Donald Trump and Florida, a Love Affair

The Great Read

South Florida is in some ways an America as Mr. Trump would have it, where his Republican support extends beyond his base and includes admiration from immigrants and Jewish voters.

Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

SWEETWATER, Fla. — The Miami-Dade Republican headquarters has the look and feel of a single-family home where the single family has an especial devotion to Donald J. Trump. Matching love seats open the space, with one positioned under watercolor portraits of the president and first lady, the other decorated with needlepoint American flag pillows. From the corner of the room, a particularly lifelike cardboard cutout of Mr. Trump keeps watch.

Then there’s the kitchen, cluttered with Post-it notes, to-do lists, mementos and a bulletin board with a photo of Kellyanne Conway pinned next to a print of Jesus Christ.

“I live here,” Mariela Jewett says with a laugh, but it’s tough to tell whether she’s joking.

Ms. Jewett, a 71-year-old Cuban-American, has worked for the local G.O.P. for 18 years, and she insists she hasn’t seen so much enthusiasm in the party since the Reagan era. On one afternoon in late February, the telephone trilled with the numbing frequency of white noise — a barrage that began after Senator Bernie Sanders extolled elements of Cuba’s communist dictatorship on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

Now, the office is closed because of the coronavirus — Miami-Dade has nearly 4,500 confirmed cases, and on Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order after a conversation with Mr. Trump. Ms. Jewett said the crisis was “like a nightmare, like an old movie, like science fiction.” But she praised the president for his handling of it. “He’s covered every aspect,” she said.

To spend any time among Republicans in South Florida is to be in an America as Mr. Trump would have it, where his support extends beyond his white working-class base and includes unabashed admiration from the wealthy, from immigrants (at least many from Cuba and Venezuela), and from Jewish voters who thank him for the United States Embassy in Jerusalem.

For Mr. Trump, scarred by the disapproval of many fellow New Yorkers, his newly declared home state offers a blissful safe space. And Florida has benefited: Mr. Trump has responded to Mr. DeSantis’s requests for personal protective equipment for health care workers and other needs, while other governors have complained about insufficient federal help.

Of all the governors, Mr. Trump has found his kindred spirit in Mr. DeSantis, who for weeks marched to his own drum on the virus, refusing to close beaches or sound grave alarms, leading the state as if unencumbered by the sort of experts who now surround Mr. Trump.

In his drive to ensure that the state remains red in November, South Florida has become a political ground zero. The region has eluded Republican presidential nominees for decades, a reality Mr. Trump felt acutely in 2016: His explosion in support across the state was nearly offset by Miami-Dade alone, where a crush of Republicans broke ranks to help Hillary Clinton easily carry the county.

There are signs that Mr. Trump is poised to perform better here in November, particularly with Cuban-Americans who, after giving him the lowest share of their vote of the past three Republican nominees, are coming around to the president.

The coronavirus hasn’t changed this, Republicans here say. For Trump supporters, the one thing more frightening than a pandemic is the idea of weathering it in a socialist country, something many of them believe Democrats are pushing America toward.

Anxieties — the real and imagined, sincere and sinister — have long propelled Mr. Trump’s success. And now, as the Democratic Party veers further left on issues like health care and immigration, his ability to stoke them could be critical to piercing this blue stronghold of South Florida. If he succeeds, it would complete his coronation as the Florida Man of the modern Republican Party.

Since his election, the president has held 10 rallies across the state. That Mr. Trump included Florida in his so-called “Thank You” tour in December 2016 was fitting: His victory scrambled long-held wisdom about what it takes to carry this perennial battleground. Mrs. Clinton may have tallied more voters than any Democratic nominee since Jimmy Carter in cities like Jacksonville, where a strong showing has historically been central to Democratic victory. But Mr. Trump so toppled turnout models in rural and blue-collar counties that it didn’t matter.

Some 20,000 voters flocked to the Amway Center in Orlando for the president’s re-election campaign kickoff rally last summer, many of them for the same reasons. With Mr. Trump, they feel seen and emboldened after years of feeling belittled by the leadership in both parties.

And when it comes to the coronavirus crisis, they don’t feel that Mr. Trump’s early dismissive attitude toward the threat was dismissive at all; rather, it was his attempt to “stay positive” and not incite panic.

“I think that’s why President Trump has been really out front,” said Lee Green, a Republican in The Villages, a retirement community northwest of Orlando. “So that people will stay calm, and not be silly.” Few if any say they are concerned about Mr. Trump’s falsehoods or divisiveness.

On one level, the president’s Florida base is much like his base anywhere else in the country. The difference here is that Mr. Trump reciprocates the obsession in full.

Mr. Trump’s aspirations in Florida are intensely personal. It’s a large part of why his campaign has devoted resources to South Florida, why in November Mr. Trump held a rally in a county where Mrs. Clinton won 66 percent of voters three years before.

For Mr. Trump, Broward County hits close to home. Some of the most recognizable names in his orbit, including his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, reside there. The city of Sunrise, where the president held his rally, is almost the precise midpoint between his beloved Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach and the Trump National resort in Doral. Less than four weeks before the rally, he officially declared the former his new residence.

Accordingly, he billed the event “a homecoming.”

As Mr. Trump looks to bolster support, his Florida allies are “thrilled” that he himself can now contribute at the ballot box.

“His base is solidly growing,” said Karen Giorno, the Trump campaign’s former chief strategist for the state. “And now that he and the first lady are residents of Palm Beach County instead of Manhattan, their votes will finally count in 2020.”

Among voters in Miami-Dade County, Cuban-Americans have long been central to any Republican’s success, their loyalty tracing back to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. And come Election Day, they show up: In 2016, Cuban-Americans represented 6 percent of voters in Florida — a critical margin in a state whose winner is often determined by less than one percentage point.

In Miami-Dade’s Cuban enclaves, Mr. Trump vastly underperformed past G.O.P. nominees. In 2012, Mr. Romney won Hialeah, a traditionally Republican city with the highest Cuban-American population in the country, by nine percentage points; four years later, Mr. Trump virtually tied with Mrs. Clinton there. In the heavily Cuban Miami suburb of Westchester, Mr. Trump’s support was eight points lower than Mr. Romney’s.

At the time, many in the community were repelled by Mr. Trump’s “apparent anti-Hispanic rhetoric,” according to Dario Moreno, a pollster and associate professor of politics at Florida International University. Added to that were broader political shifts years in the making, with younger generations of Cuban-Americans increasingly leaning left and a growing number of older voters receptive to the warmer United States-Cuba relationship encouraged by President Barack Obama.

But the last three years have seen a reversion, Dr. Moreno said. “There’s been a kind of return to the Republican Party from Cuban-Americans, mainly on the issue of Cuba and the more hard-line stance taken by Trump,” he said. At many points, Mr. Trump has tightened the longstanding U.S. embargo on Cuba, reinstating the travel and business restrictions that Mr. Obama had loosened. While younger voters continue to oppose the embargo, Cuban-American support in Miami for Mr. Trump’s policies has substantially increased over all.

Dr. Moreno, who is Cuban-American, said Mr. Trump today seemed “more popular” among the community “than McCain, Romney, and himself in 2016.”

Carlos Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade and a Cuban-American Republican, is among the converted. In 2016, Mr. Gimenez announced he would vote for Mrs. Clinton, arguing Mr. Trump lacked the “makeup” to be president.

Now, Mr. Gimenez is all in. In January, the two-term mayor went on Twitter to announce his bid to unseat Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat, in the same post thanking Mr. Trump “for all you’ve done for our economy & to fight socialism.” Hours later, the president rewarded him with his “complete and total endorsement!”

Asked to explain his change of heart, Mr. Gimenez demurred. “I’m not going to get into those reasons. The president has won me over,” he said. “His record speaks for itself.”

Mr. Gimenez’s embrace of Mr. Trump is testament to how more and more Republican voters in Miami-Dade expect their candidate to support the president in the same way that those in, say, the Panhandle might. And if many of them were already coalescing around Mr. Trump, Mr. Sanders has only quickened their steps.

At a winter gathering of the Women’s Republican Club of Miami, some fought tears when asked about Mr. Sanders, who, in an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired on Feb. 23, praised Fidel Castro for introducing a “massive literacy program” in Cuba.

“The point is that I was in Cuba that happened,” said Lucy Pereda, 76. “And what happened was not teaching people how to read and write. It was indoctrination.”

Mr. Trump, however, “has been tough on dictatorships,” said the club’s 44-year-old president, Claudia Miro. “He’s been tough on Cuba. He’s been tough on Venezuela.”

Such conversations are taking place all across South Florida — and not just among Cubans. Thousands of Venezuelans in Miami have already signaled their support for Mr. Trump’s stance against Nicolás Maduro, the country’s leftist leader, who has refused to cede power.

But there are also voters in South Florida whose support for Mr. Trump is less a response to Democrats than it is an appreciation of his record itself. Like Cubans, Jewish Floridians are among the state’s most reliable voters, most of them concentrated south of Palm Beach County. Unlike Cubans, they tend to vote Democratic: Mr. Trump won 27 percent of their vote in 2016, three points less than Mr. Romney in 2012, according to exit poll data.

Two years later, in his race for governor against Andrew Gillum, Mr. DeSantis proved his party’s ability to increase those margins, winning 35 percent of Jewish voters.

Mr. Trump has zeroed in on this bloc with similar intensity, headlining the Israeli-American Council’s annual summit meeting in December in Broward County, where thousands of Jewish supporters cheered as the president said the U.S.-Israel relationship was “stronger now than ever before.”

Irma Gordon, 86, who runs the Jewish Republican Club of Broward, said many of her members liked Mr. Trump in 2016, but now, she emphasized, “everyone is for Trump.”

Still, Ms. Gordon acknowledged that while she thinks more Jewish Floridians lean Republican today than they did in 2016, in part because of the president’s decisions such as moving the embassy to Jerusalem, it’s “not only about what Trump has done. It’s the way the Democratic Party …” She paused and shuddered. “All this trying to make us socialist and communist — the Democrats today, oh my goodness.”

Ellen Motz, a retiree in Broward County, had been a Democrat all her life, founding her area’s Jewish Americans for Obama chapter and campaigning for Mrs. Clinton in 2016. Last summer, she became a Republican because of Mr. Trump.

She felt Mr. Trump was truly working “for the people.” And when it came to the Democratic Party, she said, “the negativity started getting to me to the point that I was just ready to quit.”

Ms. Motz admires the president even more in this “scary” moment.

“I know he’s trying to make people feel better,” she said. And when Democrats say he should have focused on the virus earlier, she said, “I think, look at what he was dealing with at the time. All the impeachment hearings — that was all they could think about with all that was going on in the world.”

Mr. Trump has almost no chance of winning the Jewish vote here outright. But if he can continue to increase his support among the disparate groups that make up South Florida, all while maintaining his hold on the rest of the state, the 2020 election cycle could be Florida’s final one as a battleground.

For now, his supporters aren’t worried about the coronavirus affecting Mr. Trump’s chances in November.

In South Florida, Mariela Jewett says, with all Democrats today “talking about socialism,” voters have other concerns top of mind. “Listen,” she said, furiously chewing on a peppermint, “I work too hard. I’m 71 and still working. I don’t want to give anyone my money — ”

She’s interrupted when an older man opens the door at Miami-Dade’s G.O.P. headquarters. He’s looking for Trump merchandise, he says, “some bumper stickers, whatever you have.” Ms. Jewett explains that they’re fresh out. But the man lingers, and soon the strangers are spun up in conversation.

“I’m almost 71 and this country wasn’t like this when I was young,” he says, shaking his head. “Something’s going on.”

Ms. Jewett’s voice then nearly cracks. “Socialism!” she cries. “It’s here!”

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