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The Latino vote won’t rescue Bernie Sanders in Florida

Sanders has relied on Latinos for key wins in early-voting states. But they won’t help him in Florida.

Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses a heavily-Latino crowd during a campaign rally in East Los Angeles, California on May 23, 2016.
David McNew/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has been courting the Latino vote for months — a strategy that played in his favor in earlier primaries and caucuses but will likely fall flat in Florida, where the primary is proceeding despite coronavirus concerns on Tuesday.

After claiming victory in 16 states so far, former Vice President Joe Biden has narrowed Sanders’s lead among Latino voters in Arizona, which also votes on Tuesday, to 7 percent in a recent Monmouth University poll. But in Florida, where Biden is leading among Latinos, Sanders’s disadvantages go beyond his rival’s recent momentum.

Sanders has been trying to appeal to Latino voters with a progressive policy platform on immigration, health care, and jobs. Starting last summer, he has poured resources in spreading his message, in both Spanish and English, to Latino communities. And he’s hired Latino staff from the grassroots advocacy community and integrated them into every facet of his campaign.

That strategy helped him sweep the Latino vote in Texas, California, and Nevada by double-digit margins, and recent polls show he’s also the favorite to win among Latinos in Arizona. But Florida, a swing state where Latinos make up 20 percent electorate, is different.

Unlike the other states, where Mexican Americans make up the majority of Latinos, Florida’s Latino population is diverse in terms of national origin, with the biggest communities being Cuban and Puerto Rican. Most don’t even like to call themselves “Latino,” a term that was coined to coalesce political power around a common ethnic identity — they prefer the term “Hispanic.”

While the vast majority of Florida Latinos identify as Democrats, they have proved malleable in past elections. They backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, but they also supported a number of Republicans: George W. Bush in 2004, Jeb Bush for governor in 2002, and Rick Scott for Senate and Ron DeSantis for governor in 2018.

Even President Donald Trump, despite pursuing immigration policies that disproportionately harm Latinos, has been attempting to capitalize on the conservative leanings of Florida Latinos, launching a “Latinos for Trump” campaign in the state. He won Florida by a razor-thin margin in 2016 with the support of Cuban voters, and even modest gains in Latino support in the state could help ensure his victory there.

Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, is not an obvious choice for Florida Latinos, and it shows in the polls: Likely Latino primary voters prefer Biden by an 8-point margin, according to a recent Univision poll. And a recent Telemundo poll shows Sanders in a tie with Trump among Latinos in a direct matchup in a general election. (Biden, by comparison, could win in a landslide with Latino voters there, with 58 percent support among Latino voters compared to 38 percent who would back Trump.)

Whereas Latinos were Sanders’s strength in other states, they could be his downfall in Florida.

Sanders needs Puerto Rican support

If Sanders is going to have a chance in Florida, he needs the support of the left-leaning Puerto Rican community.

The Latino community in Florida was largely Cuban until the mid-2000s, when there was an influx of almost 400,000 Puerto Ricans who settled primarily in Central Florida — now one of the largest Puerto Rican communities in the world. That migration fundamentally changed the political dynamics in the state. Whereas Kerry and Bush tied in 2004 in Orange County, where Orlando is located, Obama won that county by 80,000 votes four years later.

Cristal Marie, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, holds a Puerto Rican flag before a campaign rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on March 8, 2020.
Brittany Greeson/Getty Images

“That was entirely a function of Puerto Rican growth,” said Steven Schale, a Florida political strategist who previously oversaw Obama’s campaign in the state.

Puerto Ricans tend to align with most Latino voters in terms of the issues they prioritize with healthcare and jobs being top of mind. They’re particularly supportive of Sanders’s Medicare-for-all proposal.

But they’re also concerned about climate change. That might be because they’re still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which killed almost 3,000 people in 2017, and have been impacted by climate change more than anywhere else worldwide, according to a recent report by the think tank Germanwatch.

Another chief concern for many mainland Puerto Ricans is pushing for their island home, a US territory, to become the 51st state. Puerto Rico held referendums in 2012 and 2017 in which the population overwhelmingly backed statehood, but neither of them have triggered an official request to Congress. That might come later this year.

But since they’re US citizens, Sanders’s immigration policies might not resonate with them in the same way they do with other Latino groups who might be recent immigrants or have family members who are.

“There wasn’t as much acute self-interest in immigration as you might get in, say, Nevada,” Schale said.

It’s been challenging to get Puerto Ricans to turn out. Part of that might be because Puerto Ricans living on the island don’t vote as often as they do on the mainland. After the major influx of Puerto Ricans to Florida in the 2000s, there were initially massive turnout differences between presidential and non-presidential election years, Schale said. But in the 2018 midterm elections, voter participation among Puerto Ricans surged, suggesting that outreach has made a difference.

Sanders has invested in outreach to Latinos more than any other candidate, so that could help him drive Puerto Ricans to turn out.

Cuban conservatives stand in Sanders’s way

Sanders’s biggest obstacle may be Cubans, who have historically voted Republican and are often framed as political outliers among Latino voters.

Cubans appear to be more wary than other Latinos of Sanders, who recently defended some parts of former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s record. According to a recent Univision poll, Sanders fares worse among Cubans than among other Latinos — his favorability rating among Cubans is 47 percent favorable to 42 percent unfavorable. By comparison, 67 percent of Mexicans rated Sanders favorably.

And according to the Telemundo poll, Sanders is performing particularly badly in southeastern Florida, where there is a large Cuban community. Only 19 percent of Cubans — compared to 65 percent of Puerto Ricans — would vote for him in a contest against Trump.

Sanders’s democratic socialism might alienate those Cubans who fled their socialist homeland, where human rights violations such as executions of dissidents and suppression of free speech were rampant. Up until 2016, there was a growing contingent of Democratic Cuban voters, but that trend appeared to reverse in 2016 and 2018, perhaps due to Democrats’ efforts to thaw relations with Cuba under the Obama administration.

That same phenomenon might apply to South Americans who hail from other socialist countries, including Nicaraguans, Colombians, and Venezuelans who have recently fled the regime of Nicolás Maduro. Sanders was criticized for not immediately denouncing Maduro as a dictator and has been repeatedly asked to distinguish his brand of democratic socialism from the kind that led to Venezuela’s decline. It follows, then, that 70 percent of Latino voters in the state said they wouldn’t vote for a candidate who described himself as a socialist, according to the Telemundo poll.

“Democrats have to be careful in Florida,” Schale said. “If you just came here or you have family who just came here from Venezuela, democratic socialism is going to mean something very different in Miami than it will in Brooklyn.”

Cubans’ policy preferences also differ from those of other Latinos. Cubans were automatically granted green cards after they arrived on US soil, so they don’t have a personal stake Sanders’s immigration platform, which would legalize the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US, among other proposals.

A recent Univision poll found that Cubans prioritize lowering health care costs — but many of them don’t think Sanders’s Medicare-for-all proposal is the way to do so. While most Latinos overwhelmingly back Medicare-for-all, more than a third of Cubans oppose it. They also express less interest in creating jobs, stopping racism, improving public education, and addressing climate change than Latinos overall.

Florida’s Cubans were about twice as likely to vote for Trump in 2016 compared to non-Cuban Latinos. Cubans, along with the growing community of Venezuelans in Florida, have favored Trump’s strong denunciation of Maduro’s regime in Venezuela and his efforts to reverse Obama’s policies on Cuba.

“Trump is going to aggressively go into Hispanic communities, particularly Cuban communities, and make the ‘America versus socialism’ argument,” Schale said. “It’s something we can’t ignore. If we don’t respond, it could have an impact on the race.”

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