At a meeting at The White House in the final days of the Obama Administration, a senior adviser to the 44th president shared a remarkable observation: members of the incoming Republican administration believed that Donald Trump won Florida’s 29 electoral votes because of his 180° turn on U.S.-Cuba policy. Apparently, even President Trump believes it.
Problem is: it isn’t true. Not even close.
The origins of this theory can be traced to spin by proponents of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. On election night, José Diaz-Balart (a brother of Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, former and current Cuban-American members of congress, respectively) made the claim on national television while votes were still being counted. Shortly afterwards, embargo advocates and Republican operatives circulated flawed analyses to the media and the Trump transition team based on shoddy, cherry-picked data. And from that a false narrative was born.
The reality, though, is that all of the empirical evidence—both polling and actual election results—points in the opposite direction. Not only did Trump not perform well with Cuban-American voters, his changing position on the issue did not help him one bit. And one more thing: the Cuban-American vote did not determine the winner in Florida.
Here are the facts:
- Trump’s numbers with Cubans were historically low for a Republican
An overview of the actual election results in Westchester, Hialeah and West Miami (the neighborhoods with the highest concentration Cuban-American voters in the country) shows that Donald Trump edged Hillary Clinton by just two points (50 to 48 percent). These suburbs have historically been GOP strongholds. In fact, in 2005, Hialeah was ranked as the fourth most conservative city in the United States; yet, in La Ciudad Que Progresa (The City that Progresses), Trump and Clinton tied at 47 percent.
The President didn’t fare much better in the exit polls. Both Edison Research and Latino Decisions pinned the President’s performance with Cubans in Florida at 54 and 52 percent, respectively.
So, according to certified results and exit polling, Trump’s share of the Cuban vote ranged somewhere between 50 and 54 percent. Hey, a win’s a win, right? Not exactly.
Compare Trump’s two-point edge over Clinton among Cubans to John McCain’s 30-point victory in 2008; the estimates that placed George W. Bush’s edge among Cuban-American voters in the 70 to 80 percent range; and Mitt Romney’s 12-point victory over Barack Obama in Miami’s Cuban neighborhoods. Suddenly the President’s Cuban numbers in Florida don’t look all that great anymore.
- Trump’s 180° on Cuba did not help him with Cuban-American voters
For most of the presidential campaign, Trump said that he was generally “fine” with Obama’s Cuba policy, only adding that he would have achieved “a better deal.” Embargo supporters have long argued that such a policy position would harm a candidate’s chances in the Sunshine State; yet Trump crushed the GOP presidential field in Florida’s Republican primary. In fact, he won every county in the state except Miami-Dade where he came in a distant second to native son Marco Rubio and beat Cuban-American Ted Cruz by 13 points. Then, six weeks before the election, Trump announced that he would roll back Obama’s Cuba policy after heavy courting from older hardline exiles.
Indeed, Trump won Florida in the general election, but that doesn’t mean that there’s a causal relationship between his Cuba policy and the result. Had his Cuba policy given him the boost some claim it did, Trump’s numbers would be much stronger in heavily Cuban neighborhoods. Moreover, six polls—three taken before his policy reversal and three taken after—with significant samples of Cuban-American voters showed virtually identical results.
The reason why Trump’s about-face on Cuba didn’t move the needle is simple. According to a study by Florida International University (FIU), over 70 percent of Cuban American voters who support the embargo are Republican voters—these electors were going to vote for him regardless of his position on the issue. Meanwhile, more independent Cuban-American voters tend to be younger and less influenced by a candidate’s U.S.-Cuba policy position when making voting decisions.
- Cuban-American voters were not decisive in Florida.
The significance of the Cuban-American vote and the role of U.S. Cuba policy in determining how Cubans vote in Florida are unclear. The Miami Herald reported that large numbers of voters likely cast a ballot for Clinton, who opposed the embargo, but then voted down the ballot for Cuban-American members of Congress who support it. In other words, Cuba policy was obviously not a determining factor for these electors.
In the end it really didn’t matter because the Cuban-American vote ended up being a non-factor in Florida last year. Approximately 550,000 Cuban-Americans cast a ballot in November, and Trump’s victory margin in the state was nearly 120,000 votes. That means that whether you believe he won the Cuban-American vote by just two points (11,000 votes) as the actual election results showed or if you prefer the exit surveys that placed his margin over Clinton somewhere between five (27,500 votes) and 13 points (71,500 votes), Trump would have won Florida even if a single Cuban had not voted. Meanwhile, even if Clinton’s margins with Cuban-American voters in Florida had improved by an unrealistic 10 points, she still would have lost the state—and the election. As in other parts of the country, working white votes in rural and exurban counties were key to the Trump victory in Florida.
But whether any of the data will dissuade the Trump White House’s determination to change course on U.S.-Cuba policy remains to be seen.
According to Tony Fabrizio, the President’s pollster, Trump is an avid consumer of polls. This helps explain why candidate Trump was originally supportive of Obama’s Cuba policy, which nearly all of the research showed was supported by the majority of Americans, including Cuban-Americans. However, perhaps as a result of a lack of engagement by moderate Cuban-American leaders and inaccurate claims by hardline exiles, the Trump campaign shifted course.
The question now is whether the President will embrace the false narrative propagated by a small segment to whom he is not indebted and turn U.S.-Cuba policy back to the days of President George W. Bush. Doing so would not only defy the electoral logic of Florida’s shifting demographics, it would divide families, hurt independent Cuban citizens on the island, and buck popular attitudes toward U.S.-Cuba policy.
Oh yeah, and it also won’t help the President in Florida in 2020.
Giancarlo Sopo is a public affairs executive. He was formerly the head of marketing at Benenson Strategy Group and a teaching fellow on leadership and politics at the Harvard Extension School. His commentary on public policy issues has been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Miami Herald, Univision and Telemundo.