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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

‘Republicans have had the upper hand’: Florida Latino voters are unresponsive to Democrats’ appeals

Lack of mobilization could pull a progressive demographic to the right

Signaled by the election of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, a slew of right-wing populists have assumed the presidency across Latin America. Argentina’s Javier Milei in 2023 and El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele are the most recent entries into this trend, while Chile’s José Antonio Kast popularity only increases for the 2025 election.

Across Latin America, it seems left-leaning parties have failed to capture the popular imagination in the way Milei, Bukele and Bolsonaro have. 

The reason for such support recently has been, above all, safety, said María de la Cruz, a 25-year-old UF Latin American studies master’s student. She said her family in Michoacán, Mexico is most concerned about security and economic stability. 

“I feel like people at times tend to just not really completely understand how markets work or how the economy is driven… we're not taking into consideration that there is more to the conversation of taxes and inflation,” de la Cruz said. “A lot of it just tends to be mostly in hopes of better handling or managing the current violence that's going on as well.”

The effects of these developments in Latin America ripple to the United States. Both Milei and Bukele spoke at CPAC 2024 to rally U.S. Latinos in support of the Republican Party. Part of this push stems from Republicans trying to seize the general ambivalence of Latino voters toward both parties.

“From interacting with other students that are Latin American, it seems that there's still a division in terms of not knowing who to vote for,” de la Cruz said. “They're just coming down to not being satisfied with the current administration, but not knowing where else to go as well.”

For de la Cruz, the biggest issues for the Latino community are protecting immigrant rights and improving their healthcare access.

“This negative view about immigrants continues a domino effect, creating more bills similar to what was passed last year that are contributing to the racial profiling of people,” de la Cruz said. “And also informing about health disparities that are impacting a lot of our community members as well.”

Daniel Smith, a UF political science professor and researcher of institutional and electoral politics, said Latinos at times have skewed attitudes on this topic. 

While Latinos generally vote in support of policies that welcome and support immigrants, longer-term Latinos tend to vote with a “close the door after me” mentality. Smith points to the current influx of Haitian migrants as illustrative of the racial dynamic that separates old and new waves of migrants. 

“Republicans have had the upper hand in playing that close the border card very effectively, even among Americans who have been naturalized,” Smith said. “It's been an effective strategy so far, and certainly, it's not creating backlash among the naturalized citizen population here in Florida.”

Part of the Republican strength in this regard comes from the Democrats’ lack of existing power in state government, Smith said. 

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“The Democratic Party lacks statewide elected officials and is in the minority in both legislative chambers,” Smith said. “Its representation in Congress has been diminished because of gerrymandering.”

Barring institutional restraints, the Democratic party has simply failed to mobilize the typically younger Latino population in Florida.

“I still see age as being much more of a driver than ethnicity on a lot of these issues,” Smith said. “Younger Hispanics are more left of center than older Hispanics. And that's general across all these different national origin groups. The more important issue is engagement and mobilization.”

Smith gave the example of South Florida Cuban Americans, who he said have the highest voter turnout among all racial, ethnic or national origin groups. The rates for Cuban American Republicans are even higher, with voter engagement that rivals older white Republicans in The Villages. Central Florida Puerto Ricans, by contrast, have among the lowest voter turnout.

“So is it that they're more conservative leaning? I don't think so,” Smith said. “You need to have that engagement first in order to be able to express your opinions on various policies, and certainly the Democratic Party has not done a very good job of messaging on a variety of issues.”

The engagement issue is not a uniquely Floridian one.  Smith said 31% of Latinos who were registered Democrats did not participate in the 2020 general election. This compares to only 21% of Latinos registered Republicans who did not vote. The rate climbs to 40% among Latinos who did not register with any party.

“That's a huge gap,” Smith said. “We're talking hundreds or thousands of votes lost for either political party that can tap in to those potential voters. That is going to be a problem largely for Democrats because no party affiliates, when they do turn out to vote, tend to vote for Democratic candidates.”

Some of the key issues that are popular among young Latino voters are the decriminalization of marijuana and protecting rights for abortion, Smith said, both of which will appear on the 2024 ballot. 

These points are key not only in the U.S., but also across the Latin American nations where immigrants originate from. William Ferraz de Santana, a 29-year-old UF sports management Ph.D. student, notes how important these topics are in his native Brazil.

“The marijuana is not legal in Brazil, as it is in some states in the U.S.,” de Santana said. “As in the U.S., we have a legal abortion for women who would have been raped or for a fetus who was not developing correctly ideally. So we have legal abortion only in this case, but it's not a free choice for women.”

The reason for this, de Santana said, is intense political polarization.

“People are very divided into two groups, the progressives versus the conservatives,” de Santana said. “So [Bolsonaro] is always trying to keep a dialogue with people from the church, is trying to keep a dialogue with the army. The army and religious people are very strong and very against the left-wing.” 

De Santana also remarked on the similar timelines of the Trump and Bolsonaro presidencies.

“Trump was elected, Bolsonaro was elected, Trump wasn't reelected and Bolsonaro wasn't reelected,” De Santana said. “So it's pretty similar.” 

Both presidents were also accused of casting doubts on the democratic process, as well as instigating their supporters to attack their respective capitals after losing their election. Bolsonaro is currently barred from running for the Brazilian presidency until 2030

“Usually what happens in the U.S., Brazil tends to follow,” de Santana said. 

Contact Eluney Gonzalez at Follow him on X @Eluney_G.

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