Miami, Florida – In the Little Havana neighbourhood of Miami, Trump campaigners have set their sights on an unlikely group of Americans: Hispanic voters. Their efforts were on display at the Versailles Cafe, which has been a hub for Hispanic, particularly Cuban, Americans for nearly half a century. A constant stream of people gather at the open window to gossip over a late night cafe con leche and Cuban pastries that most order in Spanish.
A “Trump-Pence” sign appeared propped up against a wall this evening, which someone took down within an hour. But even without the sign, displays of support for the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, continued into the evening.
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Trump’s rise has relied strongly on anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic rhetoric targeted at mainly white, working-class voters. He has repeatedly pledged to build a wall on the border with Mexico, and to “make Mexico pay for it”.
Yet despite his anti-Hispanic discourse, Trump has supporters even among the very people who are often at the receiving end of his rhetoric.
George Tomkinson, an Argentinean American who has lived in Miami for 20 years and wore a “Trump” badge, is a staunch conservative. He sees Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton as “a dangerous radical” and believes that both Clinton and current President Barack Obama are involved in a conspiracy to “destroy America”.
When Trump visited Miami in mid-September, he held a Town Hall event in “Little Haiti”, a neighbourhood with a strong Haitian American community. At the event, Trump promised to bring jobs to the community and, when presented with a Haitian flag pin, he attached it to his suit.
“I am running to be a president for all Americans,” Trump had had said that same evening in a speech. “Our support comes from all regions, all backgrounds and all walks of life. You are cops and soldiers, carpenters and welders, accountants and lawyers, young and old, rich and poor, black, white and Hispanic. But above all else, you are American,” he continued.
If Trump is to win the presidency, most analysts agree that he must win the swing state of Florida. Winning over the Hispanic population is especially critical with the group comprising 24 percent of the state’s population at around 4.8 million people. Nearly 1.8 million of these Hispanics were already registered voters in Florida as of February 2016, according to figures from Florida’s Division of Elections.
Vincent Harris, a conservative strategist and communications expert, worked with the Trump campaign earlier in the year, as well as for Trump’s competitors in the Republican primaries. He says it was wedge issues such as the wall and his statements on Muslims that won him the nomination.
“I think [Trump] is very shrewd in knowing which issues are popular with the Republican base. He went to the right of Ted Cruz,” Harris said.
While Hispanics are not a homogenous voting group, in Florida Trump risks paying the price as his strategies threaten to alienate many Hispanics who would usually vote Republican.
Communities at odds
Many first-generation Cuban Americans have long favoured Republicans. At 1.3 million in Florida alone, they are less likely to care about Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric than other minorities, according to Hispanic voters who spoke with Al Jazeera. The Cuban Adjustment Act has long fast-tracked migration for them, and some of those who have been citizens for decades even support taking a harsher stance against newer migrants.
Alex Mujica, a Cuban American who has been living in Miami since the 1970s, says he has been a Republican since coming to the United States as a teenager. Mujica says a large part of his motivation for supporting Trump is his strong dislike of Hillary Clinton.
“I think Trump is independent,” Mujica said. The 60-year-old likes the fact that Trump is a businessman rather than a career politician and believes that the Republican candidate is less restrained by Washington norms.
Of Trump’s threat to cancel Obama’s historic move to end the isolation of Cuba, Mujica says with a laugh: “Good.” His view reflects that of many older members of this community who have for decades lobbied for a hardline stance against the Cuban government.
His friend, 54-year-old Cuban American Rodriguez Heriberto, is no fan of the Obama administration’s Cuba policy, which he describes as being “too soft”, but that is not enough to make him support Trump.
“The Republican Party scares me a lot,” Heriberto says. “They like war too much and want to cut social programmes.”
He supports the Obama administration’s expansion of healthcare and backs public spending on housing and public education. However, he fears that Trump’s threats to toughen policies towards immigrants could have a very real impact on his family. Although he came to the US as a child, his wife is a recent migrant from the Dominican Republic. They married only recently, and she is not yet a citizen.
Still, Heriberto is aware of Obama’s performance on immigration. “To tell you the truth, Obama has deported more people than anyone else,” he said. The Obama administration has overseen more deportations than any other previous presidency, beating Republican President George W Bush’s 2008 record.
A must-win state
Florida infamously determined the 2000 election, after a month of legal wrangling. Bush won that election, and the state went to him again in 2004. But Obama won Florida in both 2008 and 2012.
Analysts say Obama’s success with Hispanic voters in Florida in 2008 was due partly to his promise to deliver comprehensive immigration reform – a promise that he has failed to keep and a factor that may weaken similar enthusiasm for Clinton. While many older Cuban Americans remained Republican because of their focus on policy towards Cuba, polling shows that their children are more likely to be focused on domestic policies such as healthcare.
One lesson the Republican Party hierarchy says it learned from Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful 2012 bid against Obama was that it needed to dramatically expand its network of on-the-ground volunteers, according to Ninio Fetalvo, the communications director for the Republican National Committee in Florida.
The push to do this in Florida began in 2013, well before Trump was selected as the party’s candidate. The Republican Party now has more than 1,000 staff and trained organisers across the state, compared with 84 in 2012, added Fetalvo.
“Our permanent presence in the field aided the victories of Governor [Rick} Scott in 2014 and Mayor Lenny Curry in 2015,” Fetalvo noted. “These same efforts and resources that have already proven to be effective will pay dividends as we work to elect the entire Republican ticket this November.”
However, the latest polls show that Trump has fallen slightly in must-win Florida, where he was tied with Clinton only weeks ago.
He is now behind Clinton in Florida by three points, with 42 percent to her 45 percent, according to a poll by NBC and The Wall Street Journal that was released early October.
Trump’s support base is predominately from white voters. Though, ever since Richard Nixon, Republicans have played up white fears of demographic changes as an election strategy, most commentators agree that Trump has gone further than any of his recent mainstream predecessors. Some 54 percent of whites in Florida prefer Trump, while only 30 percent say they will vote for Clinton.
The Democratic nominee’s overall lead is attributed to Hispanic voters, 54 percent of whom are backing her. Only 30 percent of Florida Hispanics will vote for Trump, according to a poll of 600 Hispanic voters released this week by the Republican-leaning business group, Associated Industries Florida. That is less than Mitt Romney had in 2012 at 39 percent.
Professor Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, said that Florida is becoming an ever-more important battleground in US politics, as many of the other states have become more firmly “red” or “blue” states. Florida is one of the few states that could sway in either direction, and its immigrant-fuelled population boom means its importance is growing.
In 2010, Florida gained a further two electoral college votes, bringing its number of votes to 29, tying it with New York as the third most important state to win.
Since the early 2000s, according to Abramowitz, major demographic changes within the Hispanic community have meant that with every passing year, the state is becoming more likely to go to the Democrats.
In particular, there has been an influx of Puerto Ricans to Florida over the past two decades, pushed by a deep debt-fuelled crisis in the US territory. As US citizens, Puerto Ricans must relocate to the mainland to obtain the right to vote in that state. Overwhelmingly, Puerto Ricans tend to lean towards the Democrats.
Clinton visited Puerto Rico in August, and her campaign has invested heavily in a drive to register the new arrivals in Florida. There are now more than a million Puerto Ricans living in the Sunshine State.
Some 76 percent of Puerto Rican voters had an unfavourable view of Trump, according to a survey released in April by the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice and the polling firm Latino Decisions, while only 38 percent had an unfavourable view of Clinton, the same poll found.
Abramowitz adds that Clinton’s lead may be even stronger than the polls suggest, since polls often tend to under-represent Hispanic voters.
“I don’t think [Trump] can do enough to offset the devastation he’s causing among non-whites,” says Abramowitz. “I think you’re going to see a larger level of defections among Hispanic Republicans.”
Splitting the ballots
Fernand Amandi, a Democratic strategist in Miami and a public opinion researcher, says that another sign that Trump has alienated the Hispanic vote is that many Hispanic Republicans in Florida will be splitting their ballots on election day: There is a trend to vote for Clinton for president, but for Republican Marco Rubio in the Senate race.
Indeed, the polls reveal strong support among Floridians for Rubio’s re-election to the Senate, even as Trump lags behind him.
Amandi cautions Clinton supporters against taking the numbers for granted, however, as many Trump supporters are “true believers” in their candidate, likely to turn out on polling day in force. Some Hispanics are yet to be as convinced by Clinton, in contrast.
Clinton’s campaign is focusing its appeal to Hispanic voters almost exclusively on immigration, Amandi warns, even though evidence from his decades of time researching and lobbying Hispanic voters in Florida suggests 80 percent of Hispanic voters are more worried about issues such as unemployment and healthcare than they are about immigration, he says.
At the Spanish-language television station Univision, which is broadcast from Doral, Florida, there is a similar feeling that Clinton is not doing enough to reach Hispanic and Latino voters.
“Hillary needs to talk directly to Latinos and listen to their concerns, and to rely less on emails and text messages,” said Enrique Acevedo, a prominent Mexican American anchor with the network.
The network has taken an advocacy role, confronting Trump over his rhetoric, but Acevedo said that disappointment and a feeling of broken trust with the Obama administration mean that it is hard for his viewers to be as excited about Clinton’s candidacy as they were about Obama’s. This is due, above all, to the current administration’s failure to prioritise immigration reform, as well as the record numbers of deportations during his presidency.
“President Obama has, in a way, tarnished the Democrats’ reputation with Hispanics,” he said. “A Clinton administration would have the same policies as Obama.”
Either way, Florida is, more than ever before, the state to watch on election day.
“Imagine that, after everything that’s been said about Latinos,” Acevedo said, “they might end up being the ones that take Hillary to the White House.”