MIAMI — Thousands of supporters of President Trump packed the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday evening, as he officially began his campaign for re-election. Florida was a shrewd choice: Republicans know that the largest swing state is key to securing the White House for another four years.
“We’re out in the lead right now with money, organization, in every way,” Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, told reporters in Miami last month. Republicans see Latinos as their path to victory. That’s why the president named a Cuban-American to lead his state operation. And his administration’s sanctions against Venezuela and restrictions on Cuba are more about winning Florida than anything else.
Democrats, on the other hand, are habitually late. They assume demography is destiny and think their policies speak for themselves. Neither Joe Biden nor Pete Buttigieg mentioned Cuba or Venezuela when they attended fund-raisers in Miami last month, crucial issues to South Florida Latinos.
I run a voter mobilization organization called the New Florida Majority and I have long known that independent progressive groups do a better job of the nuts-and-bolts of politicking here — canvassing, voter registration, organizing — than the Democratic Party.
If the Democrats are serious about winning in 2020, they need to more meaningfully invest in organizing. And they should target people who have long been ignored by both parties, so-called low-propensity voters. In fact, these voters determined the outcome of the Democratic primary for governor in 2018 and brought the general election for that office down to the wire.
The state is trending in the Democrats’ favor. They lost the races for governor and senator in 2018 by razor-thin margins — less than half a percentage point. Democrats now hold the largest minority share of our statehouse since 1997; they picked up two congressional seats in 2018; and they flipped two more counties in the hotly contested Interstate 4 corridor that runs between Tampa and Orlando. A new constitutional amendment could mean up to 1.4 million people with felony convictions have the right to vote.
And the Republicans have already revealed their playbook during the governor’s race in 2018: Make it harder for black people, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, to cast their ballots. And aggressively recruit support from Latinos who now make up one in six of Florida’s voters.
It may be working. While a majority of Latinos voted for Andrew Gillum last year, nearly half cast their ballots for Gov. Ron DeSantis. That’s true even as Latinos have increasingly registered as Democrats over the past 10 years or with no party affiliation.
Democratic outreach lagged in 2018 partly because the party was slow to embrace Mr. Gillum and his bold platform after he upset the establishment in the primaries. And the party wrongly assumed Mr. Trump’s repugnant anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric would do the work for it. But fear does not mobilize voters of color; you cannot scare people into engagement.
Democrats in Florida desperately need a bold, progressive agenda and to build the kind of relationships that can’t be forged overnight. That’s starting to happen — by an independent multiracial movement redefining politics in the state.
For the past three election cycles, this group has invested in year-round organizing, targeting people who have never received a call or mailer by any candidate because they are seen as less likely to vote. But when no one is actively seeking your vote, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Black, Latino and young voters are not casting ballots at the same rates as their white and older counterparts, and their voter registration rates lag behind. But we’re closing these gaps and many Latinos are in fact more progressive than we give them credit for.
The strategy of expanding the electorate has paid off. Two million more voters turned out to cast a ballot in the 2018 midterm than had been expected. That’s because in 2018 a coalition known as Win Justice, which my group was a part of, knocked on more than 1.5 million doors in Florida.
Around half of the Latinos who cast their ballots in Florida in 2018 were considered “low propensity” and unlikely to vote. Of the people we turned out, 78 percent had not voted in the 2014 midterm. We engaged 460,000 new voters.
We toured Latino and Haitian media, talking about the importance of the elections. We printed door literature and bought advertising in English, Spanish and Creole, the three most frequently spoken languages in Florida. We hosted barbecues and karaoke nights. But most important, we continued to do this work after the election.
The Democrats who want to apply an antiquated formula to 2020 are ignoring what happened during the midterms. Instead, Democrats should conduct voter registration drives now. They need to learn the nuances of Florida’s diverse black and Latino communities and build relationships with community leaders. The party must communicate with people of color early and often, explaining in multiple languages how it will address issues people care about like health care, stagnant wages and deportation bills — not just how it will defeat Mr. Trump. The advertising campaign in black-owned newspapers and the Spanish language radio program the Florida Democratic Party recently announced is a good start.
The president made his familiar, divisive pitch at his campaign rally this week. But Republicans are holding on for dear life, even with one of the best-funded state Republican parties, and with the massive infrastructure for year-round engagement that comes with controlling the state legislature and governor’s mansion for some 20 years.
Too often, discussions on civic engagement get reduced to transactions — will this voter deliver for the candidate? But voters in Florida are flipping that formula, demanding candidates deliver for them. The Democrats should step up to the challenge during the debates in Miami next week. Florida’s voters will be watching.