MIAMI -- When Donald Trump's campaign manager said in Miami recently that he planned to launch a national Hispanic outreach effort in Florida, Democrats took notice.
The state's 2.2 million Hispanic voters make up an outsized portion of Florida's electorate, and nearly two-thirds voted in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. Last year, Trump's hard-line immigration policies and rhetoric contributed to sweeping Republican losses around the country as strong Hispanic turnout helped Democrats take the House of Representatives.
But the belief in demographic destiny is dead among Florida Democrats, crushed in November by victorious Trump-backed candidates who more than reversed his 2016 losses among Sunshine State Hispanics. In races decided by the thinnest of margins, Florida's Hispanic voters swung back to the right just enough to deliver wins to two of Trump's top allies, keeping the governorship in conservative hands and turning over a Democratic U.S. Senate seat to the Republicans.
So as the top 20 Democratic presidential candidates descend upon Miami ahead of next week's primary debates, their ability to communicate with South Florida's massive Hispanic population will be front and center. Because among Florida's fastest growing voting bloc, Trump merely needs to lose by less in order to once again take Florida's 29 Electoral College votes in 2020.
"Republicans are not in any effort to win the Hispanic vote. That's never their objective," said Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi. "Their calculus is how do we manage the margins and do what's necessary to squeeze out an extra 4 or 5 percentage points, which in the state of Florida represents the margins between victory and defeat."
That's exactly what happened in 2018.
Following Trump's election, Democrats lost 8 percentage points at the top of the ticket. Hispanic turnout nearly doubled compared to the previous midterm election in 2014, but data suggest turnout skewed older and Cuban, a demographic group that votes reliably Republican. Exit polls showed Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson earning only about 54% of the Hispanic vote against Congressman Ron DeSantis and then-Gov. Rick Scott, respectively, in the races for governor and U.S. Senate.
In their campaigns, the Republicans provided a playbook for Trump in 2020 by aggressively courting exile communities in Miami -- home to nearly half the state's voting Hispanic population -- and, in Scott's case, traveling to Puerto Rico at least a half-dozen times. They also waged an aggressive straw man campaign against socialism, casting their opponents, including the centrist Nelson, as leftists in the mold of Fidel Castro and Nicolas Maduro.
Now, the question is whether 2018 was an anomaly made possible only by Trump's absence from the ballot, or whether it was the beginning of a trend in which Republican candidates are making inroads with the state's largest minority voting bloc. Polling has varied, but Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale says internal data show the president is in better shape with Hispanics than in 2016 -- a scenario that would jibe with Trump's aggressive efforts to crack down on Cuba through sanctions and support in Venezuela for opposition leader Juan Guaido.
"The Trump brand and Trump personally, as you would expect, is rather toxic, but his policies are not -- even the ones people would ordinarily think are anathema to Latino voters," said California Republican John Jordan, a prominent donor who commissioned a national Latino voter survey last month.