TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Joe Biden is making his first trip to Florida as the Democratic presidential nominee on Tuesday with an urgent mission to build support among Latinos who could decide the election in one of the nation’s fiercest battleground states.
He’ll begin his trip with a roundtable with veterans in Tampa before marking Hispanic Heritage Month with an event in Kissimmee, near Orlando.
“I will talk about how I am going to work like the devil to make sure I turn every Latino and Hispanic vote,” Biden said Monday.
A win for Biden in Florida would dramatically narrow President Donald Trump’s path to reelection. But in a state where elections are often decided by a percentage point, there are mounting concerns that Biden may be slipping, particularly with the state’s influential Latino voters.
An NBC-Marist poll released last week found Latinos in the state about evenly divided between Biden and Trump. Democrat Hillary Clinton led Trump by a 59% to 36% margin among Latinos in the same poll in 2016 — and Trump won Florida by about 1 percentage point.
Hispanic voters in Florida tend to be somewhat more Republican-leaning than Hispanic voters nationwide because of the state’s Cuban American population. Nationally, little public polling is available to measure the opinions of Latino voters this year and whether they differ from four years ago.
Biden’s trip suggests he isn’t taking chances in Florida. He’s spending his day along the I-4 corridor, which is often where campaigns are won or lost. While Republicans typically post big numbers in the northern and southwestern parts of the state and Democrats are strong in coastal cities, campaigns typically battle it out for every vote along in central Florida.
The veterans event is aimed in part at pushing what the Biden campaign sees as a potential opening with military voters, who broadly supported Trump in 2016 but are seen as potentially persuadable due to controversial remarks the president reportedly made about service members. Trump has denied criticizing the troops.
Meanwhile, Biden’s decision to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month in Kissimmee reflects a focus on the state’s rapidly growing Puerto Rican community, many of whom relocated to Florida after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.
They may be more open to Biden than Cuban Americans concentrated in Miami, who are attuned to Trump’s false message that the Democratic ticket would embrace socialism.
Biden has repeatedly criticized Trump for the slow federal response to the hurricane and made a point of mentioning Puerto Rico during a Monday speech about climate change.
“Our fellow Americans are still putting things back together from the last big storm as they face the next one,” he said.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said the party has invested in outreach to Puerto Rican voters.
“We wanted to identify Maria refugees, people who had been forced from the mainland, and as many of you know, many people left with their shirts on their back and their proud 787 numbers,” Perez said. “We went to cellphone vendors in Pennsylvania and Florida, and we asked them, ‘Give us all the 787 area codes that have been picked up off your cell phone towers for the last month.’”
Perez said the party found nearly 300,000 such numbers in Florida and 80,000 in Pennsylvania, another key battleground state.
Biden, who hasn’t been to Florida since last October, has struggled with Latinos in part because of the record-setting number of deportations when President Barack Obama was in the White House. Biden has apologized for that policy.
But unlike his Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, who used strong support among Latinos to notch key primary victories in Nevada and California, Biden has refused to adopt the most liberal positions in his party — especially when it comes to calling for decriminalizing illegal crossings of the U.S.-Mexico border and halting all deportations.
As for Trump, despite many of his anti-immigration policies, some Latino voters have responded positively to the president’s embrace of religious conservative positions and his warnings of protest-related violence and socialism. Trump also frequently visits his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, and the president votes absentee in the state.
Carlos Odio, a co-founder of the Democratic polling firm Equis Labs, said that, like Obama in 2008, Biden didn’t need the Latino vote to win the primary. But the coronavirus has limited Biden’s ability to get out and actively court Hispanic voters in the way that Obama could for the general election.
That means Biden is “racing against the clock” to persuade Latinos to vote for him rather than simply being an alternative to all of Trump’s negatives, which isn’t a strong motivator for turnout, Odio said.