Miami Trumps Biden

In the recent US presidential election, one key swing state where Donald Trump performed better than he did four years ago was Florida – especially in its most heavily Hispanic sections. How did he do it, and how can President-elect Joe Biden and the Democratic Party recover this crucial voter base?

Ricardo Hausmann, José Morales-Arilla

CAMBRIDGE – Joe Biden achieved a decisive victory in the US presidential election, beating Donald Trump by over six million votes nationwide. 

Powered by suburban voters, especially women, the Democratic candidate took back Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, which Trump won in 2016, flipped Arizona and Georgia, and garnered 306 of the 538 Electoral College votes.

But one key swing state where Trump performed better than he did four years ago was Florida – especially in its most heavily Hispanic sections. The growth in Trump’s margin in Florida between 2016 and 2020 is fully accounted for by his gain in Miami.

While Biden achieved important inroads elsewhere in Florida, in Miami – a city that accounts for more than 10% of the state’s voting population – the Democrats saw their advantage shrink to just seven percentage points, down from Hillary Clinton’s 30-point lead in 2016. 

Whereas support for the Republican Party in Miami grew by 60%, Democrats got 1% fewer votes there than in 2016, even as state-wide turnout increased by 20% and the Democrats gained 21% more votes than in 2016 elsewhere in Florida.

What explains this disparity? 

From the start of the 2020 presidential campaign, Trump sought to demonize the Democratic Party by associating it with the most radical elements of its progressive wing, whose positions – defund the police, open borders, single-payer health insurance – would have rendered the party unelectable in much of the country. 

More important, Trump identified the Democratic Party with socialism, using Venezuela as the poster child of what socialism is in reality. Trump’s strategy failed in much of the country, because the Democrats’ nominee, Biden, had disavowed the progressives’ preferred policies.

Miami was a different story. Deservedly known as the “the capital of Latin America,” Latinos in Miami remain relatively engaged with the politics of their home countries. Venezuela is a salient issue in many Latin American countries, as well as in Spain, given the international repercussions of the country’s collapse, which is many times worse than any national crisis in the region’s modern history.

Once a model democracy with a thriving free press, where incumbent governments lost elections and peacefully handed over power six times in 40 years, Venezuela has devolved into a kleptocratic dictatorship. 

More than 90% of its people have fallen into poverty, and the collapse in supplies of gasoline, cooking gas, electricity, running water, and medical services has driven over five million people (15% of the population) to flee, many by walking huge distances and enduring indescribable suffering.

It is easy to underestimate the cultural and political shock of the Venezuelan collapse on neighboring and nearby countries, including Miami, where Venezuelans were remembered as wealthy tourists but suddenly arrived as traumatized exiles. Venezuelans became an unavoidable cautionary tale of the perils of extreme-left policies – as has been meticulously documented in Colombia.

That “socialism” is associated with both Venezuela and Sweden attests to the imprecision of language. Progressives should – and largely do – repudiate the Venezuelan regime: the United Nations Human Rights Council has declared that the Chavista regime has committed crimes against humanity, and the International Criminal Court has stated its belief that crimes under its jurisdiction were committed in Venezuela. 

If anything, the regime’s cult of personality, criminalization of dissent, flagrant human-rights violations, and blatant abuse of political and electoral institutions are characteristics shared by far-right populists.

But this strategy of political polarization remains remarkably effective in Spanish-speaking countries, where right-wing campaigns use it to paint any candidate or politician to their left as “Socialista” or “Castro-Chavista.”And it was effective in Miami, too, with Venezuelan arrivals acting as witnesses for the prosecution.

When Venezuela becomes a salient issue in electoral campaigns, it usually does so in two very different ways: a candidate’s plans to deal with the Chavista regime and the refugee crisis, and whether a candidate is more or less likely to take the country down the Venezuelan path. 

While Venezuelan migrants care relatively more about the former, locals care almost exclusively about the latter. However, given how grotesque the Venezuelan situation is, lacking a principled and uncompromising stance on how to address it concedes the moral high ground and exposes a candidate to being associated with it.

How, then, should center-left candidates navigate the accusation that they will take the country in the direction of Venezuela? The Nobel laureate Michael Spence introduced the concept of signaling as a solution to credibility problems. 

A signal is effective if it is prohibitively costly for the kind of person from whom you are trying to differentiate yourself, even if it is also costly, but less so, to you. In this setting, a good signal is one that is prohibitively costly for a true ally of Chavismo.

Spence helps explain why Biden’s strategy was not successful in Miami. Biden did propose Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans fleeing from Chavismo, and rightly accused Trump and Republicans of failing to offer it. 

But while TPS is great for helping Venezuelan refugees in the US, it cannot help Venezuelans recover the home they lost, and Biden’s failure to commit strongly to a rapid democratic transition in Venezuela made it easier for voters to believe that he was not so outraged, after all.

The election is over, but the catastrophe in Venezuela is not going away. On the contrary, on top of the 2014-19 collapse, the International Monetary Fund expects Venezuela’s GDP to shrink by 25% this year alone – more than twice as bad as the next worst country in the region. The humanitarian and refugee crisis will worsen on Biden’s watch, making it an early foreign policy test of his presidency.

Biden has the chance to use domestic bipartisan support and an “America is back” cooperative relationship with traditional allies, especially in Europe, to pressure the Venezuelan regime until it accepts free and fair presidential elections. 

If Biden helps save Venezuela, it will do enormous good both there and in a region that has been burdened by the refugee crisis. Incidentally, such a signal would also disarm a manipulative right-wing strategy that delivered Florida to the Republican Party.

Ricardo Hausmann, a former minister of planning of Venezuela and former chief economist at the Inter-American Development Bank, is a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and Director of the Harvard Growth Lab.

José Morales-Arilla is a PhD candidate in public policy at Harvard University. 

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