MIAMI — Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign is confident that its message — President Donald Trump's "failed" coronavirus pandemic response and its disproportionate toll on Latino families and workers — will resonate among Florida's Latino voters in this pivotal swing state.
But the Trump campaign is sticking to its own script: a constant barrage of attacks calling Biden a socialist or a communist, hammered regularly during virtual events, through social media and in campaign emails.
Some Florida Latino Democrats worry that this messaging, while false — Biden is not a socialist nor does he support socialist policies — is effective, and they want the campaign to fight it head-on.
Annette Taddeo, a Democratic state senator and Biden surrogate, said constant messaging against Trump's "socialist" attacks is crucial to counter the steady Republican messaging.
“The campaign needs to push back, strong and quick,” Taddeo said. “The campaign is not doing it yet,” adding that she is confident it will.
Taddeo remarked that it's Trump who's behaving like a Latin American "strongman." She pointed to Trump's recent actions like firing the State Department inspector general who was investigating possible corruption.
Winning Florida, the largest of the half-dozen typical swing states, is about moving small margins among different groups, rather than swaying a broad swath of voters. Recent polls have the two candidates in a statistical tie.
Florida is home to a diverse group of Hispanic voters, including some who have fled left-wing governments and guerrilla groups in Latin America and the Caribbean and are sensitive to Trump’s messaging.
Recently, the Trump campaign attacked Biden for saying in an interview he would restore the Obama-era policy of engagement with Cuba and claimed the Cuban government endorsed Biden after a top diplomat said Trump's re-election would be a "negative scenario" for the country. While former President Barack Obama's policies, which resulted in more Americans traveling to Cuba, did have Cuban American support, Trump's hardline policies are favored by Cuban Americans who oppose engagement.
Ali Pardo, the Trump campaign's deputy communication's director, accused “D.C. insiders” of pushing Biden “toward socialism," in a statement to NBC News.
The Trump administration touts its sanctions against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and its tougher policies around the Cuban embargo, accusing the Cuban government of propping up Maduro.
In a recent press release, Biden senior adviser Cristóbal Alex, the highest ranking Latino in the campaign, hit back at the Trump administration's policies, saying they “love to pay lip service to being allies to the Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan people,” while many asylum-seekers from these countries are denied parole and remain in detention centers during the pandemic, rather than being released to relatives.
Alex also hit Trump for not extending to Venezuelans temporary protected status that would allow them to legally live and work in the U.S. for a designated period of time.
For Taddeo, these kinds of responses have to be constant and regular.
The Biden campaign recently formed a "Venezolanos con Biden" ("Venezuelans with Biden") group and a "Cubanos con Biden" ("Cubans with Biden") group, aimed at showcasing his support among these voter groups.
Campaigning and cultural nuances
Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a Democratic strategist who focuses on Latino messaging, said she's been warning Democrats in the state against using the word "progresista," the Spanish word for "progressive," because while it can appeal to younger and more liberal Latino Democrats, some voters who grew up in Latin America associate it with socialism.
“They don’t realize how much they’re scaring off potential voters that are from Colombia, Venezuela or Mexico who are very moderate,” Pérez-Verdía said.
The Trump campaign has jumped on this. A Trump campaign email that links Biden to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and accuses him of embracing socialism states in Spanish that "'progressive' is simply another way of saying 'Chavista socialism,'" referencing the left-wing ideology of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Rick Wilson, a Florida Republican consultant and vocal Trump critic, told NBC News the president is more of a socialist at times, pointing out how Trump bailed out farmers hurt by his trade war with China.
“But it’s also difficult in the current Democratic Party to push back on socialism,” said Wilson, pointing out Sanders and other legislators who represent the party's left wing.
“The socialism messaging is something that Biden doesn’t have to address directly, but he certainly needs to push back in other ways,” Wilson said.
Wilson has said previously that the Biden campaign should focus on mobilizing Puerto Rican voters in central Florida, a growing and key voter bloc in the state. Though Puerto Ricans helped vote Republican Sen. Rick Scott into office — he actively mobilized as governor to help Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria — they voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. Trump has been highly criticized for his slow response to the island's devastating 2017 hurricane.
Democratic officials are banking on the ravages of the pandemic as an effective campaign strategy. The Democratic National Committee held a recent Florida webinar where DNC Chair Tom Perez slammed Trump over the lack of Latino small businesses receiving loans under the Payment Protection Program and pointed out that Latinos have been the worst hit by coronavirus job losses, at 18.9%. Taddeo participated in a virtual "charla," or talk, to discuss the bleak pandemic situation among Floridians.
Still, some Democrats want the campaign to be more forceful and call Trump a "strongman" in events and press releases, saying it would be easy to capitalize on his recent actions like regulating social media.
Asked why the Biden campaign has not been more forceful in consistently countering Trump's "socialist" attacks, a Biden spokesperson said in a email, "We've seen Donald Trump attack the free press, undermine faith in our institutions by baselessly attacking vote-by-mail and spreading misinformation, assert he could be in power for 9 to 13 more years, and fire his inspectors general."
The email statement went on to say, "This is dangerous, strongman-like behavior and we know Hispanics will hold Trump accountable in November by electing Joe Biden."
Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., who represents a district that includes parts of Miami with many Cuban and Venezuelan voters, is familiar with the socialism messaging. She lashed out at Sanders after he praised Cuba's literacy program and when he refused to call Maduro a dictator.
She also continually rips Trump for the lengthy detention of asylum-seekers and not granting Venezuelans temporary protected status.
But Shalala said she has "no problem" with how the Biden campaign is being run. “One thing about our party is that people whine a lot, but at the end, we deliver.”