade County increased from 2008 to 2012 to 200,000 votes.
“If that advantage moves toward 250,000 votes this year, it is difficult to see a path for a Trump victory,” Corrigan writes in a recent analysis. “If Trump’s rhetoric has had a negative impact on Hispanic voters, Miami-Dade will tell the tale in November.” And Clinton enjoys an extensive lead in Miami-Dade County and elsewhere in Florida among non-Cuban Hispanics.
As thousands of elderly hardcore Republicans in the Cuban population have died, they’ve been replaced by “younger, more progressive voters,” says Cuban American pollster Fernand Amandi in an interview. “It’s not that they’re [all] becoming Democrats. It’s just that they’re not as monolithically Republican. Many of them are independents.” Amandi adds,
“The one thing that is really upending Republican chances is the shift that’s taking place in the Cuban vote.”
Something besides generational change is at work this year, according to Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine who studies the U.S. electorate with a focus on Hispanic demographics.
“Younger Cuban Americans have been moving away from the Republicans, but Trump seems to have sped that process with older émigré Cubans,” DeSipio tells me.
To make matters worse for Trump, while the GOP’s loyal Cuban American base has shrunk, the Democratic-leaning non-Cuban Hispanic population has grown, not only in South Florida but also in midstate, especially among Central Florida’s burgeoning population of relocated Puerto Ricans.
“Trump is really behind the eight-ball with that group,” Amandi says. “I don’t want to say that the math [for a Trump win] is impossible, but it’s very daunting.”
Still, a lead is a lead, and Trump earned his edge among Cuban Americans with no paid advertising or on-the-ground outreach in Miami-Dade, other than one rally at his Trump National Doral golf resort back in October 2015.
After the July 7 killing of five police officers in Dallas, Trump canceled a Miami campaign swing that was to include a lunch appearance with “community leaders” at Versailles, a popular Cuban restaurant on Eighth Street, one of Little Havana’s main drags. I went anyway, knowing there would be regulars and lunch-goers who had the billionaire GOP nominee on their minds. The restaurant’s pedestrian counter window has long been a go-to photo op for presidential candidates sucking up to the Cuban American populace, sometimes sipping a little cup of the sugary espresso brew known as Cuban coffee.
I found the same spectrum of resentment, isolationism, hostility, bigotry, exaggeration, fear-mongering, and just plain lunacy that writers have been chronicling all year—only in Cuban Spanish. Like their counterparts elsewhere, Trump’s Florida supporters believe America has lost respect abroad; that the United States is a disaster zone; that China and Mexico are our economic enemies; that foreigners, especially Muslims and Mexicans, need to be kept out; that their candidate’s speech is crude and erratic because He’s not a politician and He tells it like it is.
Santiago Portal, a Versailles fixture in his seventies, was sporting his usual white fedora and white suit coat, with red shirt, black pants, and white-and- black leather dress shoes. He was propping up a hand-painted sign almost as tall as himself, with red words on white background:
TRUMP MY PRESIDENT
TO BE OR NO [sic] TO BE
Portal likes Trump “because he’s a businessman,” he told me in Spanish. “He’s an individual who knows where he stands. He knows. He has his feet on the ground. He’s a businessman, and we need to govern this country like a business, not like a group of corruptos as we have at all levels.”
Trump’s promise to reindustrialize the United States also energizes Portal, who claims he’s invented a type of small hydroelectric plant for use in urban areas that could revolutionize power generation. “This country is dismantled. They took all the factories to China. So this country has to be industrialized again, like it was before,” he declares. I suggest he’s overstating the situation, that America still has factories and produces all kinds of products. He shakes his head. “This country has been destroyed, brother.”
Maria Antonia, an eighty-three-year-old woman who did not give her last name and was wearing a white apron with “TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT” written on it in magic marker, was equally sure the United States is in ruins. “Obama has left the United States in a disaster!” she fumed in Spanish. “And Hillary Clinton is going to follow the same policies as Obama!” She believes Trump would be the best President in decades because Obama and the Clintons “don’t love the United States,” while Trump does.
Another of Maria Antonia’s issues is jobs. “We have to suspend the work that they give to Mexico so that we can have work.” she exclaimed. “Hialeah [a city in Miami-Dade County] doesn’t have work! Miami doesn’t have work. They give it all to China! They are giving it all to Mexico. And Mexico is costing us millions of dollars because it’s sending everyone that is worthless over here.”
Toward the end of our conversation, she segued into unbridled bigotry. “A black President. A black President,” she scoffed in Spanish.
“He destroyed everything, because he had to be the first black President. It’s become clear here that a black can’t be President. And now a woman President to continue the same things as Obama? Not either.”
I asked Maria Antonia why she thinks black people can’t be President. “Blacks believe they deserve everything,” she replied. “If a black person is killed, everybody goes and smashes businesses. If a white person is killed, everybody is quiet. Why don’t whites protest? Because they’re educated. They go to the courts.”
As I’d detected elsewhere on the Florida campaign trail, Trump enthusiasm at Versailles ranged from zealous to cynical. An elderly woman named Gladys Fernandez, who left Cuba in 1960, told me she liked “everything” about him. “The ones he doesn’t want are the illegals. OK?” she exclaimed in Spanish. “He wants to get rid of those who are entering from all of those countries in Asia, who are all terrorists.”
A longtime Republican, Fernandez feels disillusioned by established GOP politicians, who “are all worthless” and merely looking out for themselves. Moreover, she says, “I don’t care about Republicans who aren’t going to vote for Trump!”
Meanwhile, on the sidewalk along Eighth Street, four members of a group called Latinos for Trump were holding up Trump signs and a big American flag. They had driven down from West Palm Beach. The group’s leader, Arisley Travieso, was wearing a navy blue Trump T-shirt and red “Make America Great Again” cap as he shouted into a bullhorn.
“The terrorists come here and they kill us and now Obama talks about gun control,” he seethed. “We are SICK AND TIRED of Obama’s rhetoric and division of this country! We’re not going to stand by and let it happen any longer. No more!” He angrily claimed that “people like Black Lives Matter are inciting violence on our streets!”
Lourdes Belfranin, fifty-seven, an out-of-work architect who specialized in strip malls, was also irate about “all the racial crap” she felt coming from Obama and the Democrats. Yet she supports Trump only reluctantly. “He’s rude. He’s not my favorite,” she admitted.
But Belfranin sees wholesomeness in the images of Trump and his family on television and in the press. “As far as I know, none of his kids are dealing drugs or are alcoholics or doing stuff that you don’t want your children doing. I see them standing behind their dad,” she said. “And how bad can he be when he has that kind of a family behind him?” She defended his bravado, saying it stems from his training as a military cadet in his late teens. “He just wants to portray toughness,” she averred.
Armando, a local Spanish TV talk show producer in his seventies who had come by the restaurant, said of Trump in perfect English: “His problem is that his mouth isn’t connected to his head. It’s connected to his ass.” A Cuban American who didn’t want his last name used, Armando told me he planned to vote for Trump anyway.
But Trump’s belligerent—some would say authoritarian—talk bothers some of the Miami Republicans who lived through Cuba’s violent revolution. As Jack Rosenberg, a retired Cuban American psychologist I’d met earlier in the campaign, put it, “We are so fed up that we want something drastic. We wanted something drastic in Cuba and look what happened.”
For the hour or so the demonstrators were present, traffic remained slow. Many passing motorists honked, shouted, or gave a thumbs-up sign in approval of Trump. Then a short-haired woman in the passenger seat of a westbound pale green Honda Element yelled, “Racistas! Y soy Cubana!” (Racists! And I’m Cuban!) A bit later, a smiling young Latina stuck her head out of the passenger window of an eastbound red SUV, shouting “Hillary! Hillary! Hillary!”
Kirk Carter Nielsen writes about politics and other worldly matters in Florida and beyond.