Trump Makes a Final Push to Capture Latino Voters in Florida

The president is dangling a Supreme Court nomination and disaster aid to get the votes of Florida’s Latinos, but will it work?

Barbara Lagoa, a Cuban American federal judge from Florida whom Trump is currently considering nominating to the Supreme Court. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is going the extra mile to capture Latino votes in Florida, hoping that the potential appointment of a conservative Supreme Court justice of Hispanic descent in combination with a series of key policy decisions affecting the community will earn him enough goodwill to help him win the state again.

Trump is currently considering nominating Barbara Lagoa, a Cuban American federal judge from Florida, to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the U.S. Supreme Court. A dark horse in the nomination process, she doesn’t have the name recognition or the same prized anti-abortion track record as some of the other judges in the shortlist. The 52-year-old also only became a federal judge when she was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in December 2019. But in Lagoa, Trump has an opportunity to sway Cuban and other Latino voters in the Sunshine State; she would be the second Latina justice in the nation’s history.

“The Latino for Trump arm of the campaign is just being relentless,” says Geraldo Cadava, a Northwestern University historian and author of The Hispanic Republican. “These are meant to be signals to Latino voters in Florida and other parts of the country that they are valuable members of the administration.” Cadava also explains that Lagoa’s potential nomination is on par with the actions of previous Republican presidents, who’ve appointed Latinos to high-level positions as a way to make the community feel included. Some examples include President Richard Nixon appointing Romana Acosta Bañuelos as U.S. treasurer and President Ronald Reagan nominating Lauro Cavazo as secretary of education, which made him the first Latino Cabinet secretary. The Reagan nomination also coincidentally took place in the months leading up to the 1988 election.

Lagoa’s nomination would be part of Trump’s larger push to Florida’s Latinos. He has been visiting Florida more frequently and held a campaign rally in Jacksonville on Thursday evening, followed by a “Latinos for Trump” roundtable discussion in Miami on Friday. In August, top officials said the administration was working toward rebuilding Puerto Rico’s pharmaceutical industry. “China FIRED, Puerto Rico HIRED!” tweeted Peter Navarro, who advises Trump on trade and manufacturing policy. It’s unclear what efforts are being made beyond meetings with industry leaders, but the Trump campaign has publicized it anyway.

Earlier this month, the White House also announced it would give $13 billion in disaster aid to the U.S. territory for recovery efforts related to Hurricane Maria, more than three years after the Category 4 storm devastated the island. Besides throwing paper towels at islanders and denying that 3,000 U.S. citizens died after the hurricane, Trump has previously complained about sending federal funds to the island and has misrepresented how much Puerto Ricans have actually received in disaster aid. Some progressive advocates and Democratic elected officials see this latest announcement of disaster aid as a cynical ploy to attract Puerto Rican voters who fled to the Sunshine State and make up about a third of its Latino voting bloc.

“These are meant to be signals to Latino voters in Florida and other parts of the country that they are valuable members of the administration.”

Latinos represent the 2020 electorate’s largest minority group — and there’s a reliable chunk of this voting bloc that has supported GOP nominees in the past. Around 30% of Latinos have voted for the Republican candidate every presidential election since Nixon was reelected 48 years ago. Trump captured about 28% of the Latino vote in 2016, and polls show him on track to do the same this election. His campaign is working furiously to help him break that ceiling: Cuban Americans in Florida have historically been one of the Republican Party’s most loyal constituencies, and activating them would definitely benefit Trump and down-ballot races. Puerto Ricans typically lean Democratic but helped elect Republican former Florida Gov. Rick Scott to the U.S. Senate in the 2018 midterm elections.

Florida will play a crucial role in the 2020 election. If Trump can win as many or more of Florida’s Latinos than he did four years ago, it could deliver him the state. But without Florida, he has no path to winning the Electoral College, Cadava theorizes. “It’s a critical state for him,” he says. “If he loses Florida, it’ll be also a sign of how he is doing everywhere.” A Trump victory in Florida (where he currently has a slight polling advantage) would make Biden’s path to the White House that much narrower, forcing him to try to put together an Electoral College majority from other equally difficult-to-win battleground states.

Despite Trump’s push to draw more voters, it could be too late to bring Biden voters into the fold, argues Jessica L. Lavariega Monforti, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at California Lutheran University. “This is where both parties are not paying attention: Latinos are issue-based voters. They want to know, at the end of the day, what are you doing about health care, about education, about housing,” Lavariega Monforti says. “The symbolic politics will move people around the edges but not a significant number of Latino voters.” In her opinion, what both campaigns should be doing is focus on how to activate voters who support them or deactivate their opponent’s voters. “People will not say, ‘Biden has a Black running mate, so I’ll vote for Trump.’ If that’s a big issue to them, they’ll say, ‘I won’t vote for Trump, but I’ll stay home,’” she says.

Trump’s dangling of Lagoa as a potential nominee and his new rhetoric around Puerto Rico could tap into that type of activation and push fence-sitters into taking action. But with fewer than 40 days until Election Day, it’s a Herculean task.

Award-winning journalist covering politics, gender, race, activism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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