Shifting Cuban voters could be the difference in Florida
Posted September 19
MIAMI — Francis Suarez comes from a long line of civic and political leaders who have formed the Republican bedrock in south Florida's Cuban community for a half century. Yet the 38-year-old Miami city commissioner hasn't decided whether he will vote for his party's presidential nominee.
He's not alone. Many Cuban-Americans are expressing solidarity with other Latin-Americans who see Donald Trump as anti-Hispanic. Still others hear in Trump's nationalistic populism echoes of the government strongmen they once fled.
"There are aspects of Trump that appeal to parts of the Cuban-American culture: strong leadership, the ability and willingness to say bold things," says Suarez, the son of a former Miami mayor and potential chief executive himself. The concern, Suarez says, comes when Trump's boorishness, bullying and slapdash policy pronouncements "cross the line from bold to wild, unpredictable."
How those misgivings affect the votes of hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans could tilt the nation's most populous battleground state and help determine whether Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the election.
Roberto Rodriguez Tejera, a Spanish-language radio and television host in Miami, says he won't endorse anyone. But Tejera regularly asks his audiences to compare Trump's assertions that "I am your voice" and "I alone can solve" societal ills to the initial appeals of authoritarian rulers like Cuba's Fidel Castro and the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
"It goes well beyond immigration," Tejera said in an interview. "Many of us remember how it starts. It starts with questioning institutions. Then you destroy institutions — you being the only person in the world who can save the nation from collapse."
Fernand Amandi, a Democratic south Florida pollster, estimates Cuban-Americans could approach 8 percent of the Florida electorate this November. Amandi said polls suggest Trump leads Clinton among Cuban-Americans in Florida, but not by the margins victorious Republican nominees have managed.
Trump aides note support from some officials within the Cuban community, but Trump adviser Karen Giorno said the GOP nominee ultimately considers Cuban-Americans to be like anyone else: "They are worried about safety and security. They are worried about the economy. ... They are worried about the same things other Americans are worried about."
Suarez applauds that approach, but says it doesn't account for the fact that Cubans-Americans, for the first time in presidential politics, feel shared interests with immigrants from Mexico and nations in Central and South America — a class that has never enjoyed Cubans' favored immigration status.
"Some Cubans don't consider themselves Hispanic," said Amandi, the Democratic pollster. Now, says Republican pollster Dario Moreno, Trump has made immigration a "symbolic issue" for Cubans. "Anti-immigration rhetoric is taken as anti-Hispanic," Moreno said.
Clinton sees an opening. She's recently launched Spanish-language ads featuring the endorsement of Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American Republican and commerce secretary for President George W. Bush. In Spanish, Gutierrez calls Trump dangerous and says, "For me, it's country first, and then party."
One of the GOP's top financiers, billionaire Mike Fernandez, called Trump an "abysmally unfit candidate" and endorsed Clinton.
Tejera, the broadcaster, says Gutierrez and Fernandez "won't move one vote," but their public backing of a Democratic nominee is striking in Cuban-American politics.
For decades, most Cubans, particularly those who fled the island early in Castro's time, have been Republican. Some of those hardliners are critical of President Barack Obama's decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Havana and to press Congress to lift the trade embargo instituted under President John Kennedy.
Yet younger Cuban-Americans aren't as hard line or simply don't vote exclusively on "the Cuba question."
"We're starting to see them think and vote like everybody else, not be driven by a single issue," says Moreno, the Republican pollster and a professor at Miami's Florida International University.
Clinton, meanwhile, backs Obama's Cuba policy. Trump generally backed it, as well, until a campaign stop in Miami on Friday, where he said he'd reverse Obama's action unless the Castro government granted more freedoms to Cuban citizens.
Cuban-Americans in Florida essentially split between Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney in 2012.
To be clear, Clinton doesn't have a lock on Cuban-American votes Trump may lose. Amandi notes that Clinton's Spanish-language media presence began months later than Obama's general election efforts.
Tejera dismissed Clinton's south Florida outreach as "meeting with the usual Democratic officials and donors" and perhaps the highest-profile Republicans who can't abide Trump.
She also will contend with Cuban-Americans' enthusiasm for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is running for re-election after his failed presidential campaign.
Trump backers hope Rubio's popularity as the son of Cuban refugees will reinforce Republican loyalties, benefiting the presidential nominee.
Suarez, though, warns it's just as likely those voters will see Rubio as an easy out: They can abandon Trump and still call themselves party loyalists, like always.
"A presidential election of this magnitude," Suarez said, "the electorate is going to make up its mind all on its own."
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