Democrats seeking to counter President Donald Trump’s use of “socialism” as a slur can look to a yearlong effort to fight back now underway in Florida.
Trump frequently attacks Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as socialists in the mold of progressives in Congress like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are pushing the party to adopt far-left policies.
This attack has particular resonance among Hispanic voters, particularly those from socialist countries.
Democrats were stung by a narrow loss in a gubernatorial race in 2018 that featured similar accusations, and Florida Democrats are looking to blunt those attacks in the crucial 2020 swing state.
The party is reaching out to voters whose negative experiences with governments in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba have heightened their concerns about socialism and made them receptive to Trump’s criticisms.
Over the past year, the state Democratic Party has hired a Latino outreach director, launched a Spanish-language radio show and trained surrogates to make their case on Univision, Telemundo and local TV and radio. It’s also seeking to register more Latino voters as part of a $2.8 million effort on voter registration.
Roughly one in six registered voters in Florida is Hispanic, according to the Pew Research Center. Exit polls showed that Cuban Americans, who make up roughly a third of Florida Hispanics, were about twice as likely to vote for Trump in 2016 as non-Cuban Hispanics.
Democrats nationally fear that the attack is effective enough to peel off votes from other Latin American immigrants in 2020.
Charges of socialism have “absolutely worked” in the past, said Evelyn Perez-Verdia, a Colombian-American consultant who works in South Florida. “They are playing with the fears of our communities,” she said.
Joshua Karp, a former spokesman for Andrew Gillum, a Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2016, said he’s concerned that the national party is underestimating the
potency of that messaging, especially in such a closely fought state.
Gillum lost by slightly less than half a percentage point in a race in which both Trump and the Republican candidate, Ron DeSantis, painted him as a “far-left socialist” who “wants to turn Florida into Venezuela,” a label Gillum rejected and fact-checkers rated as false.
Still, Karp said the accusation may have been effective in damaging Gillum’s campaign in a state where races are often decided by the thinnest of margins.
“In the research I have seen, this word is a gateway to people believing other negative narratives about Democrats,” he said. “By leading with socialism, Republicans can inject other arguments about Democrats that would otherwise be dismissed by a lot of voters.”
Trump has signalled that he will intensify those attacks, regardless of the eventual Democratic nominee.
Trump is hardly the first Republican to paint an opponent as a socialist. John McCain and Mitt Romney both used the label to describe Barack Obama at times.