US election 2020: Could Biden's Latino problem lose him the White House?

By Luis Fajardo
BBC Monitoring Miami

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Image caption,
President Trump's tough rhetoric against the regime in Havana is popular with Cuban Americans

Few observers of US politics will be surprised to hear that recent opinion polls show a tightening presidential race in Florida.

This crucial swing state is used to dramatic electoral disputes, a result of its extreme political polarisation.

With the Florida vote often divided almost exactly in half between Democrats and Republicans, election outcomes may depend on small variations of support for either candidate among the multiple groups of the state's vast and diverse electorate.

This year, three of these groups are attracting particular attention. Voting patterns among Cuban-Americans, senior citizens and former felons could well define who wins in Florida, and have an outsized influence on deciding who will be in the White House next year.

1. Trump advances with Miami Cubans

Many residents of Miami, Florida's largest metropolitan area, will have noticed a recent uptick in the number of Spanish-language ads from Joe Biden's campaign showing up in their computer or TV screens.

The barrage of Democratic ads is part of a late-game push to win Hispanic votes in this part of the state. But to some observers, this effort comes across as too little, too late.

"This is something the Democrats should have been doing months and years ago, not days ago", Miami pollster and Democratic strategist Fernand Amandi tells the BBC.

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Image caption,
Kamala Harris courts the Hispanic vote at a restaurant in Doral, Florida

A survey published in early September by his company, Bendixen & Amandi, shows President Donald Trump's campaign making inroads among citizens of Cuban heritage, who make up around one third of Miami-Dade county's population.

According to the poll, 68% of Cuban Americans in Miami say they would vote in 2020 for the president and only 30% for Biden. In 2012, nearly half of their votes had gone for Barack Obama, and in 2016, 41% of them voted for Hillary Clinton.

On Tuesday, Biden visited the Puerto Rican enclave of Kissimmee, near Orlando, promising economic aid for the Caribbean island and even playing a crowd-pleasing few seconds of Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi's global mega-hit Despacito.

Polls still show an overall Biden advantage in Miami-Dade county. The Bendixen-Amandi survey presents him as being ahead of Trump by 55% to 38%.

But Amandi points out that Biden can't afford to just win in Miami. He needs to win big. A narrow margin in favour of Biden here means Trump would need a smaller advantage in the rural and overwhelmingly Republican north of the state to obtain an overall victory in Florida. So conceding even some Miami Latino votes in Miami can become a big problem for Biden.

Some might be surprised by Trump's standing with Latinos here, particularly after his controversial statements about Mexican undocumented immigrants. In fact, Cuban Americans have tended to vote Republican since the 1960s, an outlier among the mostly Democratic-leaning US Hispanic vote.

Trump has also campaigned hard in this region, frequently meeting with Cuban-American leaders. Many of these voters, whose family history was defined by their fleeing Communist Cuba, have been moved by the Trump campaign's characterisation of Democrats as extremist left-wing radicals.

"The fearmongering they are doing around socialism and accusing all of the Democrats of being quasi-Communists, apparently is having an impact", Amandi told the BBC.

Florida's nearly 5.8 million-strong Hispanic community is itself becoming more diverse. Democrats hope that in the future, a growing Puerto Rican community in Orlando might counter the Cuban Republican bastion in Miami.

But among the more than 1 million Puerto Ricans of Florida, most of them are relatively recent arrivals to the US mainland, and many still show little allegiance to either Democrats or Republicans.

2. The pandemic may convince older people to back Biden

Nearly 20% of Floridians are 65 or over, according to the US Census Bureau. Maine is the only state with more senior citizens as a percentage of total population.

GOP presidential candidates often campaign in places like The Villages, a sprawling, affluent retirement community near Orlando, where they have traditionally been offered a warm welcome.

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Image caption,
Older voters at "The Villages" hold a pro-Biden parade in golf carts

This summer, however, local media carried stories of Biden supporters holding golf cart parades to compete with the campaign events traditionally staged by their Republican rivals in The Villages.

Polls suggest that the pandemic, and the way the Trump administration has responded to the emergency, may be eroding the Republican's position among older voters.

An NBC/Marist poll released on 8 September showed Biden besting Trump by 49% to 48% among seniors in Florida.

Exit polls in 2016 showed Trump won this age group by 57% to 40%.

3. Convicts voting for first time could help Democrats

On 11 September, a ruling by a federal court of appeals made it harder, if not impossible, for many of Florida's 1.4 million former felons to vote in the November election.

The judicial ruling has powerful electoral consequences in this state.

"A lot of these former felons are African American - around 90% of the time African Americans register with the Democratic party and vote for Democratic candidates", Professor Kathryn DePalo-Gould, an expert at Miami's Florida International University, told the BBC in an interview last March.

Until 2018, Florida was one of a handful of states that imposed lifetime voting bans on felons. A statewide referendum in that year overturned the prohibition.

But shortly after, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a bill adding the requirement that in order to vote, former felons had to first pay off all the monetary obligations imposed as part of their sentences, which could reach thousands of dollars.

Despite earlier legal challenges by civil rights groups, the court of appeals ruling of 11 September decided that the measure would remain in place.

The Democrats might now obtain the vote of many ex-felons who manage to pay off their monetary obligations before November, but most likely in far less numbers than they once expected.

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