The first night of the Republican National Convention a few weeks ago featured a speech by Máximo Álvarez, a Cuban-born Florida millionaire, who warned viewers of upcoming doom. “I’ve seen ideas like these before and I’m here to tell you, we cannot let them take over our country,” he said, referring to the Democratic Party and its candidate, Joe Biden, whom Álvarez suggested was a Trojan horse for ideas like those of Cuba’s leaders. “I have no doubt they will hand the country over to those dangerous forces,” Álvarez cautioned.
Álvarez’s message was not an anomaly. For months, President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has spent handsomely in Florida, going to great lengths to define Biden’s character for Florida’s Latino community. The campaign has adapted the playbook it had developed for a matchup against Bernie Sanders, whose socialist credentials would have made him an easier target for Trump’s caricatures. That Trump’s adversary is now Biden—not exactly a darling of the left—has not mattered much to the president or his advisers in Florida. They have all, including some intriguing social media influencers, stayed on message.
“Trump is telling Latinos in Florida that he will protect them from the communist policies the Democrats will bring with them if they win,” Latino pollster Fernand Amandi told me. The president’s “socialism attack” could be particularly effective in Florida, targeting Cuban Americans like Álvarez but also a growing number of more recent arrivals from Venezuela and Nicaragua who are understandably wary of even the whiff of socialism. Trump has taken the strategy to heart. “The most undisciplined person on the planet has been sticking to a very disciplined message with Florida Latinos: raising the ghost of communism,” Amandi said.
It appears to be working. In a recent NBC News/Marist poll, Trump leads Biden among Latinos in Florida 50 percent to 46 percent, a 15-point improvement from Trump’s 35 percent share of the state’s Latino electorate in 2016. According to a Miami Herald poll, Biden is currently underperforming against Hillary Clinton’s totals with Latinos even in reliably Democratic Miami-Dade County. If these margins hold, Trump’s gains with Latinos could be enough to offset his losses with white voters elsewhere in the state, improving his chances at winning not only Florida but reelection.
If Trump does convince such a large swath of Florida’s Latino voters to favor him in the election, he will have done so based solely on political propaganda. According to Carlos Odio, co-founder of EquisLabs, an organization focusing on the Latino electorate, the Trump campaign has built a “misinformation” campaign aimed squarely at “the bubble in Miami.”
“What they have led with is definitely fear,” Odio told me. “Fear of radical leftists, fear of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is fear in various forms.” Amandi uses the false equivalency between Biden and Sanders as another example of Trump’s strategy in Florida. “It doesn’t matter who the Democratic candidate is,” he told me. “Look at how they switched between Biden and Sanders. They could not be more different. There is objectively no way to identify Biden as a socialist. The only thing they have in common is that both are Democrats.”
For the New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer, who last year wrote an in-depth look at Florida’s Latino electorate, Trump’s approach to the state is “cynical and transactional.” According to Blitzer, Trump’s bluster on socialism and his attempt to label Biden as an emissary of what Máximo Álvarez called “dangerous forces” are a sign of shameless political pragmatism rather than foreign policy principle. “Members of his administration made clear to him what he needed to say to Venezuelans and to Cubans and so on. And that’s exactly what he did, foreign policy be damned,” Blitzer told me. “There is no foreign policy. There’s nothing beyond the permanent campaign.”
According to recent reports, Trump’s successful propaganda campaign with Florida Latinos has caught the Biden campaign by surprise. It has reacted by hiring strategists and having Kamala Harris give her first interview for a Spanish language outlet to a popular Florida radio station. For the New Yorker’s Blitzer, Democrats could still have an opening for a comeback. “Will these communities feel used or lied to as it becomes clear this was all talk?” he asked. On Thursday, Harris visited South Florida, stopping at a Venezuelan restaurant. These symbolic gestures could have some relevance, but the Biden campaign’s biggest opportunity to take a strong position on Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua—and hammer Trump for his empty hypocrisy—should come during the second presidential debate, on Oct. 15, in Miami.
Carlos Odio agrees not only that Biden still has an opportunity to narrow his margins with Florida Latinos but that Trump’s strategy in the state might have already peaked. “I think this strategy has a limit,” he said. “I don’t see any evidence that the Trump campaign will engage more people than those they’ve already reached.”
Pollster Amandi, though, offered a more sobering view. “Democrats haven’t understood that they have to confront all this fallacy,” he told me. ”They have to explain and offer context. For now, they seem to be ignoring it. And time is running out.”