MIAMI — The conventional wisdom about the Florida electorate has long been that Miami-Dade County’s unavoidable political destiny was to turn even more Democratic as younger Cuban Americans replaced the older Cuban exiles who formed a powerful Republican stronghold.
That fate may not have been as predetermined as everyone once thought.
Second- and third-generation Cuban Americans born in the United States have continued to drift away from their parents’ and grandparents’ Republican Party. But, in a trend that went largely unnoticed by Democrats until lately, more recent Cuban immigrants who previously displayed little engagement in US politics have started to identify as Trump Republicans.
They are not enough to flip Miami-Dade, which Hillary Clinton won by a record margin of nearly 30 percentage points in 2016. But their potential impact to the race has led in part to an unusually pitched electoral battle in Florida’s most populous county this year as President Donald Trump’s campaign fights to narrow the Democrats’ lead and compensate for his expected losses elsewhere, including among older voters and suburban women.
If they can bring Joe Biden’s advantage down to, say, 20 percentage points, the political math suggests that Florida, a must-win state for Trump, could remain in the president’s column, even if the Tampa and Orlando regions swing slightly toward Biden.
Narrowing the margins in Miami-Dade would be a “huge win,” said state Sen. Manny Díaz Jr., R-Hialeah, the most heavily Cuban city in the country. “How do you make that up anywhere else in the state?”
Democrats have watched with alarm as Trump supporters have organized huge caravans that crawl across the streets of Miami-Dade on weekend afternoons, featuring trucks that blare popular Cuban music and fly Trump, Cuban and American flags. Passengers bang pots and pans, a celebratory display typically reserved in this city for Miami Heat championships.
At times, things have become tense. Last weekend, when stragglers from a caravan organized by “Cubanos con Biden,” or Cubans with Biden, intersected with a Trump caravan along SW Eighth Street in the Miami neighborhood of Little Havana, men driving vehicles from the Trump caravan surrounded a Honda Fit decked out in Biden signs.
“They yelled, ‘¡Comunista!’” said the Honda’s driver, Sofia Hidalgo, an 18-year-old Cuban American college student who recently moved to Miami from Maryland.
Democratic-leaning Hispanics make up an increasingly large proportion of Florida’s Latino electorate — including younger Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Colombians and Venezuelans — and Biden is counting on them to keep his lead in Miami-Dade to about 24 percentage points. That’s what it was when former President Barack Obama won Florida in 2012.
To that end, Obama traveled to Miami on Saturday and directly rebutted Republican claims that his former vice president, who has a record as a moderate Democrat, is a socialist, or worse.
“Some of the rhetoric that you’re hearing here in South Florida, it’s just made up; it’s just nonsense,” Obama said at a drive-in rally in North Miami. “Listening to Republicans, you’d think that Joe was more communist than the Castros! Don’t fall for that garbage.
“What is true,” Obama continued, “is, he’ll promote human rights in Cuba and around the world, and he won’t coddle dictators the way our current president does.”
He did not mention his administration’s 2014 move to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, a rapprochement all but dismantled by Trump.
Hard-liners appreciated Trump’s reversals. But the feelings were more complicated among many Cuban Americans who arrived more recently, said Guennady Rodríguez, 39, who immigrated to Miami from Cuba in 2013.
Rodríguez, who edits a local political blog and podcast, “23 y Flagler,” supported the Obama policy and opposed the Trump rollbacks. But he said that other Cuban Americans less steeped in US politics were disappointed that Obama’s reengagement, in effect for only a couple of years, did not quickly soften the Cuban regime. Fairly or not, that left a lingering frustration that prompted support for renewed sanctions, he said.
“The Cuban government has spent the past few years shutting down freedom of expression,” he said. “People here are evidently frustrated.”
The views of the newer generation of Cuban Americans that is more receptive to Republicans are perhaps most loudly voiced and shaped by Alex Otaola, a 41-year-old social media influencer who mixes culture and politics on a live daily YouTube show. Otaola leveraged his large online following — about 100,000 viewers for his show each day — into a one-on-one meeting with Trump this month.
Otaola has become well known in Cuban American Republican circles for telling his audience how he voted for Clinton and has since changed his mind, citing a leftward shift by the Democratic Party personified by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. The Trump campaign is one of his paid advertisers.
Among his pet issues is criticizing Cuban artists friendly with the island’s government who try to perform in Miami, a fight that has stirred anti-communist sentiment in this town for decades.
To his Oct. 15 meeting with Trump, Otaola wore a green turban and a swarm of bracelets. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, served as his interpreter. Otaola asked the president if he could send him a list of 60 Cuban artists and celebrities with supposed ties to the Cuban government so that the Trump administration would consider revoking their US visas.
“So, these are people that you don’t want to have,” Trump said, according to a video of the meeting aired by Otaola. “We’ll get it done.”
In an interview, Otaola said he spoke for younger Cubans who experienced communism in the past two decades.
“I’ve been here for 17 years,” he said. “We lived through the same things. We speak the same language. And we are living through the same signs that we saw in the flesh in our country. So we recognize the things that are happening.”
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Those views are shared by people like Giancarlo Sopo, a Cuban American who became known in Miami in his 20s for working in Democratic politics. He now works as a campaign spokesperson for Trump.
"Our families fled socialism, we are culturally conservative, the president's policies are popular in our community, and we like his mano dura against the left," Sopo said in a statement, using the phrase for iron fist. "The Democrats have always had far-left voices, but its leaders were once wise enough to keep them at bay. Now they extol them as 'the future' of the party, which is why many of us consider ourselves a part of its past."
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Guillermo Grenier, a sociology professor at Florida International University who conducts a biennial poll of Miami’s Cuban American community, found for the first time this year that a majority of Cubans who arrived between 2010 and 2015, the most recent dates to qualify for US citizenship, are registering as Republicans. Cuban Americans born in the United States “are going the other way,” he said, with 40% registering Republican, 35% Democrat and 24% without party affiliation.
“The Republican Party is really well-established in the Cuban communities, and when new Cubans are coming in now, they don’t see a muted Republican Party like you had under Obama,” Grenier said.
His poll has also shown that Cuban American attitudes tend to swing with the policies of the party that holds the White House: They opposed diplomatic relations under former President George W. Bush, reversed their feelings under Obama and again returned to Bush-era attitudes under Trump.
“What it shows is that Cubans adjust,” Grenier said. “Whoever is in Washington, Cubans reflect foreign policy — they don’t create it.”
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That leaves room for persuasion, said Carmen Peláez, a playwright and filmmaker who helps lead Cubanos con Biden. Peláez said she tried to have cordial conversations with fellow Cuban Americans to challenge their views about Democrats.
“There are people that got here from Cuba three years ago, and their muscle memories — the only thing they know as politicking — is what they saw in Cuba,” she said. “So when they’re being told with certainty, ‘This is how you can fight communism,’ they can’t help but respond. That, to me, is where we have to listen.”
Peláez, 49, wrote a social media post that declared Cubanos con Biden to be “100% anti-comunista, 100% anti-fascista y 100% con Biden.” The slogan is now printed on the back of “Cubanos con Biden” yard signs.
Democrats like Biden have resisted proclaiming that they are not socialists “for the same reason that he didn’t make any proclamations about not being a werewolf — because it’s ridiculous,” Peláez said.
"You never want to confirm a lie by denying it," she added. "But Cubans are stubborn as jackhammers, and we did live through a revolution that was very duplicitous, where neighbors lied about neighbors. So when I saw my post take off, I was like, we need to really just throw the gloves off and be like, 'Come at me, bro.' I am so sick of my family calling me communist."
Now, she said, several older Cuban Americans have confided to her that they intend to vote for Biden — even if they won’t tell their families.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.