A big story out of the Democratic primaries so far has been how well Sanders has performed with Hispanic voters in states like California and Nevada, but it's unlikely the Vermont senator will achieve the same outcome in Florida, the big prize in the upcoming March 17 primaries, and the last state that could realistically give his campaign the push it needs to stay in the race.
Hillary Clinton won the Florida Democratic Party in 2016 by more than 30 points, and while Sanders may have been hoping the moderate vote would be split this time around, polls conducted after Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg left the race show former vice president Joe Biden ahead by nearly 50 points.
With an outlook this grim, Sanders could have used some of the "Tio Bernie" phenomenon we saw in California — but Florida's Hispanic population and Sanders' habit of rehashing the benefits of communism make that improbable.
Unlike states in the west where Sanders has had success with the Hispanic vote, Florida’s Hispanic population isn’t mainly of Mexican origin, but a diverse mix of Cubans, Venezuelans, Argentinians, Colombians and Nicaraguans. While many think of Hispanics as a monolithic group, there are key differences between nationalities, including ideological preferences and aversions.
For Florida Hispanics, many of whom ended up in the state because of leaders who call themselves “socialist,” socialism is one of them.
It's not just that Sanders is a socialist, but by now it's no secret that he has a history of romanticizing Marxist regimes. Most concerning, he has not made any effort to walk back his flirtations with Latin American authoritarians like Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro. On the contrary, Sanders has repeatedly doubled down on his admiration of the "good" aspects of the socialist dictatorships.
“You know, when Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program,” Sanders said when confronted about past comments during a 60 Minutes interview last month. “Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?” In other words, Sanders wondered aloud about the benefits of literacy programs used to indoctrinate Cuban children with books like Fidel is Our Leader, while they started every school day by being forced to recite: ”We will be like Che.”
The Vermont senator's comments got him a glowing review on the front page of Cuba's communist party newspaper Granma.
“As expected, his comments sparked the anger of the most extremist sector of Cuban Americans in South Florida, who oppose any rapprochement with the Caribbean island,” the paper read.
In reality, Sanders' habit of praising communism has alienated not only Cubans, but also Nicaraguans like political commentator and Florida voter Ana Navarro — who take issue with Sanders' past backing of the Sandinistas — and victims of the former Soviet Union.
The Venezuelan population, which has more than tripled since 2000, also sees Sanders as a threat. More than half of Venezuelans in the US live in Florida, and many attribute their home country's demise to the socialist policies the senator praises.
Jose Antonio Colina, president of VEPPEX (Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile), says Sanders' comments on Cuba solidified a Biden win in the state.
"Hispanic voters in Florida who have a problem with Trump will rally behind Biden," said the political exile, adding: “The majority of Cubans in South Florida are here because of the brutal Castro dictatorship that has forced people to flee to Florida, and Venezuelans are clear that the tragedy in Venezuela is also the product of the Castro influence.”
Unfortunately for Sanders, standing against socialist Latin American regimes is a key part of winning elections in Florida. It's why we see Democrats like Andrew Gillum, Rep. Donna Shalala and Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell focus on the Venezuelan and Cuba dictatorships in their public speeches. It's also why fighting Castro-communism in our hemisphere remains one of few causes that enjoy bipartisan support, and why the usually isolationist Donald Trump has taken an interest in unseating Nicolas Maduro.
"Florida is one of those states where international politics matters about as much as the domestic does," said Gillum in a recent interview with David Axelrod. "While [Sanders'] comments may have felt contained to Cuba, in South Florida, where you've got Venezuelans and Colombians, Cubans and so many others who have been forced from the homelands that they love under these authoritarian regimes, this struck a different kind of nerve.”
This isn’t just about Floridians who have personally felt the horrors of communism. It’s about their neighbors, students, friends and colleagues who have listened to their stories. As Gillum put it, Sanders’ comments about Cuba felt “like listening to Trump after Charlottesville say there were good people on both sides."
The Florida voter demographic just doesn't suit a socialist candidate, and if the anti-socialism vote doesn't sink Sanders, black voters surely will, as they have already rejected the senator repeatedly.
Even a disastrous performance from gaffe-prone Biden during the March 15 debate probably wouldn’t save Sanders' campaign. Given that many Florida Hispanics can’t freely vote in their home countries, I think they will be excited to finally be able to cast a vote against socialism.
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