Miami-Dade County

The Democratic presidential debates were in Miami. But Miami wasn’t in the debates.

Warren visits the Homestead Detention Center

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren visited the Homestead Detention Center ahead of the first Democratic Debates on June 26, 2019.
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Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren visited the Homestead Detention Center ahead of the first Democratic Debates on June 26, 2019.

Widely panned for his performance Thursday during the first Democratic primary debates, Joe Biden’s missed opportunities in Miami went beyond the debate stage.

With the entire primary field in town for the first major event of the young 2020 campaign, the former vice president was the only top contender not to visit the controversial Homestead detention center for child migrants. As his biggest competitors made the trek to South Miami-Dade to give speeches under a brutal sun to activists and reporters, the early frontrunner instead drew unwanted attention by remaining out of sight.

“I don’t expect him to drop very much in national polling after last night, but I do feel like he should have engaged more locally,” Democratic consultant and Telemundo 51 analyst Michael Hernandez said Friday. “He needs to at a minimum say, ‘I went down there.’ ”

Winning support nationally was by far the bigger priority for the 20 presidential candidates who flocked to Miami this week. But a select few did far better than others when it came time to connect with voters in a region that could prove crucial to the general election.

While Biden was absent from public view, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren held a town hall at Florida International University on Tuesday and then quickly announced a visit to the Homestead shelter the following morning, getting ahead of a rush to the facility by her competitors. The visits became even more prominent following the release of a graphic image of a father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande.

“I think Elizabeth Warren was probably the most visible down here,” said Democratic consultant Ben Pollara, who is not involved in any of the campaigns. “She did the big town hall meeting. Not only did she do that but she was quick on her feet on the Homestead detention center.”

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren held a town hall on the Florida International University campus on June 25, 2019.

Pollara noted that Warren’s schedule isn’t crammed with large-dollar fundraisers because she refuses to do them, making her more nimble wherever she decides to campaign. “When she comes to a city she’s not just visible to people like you and me but she’s visible to the average citizen.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders initially sent his wife, Jane O’Meara, to the Homestead shelter Wednesday but went there himself Thursday. The other top candidates, including California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg, visited Friday.

“They are here showing all of us that they care about what is happening in Miami, that they care about what is happening in Homestead,” Miami Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell said Friday outside the shelter.

Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made a pit stop at the Homestead detention center for unaccompanied minors in Florida Thursday.

Still, looking back on the week, Miami looks like the land of missed opportunity for much of the presidential field.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio drew praise for his performance during the first of the two debates only to issue a forced apology Thursday for quoting Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara during a rally at an airport workers’ strike. And Washington Gov. Jay Inslee struggled to capitalize on his climate change-heavy platform, failing to explain in detail how his policies would, as moderator Rachel Maddow put it, “save Miami.”

During the debates themselves, a number of candidates seemed to give a nod to the diversity of the city by speaking Spanish on stage with varying degrees of success. But on the whole they failed to address a number of issues that are uniquely critical to Miami voters, such as the ongoing turmoil in Venezuela and the Trump administration’s increasingly hardline stance against Cuba.

Miami’s Haitian community — the largest in the country — was never mentioned (although Inslee visited Little Haiti). And Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth still reeling from the catastrophic winds of Category 5 Hurricane Maria, received only token acknowledgment.

“The disconnect is incredible. No amount of bad Spanish is going to make up for not having a clear Cuba and Venezuela and Puerto Rico policy,” said Helena Poleo, a Miami Democratic consultant who was born in Venezuela. “This will undoubtedly hurt Democratic candidates with Democrats who are, like me, anxiously waiting to hear what our party has planned to help transition Cuba and Venezuela into democracies.”

Likewise, neither the candidates nor the moderators acknowledged the struggle of the community surrounding the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, where the debates were held. U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson said before the debates that she was hoping to hear discussion of the problems in her community, such as gun violence. But Overtown, less than a five-minute walk away, wasn’t mentioned during a discussion on opioid addiction even though it’s been racked by heroin and fentanyl overdoses in recent years.

“I think maybe they saw the debate stage as a temporary stage as they move from place to place and didn’t focus in on the people necessarily who occupy that space. They were trying to make, I guess, make points that apply to any neighborhood,” said Wilson, whose majority-black district includes the Arsht Center.

“I’m thinking real hard right now if I remember anything from anyone about anything local,” she said. “I guess the closest they got was somebody said something about climate.”

But with the moderators juggling a variety of “kitchen-table” topics and the demands of 20 candidates, even climate change received relatively little time over the two nights. Despite promises of a “robust” debate and the event’s location in a region that has more to lose to rising seas than any other in the United States, the topic got all of 15 minutes over the two nights. Miami received only two passing mentions during the first debate, both by Maddow, and didn’t come up at all during the second debate, according to unofficial transcripts of the two nights.

Democratic presidential candidate, Gov. Jay Inslee, announced his campaign's comprehensive proposal on environmental regulation at Everglades Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on June 24, 2019.

Still, Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Peñalosa said after the debate that many of the candidates used the time outside of the debates to talk about South Florida and raise awareness to issues in Miami, which can be a tricky place to campaign for outsiders.

Inslee, for instance, misspoke during a press conference Monday, wrongly claiming that Miami Beach had raised Ocean Drive. And, of course, there was de Blasio’s airport gaffe.

Though simply dropping a Miami reference would have been simple for any candidate, connecting with voters in South Florida matters far less in the immediate future to the presidential candidates than impressing a large group of donors and supporters across the country. Much the field still needs to worry about raising money and their profile in order to survive the coming months, much less the primaries, during which Florida falls later in the process.

Following a second round of debates July 30 and 31st in Detroit, the polling and fundraising thresholds to qualify for future debates will rise dramatically. Candidates need 2% support in four polls along with 130,000 unique donors and at least 400 donors in 20 states to make the debates in September. Only eight candidates have met or are close to that threshold right now: Biden, Warren, Buttigieg, Sanders, Harris, Booker, Klobuchar and O’Rourke.

But Florida remains crucial to the general election, as Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez stressed in early June during a visit to the state party’s leadership gala. President Donald Trump chose this month to roll out his reelection campaign in Orlando, and Vice President Mike Pence launched a Latinos For Trump effort Tuesday in Miami.

And for someone like Biden, losing or alienating supporters in Florida — like the Parkland families surprised at his contention Thursday that the National Rifle Association is “not our opponents” — could prove problematic farther down the road.

Pollara said Biden has time to build up goodwill in South Florida, but being a no-show in the future will hurt him in the primary and ultimately in the general election if he becomes the nominee.

“This is Florida and not Iowa, so we’re not as accustomed and annoying about demanding time for our candidates,” Pollara said. “But it’s the kind of thing long-term that people will ask questions about.”

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