Cuban Americans in South Florida have the rare opportunity to vote for two of their own for the presidency of the United States. Yet some are making a different choice: They’re backing Donald Trump.
The controversial front-runner has insisted he’ll draw Hispanic voters despite launching his campaign last June with inflammatory remarks about Mexicans and rapists. And as he competes in Florida, the biggest state yet to test his boast, there is anecdotal evidence of support among Miami-Dade’s staunchly Republican Cuban-American voters even as most back Marco Rubio — the son of Cuban immigrants — whom many Cuban-American voters helped elect to the U.S. Senate in 2010.
For Trump backers, ethnicity plays no factor.
“I don’t think Cuban; I think American,” said former Hialeah Mayor Julio Martinez, who for two weeks has held a Trump campaign sign outside an early-voting site just blocks from where Rubio last week implored Hispanics to vote for him in Tuesday’s presidential primary.
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Perched in a lawn chair outside the John F. Kennedy Library, holding a sign saying “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump,” Martinez said he was backing Trump because there was “nobody better suited” to fixing the economy.
“The worst problem the United States has today is the economy,” he said.
Trump’s pledge to force Mexico to pay for construction of a wall at the U.S. border and his call to deport the nation’s estimated 11 million immigrants who are here illegally have infuriated Hispanic advocacy groups and led to heated protests at his rallies. But for backers, they play no role. Even Trump’s support for closer ties with Cuba’s government makes no waves.
Martinez said he had even convinced his wife, Xiomara, to back Trump. She has been a citizen for two decades, although she was in the U.S. illegally for a time with a lapsed Nicaraguan visa.
“She said at the beginning, ‘What are you doing? He’s too rough on immigration,’ ” Martinez said. “I told her, ‘You walk into the house and someone is sitting on your couch, what do you do? You call the police. That is what he is saying.’ She voted for Donald Trump three days ago.”
Martinez, who is occasionally joined by friends at the site, said he had received mostly positive reviews. As if on cue, Luis Tejera, 51, walked over and asked to pose for a picture with Martinez and his sign.
“I just want a change. I’m tired of the politicians promising everything and nothing happens,” said Tejera, a police officer. Although Cuban-American, he said the Cuban ties of Rubio and GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas meant little to him.
“I vote for the person and their ideas, not their race or ethnicity,” he said.
Still, Trump’s candidacy has set off panic among establishment Republicans, who acknowledged after Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss that the party needed to broaden its appeal among Hispanic voters, who make up considerable voting blocs in several key swing states, including Florida, Colorado and New Mexico.
Romney won an estimated 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, exit polls found. When George W. Bush, the last Republican to win the White House, won in 2004, he got an estimated 40 percent.
Some advocacy groups estimate that the Republican nominee in 2016 will need to draw at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to secure the White House.
Trump drew just 19 percent of Florida’s Hispanic vote in a March Washington Post-Univisión News poll conducted by the Miami-based Bendixen & Amandi International and the Tarrance Group, a Republican firm.
And Trump had the highest negative rating of any of the candidates, with 6 in 10 having a somewhat or very unfavorable impression of him. That’s more than twice as high as Cruz’s or Rubio’s negative rating.
Pressed on the negative impressions of him among Hispanics at a recent debate in Houston, Trump said he would do “really well with Hispanics.”
He said he had employed “tens of thousands of Hispanics” and pointed to his victory in Nevada, where entrance polls suggested he won with Hispanic voters.
“Nobody else was close,” he said. “Because they know I’m going to bring jobs back from China, from Japan, from so many other places.”
Indeed, nearly 40 percent of Hispanics in the Florida poll cited Trump as the candidate they think can best handle the economy.
The Nevada entrance poll result sample was too small to draw conclusions, and it may be difficult to infer a larger lesson from Florida.
Florida Hispanics are not representative of Latinos nationally. Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, near Orlando, tend to vote Democratic, while the vast majority of Hispanics in South Florida are Cuban Americans who lean Republican. And neither group is much invested in the immigration debate that inflames Latinos elsewhere: Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and Cubans have a special immigration status that gives them a fast track to residency and citizenship.
Mario Rodriguez, 52, who became a U.S. citizen on Feb. 16, arrived at the library in Hialeah eager to vote for Trump, “the best for America today.”
The Cuban native thinks Trump has the best chance to defeat Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders — “he’s tougher than the others” — and defeating the Democrats is Rodriguez’s priority.
He also respects Trump’s hard line on immigration: “I’m an immigrant in this country and I came legally. In Cuba, they will put you in jail if you come illegally; in Mexico, too. You don’t have a country if you don’t respect the laws of the country.”
A few miles away, at the West Dade Regional Library, Diana Granda, 48, was so happy to see a band of Trump supporters manning a tent at her early-voting site that she marched across the lawn after casting her ballot to shake hands. She said she was backing Trump because she thought mainstream politicians had done little to boost the economy.
“The middle class is just going to disappear,” said Granda, an unemployed paralegal. “It’s bad out here. Wages are lower, hours are longer — and that’s if you can find a job.”
She is unruffled by Trump’s support for deportation, saying she’s tired of paying taxes to support “people just coming here to collect benefits.” Immigrants who are in the country illegally, however, do not qualify for most public benefits, including welfare or Medicaid.
Nearly half of all Florida voters have cast ballots already, and the Republican numbers suggest an energized electorate, said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida professor who has crunched the numbers. Of the more than 850,000 Republicans who have already voted, 42 percent didn’t vote in at least the last presidential primary, Smith said.
That includes Granda, who hadn’t voted in the presidential race since George W. Bush was last on the ticket.
“For me, this is something very different,” she said of Trump. “He’s inspired me.”
Miami Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who touted Rubio to television cameras at a tent across from the Trump supporters, said the businessman’s support among Hispanic voters was not surprising.
“It’s an anger and frustration of people making an irrational choice,” he said. “You’re seeing it all over the country, where for 33 percent of the Republican primary, Donald Trump is their outlet.”