The Cuban-American Republican Vote in Florida
Updated: Nov 4, 2020
By James Wyatt, Senior Macro Analyst at University College Dublin Student Managed Fund
With the upcoming presidential election on November 3rd, the eyes of the world have focused as usual, on a small handful of US states. One state perennially in the spotlight during these elections is Florida. There is something special about Florida though, that is not present in any of the other swing-states or battleground states in the Union. This is the Cuban-American vote. It’s not discussed so much in the news, but it is a major part of winning the state in the general election.
The counties of Florida are broadly split between the blue vote of Miami, and the generally red vote of the rest of the state, such as the parts closer to Alabama and Georgia. The southern part of Florida has a large Latino population, particularly in Miami, with the community population slightly below six million people. Unlike the communities in many other states, a large chunk of this population comes from Cuba, with more than 1.5 million Cuban-Americans. Generally speaking, the Latino communities lean very heavily toward voting for Democrat candidates, with upward of 70% of votes cast from those with a Latino background being cast for the Democrat candidates.
For Cubans, it’s different. The Cuban community in Florida was created in several waves over the years. One theme common to these waves, from the initial large movements of refugees in the 60’s following the communist revolution, to the boatlifts of the 1980’s, has been a great dislike for Fidel Castro and anyone associated with him. This cultural facet for the most part continues down from first generation refugees to second generation and beyond. The reasons for this of course, are fairly obvious on even a brief inspection of the Castro regime in Cuba.
This phenomenon has led to a unique propensity for these 1.5 million Floridians to have a much, much narrower split regarding party voting preferences than the other Latino communities. In the past, the group went overwhelmingly for the likes of Ronald Regan and George Bush. More recently it has narrowed, with only a narrow preference for McCain in 2008, and a slight lead for Obama against Romney in 2012 (49% versus 47%). This is still stunningly red in contrast to the broader Latino vote, but it certainly looked as though the republican preference was fading after 2012.
However, that changed in 2016.
The 2016 Election:
As many will remember, Donald Trump won the state of Florida in the 2016 race, and he also won the Cuban-American vote. He won 54% of the community’s vote, a large improvement over the Republican result in 2012. While the needle on the vote was likely slightly shifted by Trump’s affiliation with the state of Florida, there were also some factors at play specific to Cuban-Americans in this result.
Factor 1: Normalizing relations with Cuba
The first factor was a policy decision. Obama normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba during his presidency and removed economic sanctions on the country. He also held a meeting with Raul Castro, shook hands and so on. These moves were not popular among the Cuban-Americans in Florida, even though they were more evenly split between parties at this point.
Factor 2: Bernie Sanders endorsing Hillary Clinton
Bernie Sanders is a political figure Cuban-Americans are generally very leery of, due to his identification as a socialist politician. While this endorsement of course was necessary for the campaign in order to draw in voters and solidify the coalition and the voting base for Clinton, its effects were not positive in every state. In Florida, and particularly among a certain group, this endorsement was a bad thing.
The 2020 Election:
Coming into the 2020 election, these factors are perhaps even more important than they were in 2016. There are three main catalysts regarding the candidates this time around. Factor 1: Obama’s Cuba policies. If Obama’s policy decisions on Cuba had an effect on Clinton, who was his Secretary of State, then they will have even more of an effect on Joe Biden, who was his vice-president. While this is a major selling point of his campaign, again, among very specific demographics due to very specific reasons, it is a negative point. Additionally, and even worse for Biden is that in 2017, after the election, Obama ended the “Wet Foot - Dry Foot” policy for Cuban immigrants. This made it much harder for Cubans to emigrate from Cuba to the United States (and also created a flood of migration before the policy change came into effect). In contrast, tariffs and penalties were put on Cuba during the Trump administration, and diplomatic relations were severed once again.
Factor 2: Castro’s Death Castro died shortly after the 2016 election. The reaction of the incumbent, Trump, was to decry him as a “Brutal Dictator”. Other comments included “today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve". These comments, compared to neutral comments from the Obama administration due to their policy stance with Cuba, would have won points with the Cuban-American population.
Factor 3: Bernie Sanders endorsing Joe Biden
Bernie Sanders has endorsed Biden in this election cycle for the same reasons he endorsed Clinton in the previous election cycle. This time, the animosity towards Sanders in the Cuban-American community is likely to be stronger however, due to comments made during the primary in February. Bernie praised Castro for his literacy programme and took a softer stance on the condemning of the Castro regime, saying "it's unfair to simply say everything is bad". He then later defended these comments when asked about them. Whether the reader agrees or disagrees is not the aim of this article, one thing is for certain. The Cuban-Americans did not like it.
These factors did not get much coverage, as for the vast majority of Americans they are not deciding factors on their vote. The Cuban-Americans in Florida (and the small groups in other states) will however have paid far more attention to these comments, as they relate to their community. They will have remembered them far better than the general voting bloc, and they will have given them much more weight than the general voting bloc.
Due to these reasons, it seems likely that the Cuban American vote is poised to swing yet again back towards the Republican party in the 2020 presidential election, and likely in similar numbers to the 2016 election. It’s possible that there may be a greater shift towards the Republican party due to the additional factors relevant in the 2020 election.
This is worth bearing in mind, as in the 2016 election, Clinton was defeated by a vote margin of only 112,911 votes. If only half of the Cuban-American community vote, just a small 3% swing in their vote would amount to what could be an extremely important 25,000 votes. This unique factor in Florida is also not accurately represented in the polls, which of course just survey the state as a whole, not specifically the Cuban-American community and therefore can’t show the sentiment there. Even Hispanic-population polls can’t show this accurately, as there is a population of 2.7 million Hispanic people in Florida with backgrounds in countries such as Mexico, Haiti, etc.
As Florida has a population of only 21 million, this group of 1.55 million people could easily swing the whole state. Bearing that in mind, I propose that Biden’s narrow 1-2 point lead in the Florida polling aggregate is not accurate, and the state is much more likely to be won by the Republicans on November 3rd than the polls suggest.
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