It’s a tried a tested Republican strategy in elections going back decades, call your Democrat opponent a “socialist.”
Even so, rarely has it been used so intensely, and with such vehemence, as in the 2020 campaign.
“This election will decide whether we save the American dream or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny,” said President Donald Trump at the party’s national convention last month. He also called Biden “a Trojan horse for socialism.”
So, why all the fiery talk about socialism? The answer is Florida and its population of roughly 1.2 million Cuban Americans who either fled communist rule in Cuba or are descended from exiles.
While they only make up five percent of the state’s population, a majority of them have consistently voted Republican and in a close election could be a deciding factor. Then, there are also millions more Hispanics from Central America, Venezuela and Colombia, where the word socialism also conjures up images of political strife.
“There are literally millions of voters in Florida that, directly or indirectly, have been impacted and traumatized by the horrors of totalitarian, socialist governments in Latin America,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami pollster who has worked for Democratic party campaigns.
“That said, the Republicans are weaponizing the word ‘socialism’ and creating straw man socialists. They don’t exist anywhere except in their own imagination, in their alternative reality. It’s 21st century electoral McCarthyism,” he added, referring to a notorious campaign against alleged communists in the U.S. in the 1950s.
But the Trump campaign and key Florida Republicans disagree. “It’s not a strategy, it’s the truth,” said Yali Nunez, the Republican Party’s Hispanic spokesperson in Washington who fled Cuba with her family in 2003. “The Americans born here have no idea. You have to have lived it and seen it to know how bad it is,” she added.
Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, are especially aware of the dangers, said Nunez. “They have seen Trump taking action and standing up to socialism while Biden did nothing when he was in the White House,” she added.
Biden's lead slipping
Whatever the truth to the allegation, it seems to be sticking. Biden maintained a small lead in every Florida poll released throughout the summer, but the race appears to have tightened in recent weeks, according to the most recent polls. And a drop-off for Biden among Hispanics in Miami-Dade county – the state’s most populous county and home to the largest concentration of Cuban-Americans - could be the reason, according to a poll by Bendixen & Amandi.
In fact, Trump leads Biden with Miami-Dade Latinos, 47 to 46 percent, possibly the only county in the country where Trump is favored by minority voters. But among Cuban-Americans Trump holds a whopping 38-point lead, 68%-30%. Among the remainder of Hispanics, Biden did far better, leading 58%-32%.
The Bendixen & Amandi poll came days after another survey from the Democratic firm Equis Research showed Biden underperforming in Florida among Hispanic voters in general. In that poll, Biden led Trump 53-37 percent among Hispanic voters statewide.
Trump is so unpopular with other voters in Miami-Dade that the same poll found Biden ahead 38% to 55% among all voters. But Trump’s goal isn’t to win the county, rather to limit the margin as much as possible to improve his chances of winning statewide.
For example, in 2016, he lost Miami-Dade to Hillary Clinton by 30 points — about 290,000 votes — but won the state by 1.2% of the total vote.
Florida's outsized importance
It’s hard to understate the importance of Florida. The nation’s largest swing state, it has 29 electoral college votes, more than 10% of the total – 270 - required to secure victory. Only California and Texas have more. The state’s 5.5 million Hispanics comprise almost 26.5 percent of the state’s total population, though only 16-17% of registered voters.
Biden supporters are pushing back against the notion that he is a socialist, saying any impartial look at his record shows the assertion is absurd.
“It couldn’t be anything further from the truth. There’s not a socialist bone in his body,” said Felice Gorordo, the son of a Cuban American exile who worked in the White House under President Barack Obama, and was deeply involved in the effort to restore relations with Cuba in 2015.
Biden himself pushed back hard against the designation the socialist label and is due to visit Florida next week. His vice presidential running mate, Kamala Harris, was in the state on Thursday. "Ask yourself: Do I look and like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?" Biden said in a speech in Pittsburgh last week. "I want a safe America, safe from covid, safe from crime and looting, safe from racially motivated violence, safe from bad cops,” he added.
Gorordo said the Biden campaign was seeking to “reintroduce” Biden to voters to make his views on Cuba and Venezuela absolutely clear. The campaign has undertaken a massive $280 million advertising campaign to educate voters about Biden’s record and his platform.
He believes Cuban American voters could still be persuaded. “They were with us in 2008 and 2012 and we lost some of them in 2016. They are swingable. They are moveable,” he said, noting that Obama’s healthcare policy, known as ‘Obamacare,’ was popular with low income Cuban American families.
After decades of generational shift among younger Cuban Americans in favor of Democrats, the tide appears to have turned in recent years. Cuba’s failure to open up its communist-run system after Obama’s overture in 2014, plus Havana’s support for the brutally repressive regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, appears to have halted that trend in its tracks.
Equis Research, a Democratic polling firm, has shown Trump’s job approval rising among Cuba-Americans since 2016, in response to his anti-socialism message, potentially winning him an extra 100,000 votes in 2020.
Trump was initially viewed with suspicion in 2016 after he belittled the other presidential contenders, including Florida’s U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American from Miami.
But he turned that around in a series of visits to Miami to talk about socialism, including his 2017 trip to Little Havana to sign a presidential memo toughening the government’s stance on Cuba’s communist government.
Altering the perception
“President Trump has unique ability to brand people with campaigns,” said Matt Terrill, who ran Rubio’s presidential campaign and now works for Firehouse Strategies, a corporate consulting firm in Washington DC..
“ The tactic here is about perception and painting Joe Biden as on the far fringes of his party,” he added, saying that the Trump campaign is seeking to counter the image presented by Democrats of their candidate as a moderate who can appeal to a broad coalition of voters, just as Obama did.
“Politics is not just about attacking your opponent on their weaknesses. Often times it’s also about attacking your opponent on their strengths, and the strength of the Biden campaign has been trying to project, at least in their view, that they can reach a broad scope of voters out there.”
The Trump campaign has also criticized Biden’s sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice protests, with rioting by anarchists and antifascists in the streets of a handful of U.S. cities, notably Portland, Oregon, Kenosha, Wisconsin, and New York.
Curiously, for all the talk about socialism in Miami, the city has seen almost no violent protests besides one night of vandalism against police cars in June.
To reinforce their argument, Republicans claim the Democratic party has been “hijacked” by left-wing figures such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who both self-describe as ‘democratic socialists.’
“Biden is completely controlled by the left in the party,” said Nunez. “ There is a saying in Spanish, tell me who you hang with and I’ll tell you who you are,” said Nunez, noting that Biden had welcomed the support of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, while also picking Harris as his running mate, with a liberal voting record.
The response of Democrats is to point out that Sanders was heavily defeated by Biden in the Democratic primary, a clear sign that the progressive wing of the party does not hold the upper hand.
Trump has also consistently sided with Russian president Vladimir Putin, a communist-trained former intelligent agent, as well as entertaining China’s chairman Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in 2017, and holding failed talks with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un. Trump has called Kim a “great leader” adding that they exchanged “beautiful letters” and “fell in love.”
What is socialism?
Part of the problem is semantics, and what people mean when they use the word socialism. By definition, socialism is about a greater degree of state control of the economy, placing a higher priority on the general well-being and workers’ rights, rather than corporate gain and individual benefits.
European socialism, as practiced in Spain, France and Great Britain, offers a mixed economy and respect for civil rights and free and fair elections. But the Trump campaign has sought to link Democrats to a warped version of socialism as practiced in Cuba and Venezuela, with far greater limits on the private sector and civil rights, as well as restricting democracy by banning opposition political parties.
“It’s so hyperbolically absurd. The policies Democrats advocate; healthcare, workplace safety, climate change and not arming teachers. Those aren’t even close to radical socialism,” said Jose Javier Rodriguez, a 42-year-old Cuban-American who is running for state senator.
“Those aren’t the things my parents’ generation fled from in Cuba. They didn’t come here because of moderate economic proposals. They were fleeing authoritarianism and confiscation of private property,” he added.
He went on: “In fact, Trump looks a lot more like what they left behind,” pointing to the president’s attacks on the media and the judiciary, as well as his lies, nepotism and misuse of his office for personal gain.
Some Democrats worry that the anti-socialist rhetoric is out of control – especially on Spanish-language radio in Miami - and could throw the Cuban exile community back into its violent past when supposed Castro sympathizers were car bombed.
Radio airwaves these days are filled with talk of Venezuela as well as Cuba, a reflection of the latest wave of exiles from South America, though it’s estimated that Florida only has about 60-70,000 registered voters from that country, according to U.S. Census data.
Republicans like to highlight Trump’s tough action on Venezuela. While they are a growing force politically, “the reality is that most of the Venezuelans on the radio bashing Biden are not citizens,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a political scientists at Florida International University (FIU) who also does polling work.
Gamarra said his research had found that Venezuelan-Americans were evenly split, with a slight advantage to Biden and less than one third backing Trump, while another third were undecided. “Some are tired of Trump because he reminds them of Chavez. In the end, he has done nothing for them,” said Gamarra, who noted that U.S. sanctions had failed to dislodge Maduro.
But he warned that the Biden campaign’s support for immigration protection, or TPS, for undocumented Venezuelans, was not a vote-winning strategy. “TPS doesn’t benefit those who are already citizens. And how much do citizens really care about those who are not?” he said.
Polls show Trump doing far poorly with Puerto Rican voters, Florida’s largest Hispanic population, who make up about a third of the state’s Hispanic voters. That is in large part due to his disparaging comments about the island and his failure to respond quickly during Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Despite sanctioning some top officials in the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega, the Trump administration has little to show for its policy there either.
Miami’s most visible and outspoken Nicaraguan-American, Ana Navarro, a former Republican who is now a CNN commentator, has issued a barrage of tweets attacking Trump’s authoritarian style while praising Biden for being “a decent human being.”
But election experts know that in a close race efforts to smear opponents as don’t need to alter many minds to make a difference. Florida has a history of narrow victory margins, including the 2000 election which was decided by only 537 votes.
“It’s cynical and immoral, but it only needs to work on the margins to be successful,” said Amandi.