Millions of Floridians have already voted by mail. Millions more will begin voting in person on Monday when early voting centers open across the state. But with the election well under way in a must-win state, President Donald Trump’s campaign is still pushing Hispanic voters off the fence and toward the Republican ticket in left-leaning Miami-Dade County.
In an indication of how important Florida’s most populous county is to Trump’s reelection — and the opportunity it still represents for the campaign when it comes to Miami Latinos — Vice President Mike Pence traveled to the edge of the Everglades Thursday to deliver an anti-socialism-themed speech in front of the Memorial Cubano in Tamiami Park.
The vice president — who is also co-chairman of the Latinos For Trump campaign coalition — delivered a speech about the pandemic, court-packing and religion, but returned again and again to condemnation of Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s record on Latin America and praise for Trump’s hard-line stance against the region’s strongmen.
“With Joe Biden as vice president, America appeased the Castro regime,” Pence told a crowd of several hundred spread out on folding chairs in a field of grass, slamming Barack Obama’s 2016 trip to Cuba. “When the last president went back to Cuba, he literally stood hand in hand with Raúl Castro.”
Trump has notably improved his standing in Miami-Dade County since 2016, when he won Florida by 112,000 votes despite being blown out by then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in South Florida by about 300,000 votes. He still trails Biden in Miami-Dade, according to polls, but has been far more competitive, due largely to his consolidation of conservative-leaning Cuban Americans.
Pence’s visit Thursday — ahead of a Trump fundraiser in Doral and televised town hall near downtown — sought to cement that support, with the vice president delivering his speech from a stage set in front of a memorial designed as a tall three-dimensional Cuban flag in a field just south of Florida Internationals University’s West Miami-Dade campus. Before Pence arrived, José Tomas Zayas, a 75-year-old Cuban exile, said he supports Trump because he has made the economy better and is trying to improve humanitarian conditions in Cuba.
“He’s one of us. And since he’s one of us, we have to fight for him,” he said.
But there were also clear overtures to non-Cuban, Hispanic voters — a swing demographic that often breaks late in the election. Speakers at Thursday’s event included Ernesto Ackerman, a Venezuela native, who spoke ahead of Pence, and Fabio Andrade, a businessman from Colombia who also participated in a September roundtable with the president at Trump’s Doral golf resort.
As Pence ran late to his own event, a few hundred people sat in chairs spaced out on a field of grass in front of a stage adorned with red-white-and-blue banners. Some in the audience wore face masks and shields. Others took no precaution against the novel coronavirus. Most wore the well-known “Make America Great Again” red hat, while others had T-shirts that said Latinos For Trump, Cubans for Trump and Boricuas for Trump.
Maribel Gonzalez, a 52-year-old Dominican American, told the Miami Herald that she expects Trump to win, regardless of an array of polls that show him trailing in Florida and other battleground states.
“We know that the press talks about a lot of things and a lot of polls and we know that they’re all incorrect,” she said.
Trump and Pence are playing catch-up in Florida, thanks to massive, early returns by mail-voting Democrats. Of the 2.1 million mail ballots returned statewide as of Thursday morning, over a million had been cast by Democrats, 623,000 by Republicans and 400,000 by independent voters. Republicans have done well in Florida in past years, due in part to a well-oiled mail-ballot machine, but Trump’s attacks on mail ballots appear to have shifted a number of reliable GOP voters toward in-person voting.
Republican state Rep. Daniel Perez, whose district includes the park where the event was held, said in an interview that the polling he’s seen shows that Trump is winning the heavily Cuban-American neighborhoods he represents by double digits, despite losing them in 2016.
“The presence of Donald Trump and Mike Pence in Miami shows how important Miami-Dade County is to their campaign and the election overall. They’re playing it properly,” said Perez, who is in line to become a future speaker of the Florida House. “But there’s some more work to do there and that’s why you’re seeing the constant presence.”
While Pence focused on leftism Thursday — “socialism” was mentioned at least once during an invocation before his speech — he also spoke about the economy, his Catholic upbringing, and the Black Lives Matter protests that sprang up in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota at the hands of police. Strategists on both sides believe the protests have pushed some Hispanic voters in South Florida toward Trump amid widespread characterizations of the movement as Marxist on Spanish-language programming.
The Biden campaign, meanwhile, focused on Pence’s role on the coronavirus task force Thursday, criticizing the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans so far.
“Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Miami today will only serve as another desperate attempt to gloss over the Trump administration’s complete failure to contain the coronavirus, and their total unwillingness to implement a real plan to help Florida families and businesses recover,” Biden Florida adviser Christian Ulvert said in a statement Thursday morning.
After the speech at the Cuban Memorial, Pence held a “Faith in America” roundtable with five South Florida rabbis at the InterContinental at Doral Miami. The room was filled with rabbis and educators — who kept socially distant in chairs spaced out across the hotel ballroom — representing various congregations and Jewish day schools from across South Florida that had requested face-time with the Trump ticket.
Pence said that since the COVID-19 pandemic, he has seen religious leaders comfort the families of those who lost loved ones to the virus. He also noted Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He pointed out steps Trump — a “true champion of the Jewish people of America” — has taken to fight against the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement and “any form of anti-Semitism.”
From there, Pence went to the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort, where the president was set to speak at a fundraiser after flying into Miami International Airport from North Carolina.
Trump was scheduled to hold an 8 p.m. town hall with NBC outside the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Trump, after an overnight stay in Doral, will hold an airport rally Friday in Ocala.