In a Trump v. DeSantis Matchup, Latinos Could be the Decider

The possible battle lines of the 2024 election came into focus over the course of one week in November. Ron DeSantis cruised to re-election, making him a frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2024, just days before Donald Trump announced his intention to run for president a third time.

The two current heavyweights of the Republican Party seem destined for a coming clash, with Trump already nicknaming the Florida governor “Ron DeSanctimonious,” publicly citing a poll showing him leading DeSantis in a potential matchup, and telling the story that DeSantis came to him for help in 2017, desperate and “politically dead.”

DeSantis responded by saying that when you’re leading and getting things done “you take incoming fire,” and that at the end of the day, “I would just tell people to go check out the scoreboard from last Tuesday night.”

And tucked away in a survey conducted for Bienvenido by the noted Washington D.C. polling firm WPA Intelligence, which accurately predicted the improvement Republicans made with Hispanics in the midterm elections, is a finding that indicates Latinos could be critical in deciding who comes out on top of a Trump-DeSantis clash.

The survey showed that DeSantis had a higher net favorability rating among Latino voters, at 5%, while Trump’s was the lowest of those polled, at -13%, an 18-point differential.

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Posters of former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hang in a booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at The Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, Florida on February 24, 2022.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A grassroots Latino progressive group in Florida came up with similar results in their own pre-midterm poll.

Mi Vecino surveyed 500 Hispanic Republicans via text, asking if they preferred DeSantis or Trump. The results showed that 41.7% were pro-DeSantis and anti-Trump, 29% supported Trump and viewed DeSantis as an usurper, and only 15% were supportive of both.

While on his way to beating Charlie Crist by 19 points in the race for governor, DeSantis also won heavily-Hispanic Miami-Dade County, becoming the first Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate to win the Latino vote in 20 years.

Republicans across the country took notice.

“If you’re a Republican strategist who cares about bringing more Hispanics into the party, you should be looking at Florida as an example to follow,” said Giancarlo Sopo, the founder of Visto Media, who was involved with the Bienvenido poll, and previously ran Spanish-language rapid response for the Trump campaign.

“DeSantis didn’t just do it with Cubans,” he said. “He did it with non-Cubans as well.”

Nelson Diaz, the former chair of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, was so moved by the total domination of DeSantis on Election Day that he endorsed him for president. Despite telling Newsweek in January that he “adored” both “incredible leaders,” he found himself responding to “the massiveness of the sea change that occurred in Miami-Dade.”

But not all of the data show DeSantis easily surpassing Trump with Hispanics.

Some Florida Republicans note that it was the Trump campaign’s laser-focus on the state for the four years after he became president that led to his impressive showing in 2020. And those same Republicans acknowledge that he made it easier for DeSantis to take the baton and run with it in the Sunshine State.

Although Cuban-Americans are not a large percentage of the Latino community nationally, they are definitely a force in Florida politics — and they are still firmly in the Trump camp, by a large majority.

Fernand Amandi, the top consultant for Obama’s Latino voter polling during both campaigns, found in a poll this year that 75% of Cuban-American voters favored Trump over DeSantis head-to-head.

Some of that love was present during Trump’s rally in Florida just days before the election, and he gleefully seized on it.

“The socialist, communist and Marxist direction of the radical Democratic Party is one of the biggest reasons that Hispanic Americans are joining our movement by the millions and millions and millions,” Trump said.

According to the Miami Herald’s Bianca Padró Ocasio, the crowd started chanting. “We love you! We love you!”

“Oh do I love you,” Trump responded. “You have no idea how much.”

Jesus Marquez, a campaign advisor for Republican candidate Adam Laxalt in Nevada, whose loss to the incumbent Latina Senator Catherine Cortez Masto ultimately sealed continued Democratic control of the Senate, told Newsweek that while DeSantis was impressive on Election Day, he still ultimately backs Trump.

“In my view, and people in the base, he’s the one that can put up the fight,” Marquez said.

Asked about the view of some Republicans, including Diaz in Miami, that Trump cost Republicans the Senate by backing personalities like Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, who lost, and Herschel Walker in Georgia, whose race went to a runoff, Marquez said Trump is not to blame for the defeats.

Citing the Laxalt race, he said the Democratic rule change of sending mail ballots to every voter in Nevada helped them, and also said that groups like the powerful Culinary Union had 200 to 300 people available to help with the painstaking process of curing ballots that had problems such as signatures or similar issues.

He said the Republican Party is going to have to react to these changes when voters return to the polls.

“Next cycle we have to adapt to the new system,” Marquez argued, “which is what Donald Trump is going to be doing.”

While Trump is still popular with Hispanic Republicans, some in the Party believe they are souring on him along with many other Republicans.

One Republican strategist said it will soon be clear that DeSantis adeptly brings together the different wings of the party, “from Reagan Republicans to the more Trumpy Republicans.”

“He’s a very unifying figure,” the source said, noting Trump’s higher negatives with Republicans, and arguing that DeSantis does better with independent voters, who don’t like Trump at all.

Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a Democratic strategist and expert with two decades of experience in messaging to Spanish-speakers and combatting disinformation campaigns aimed at Latinos, said DeSantis was smart to take his Hispanic outreach to communities other than Cuban-Americans, citing the Colombian-American Republican Convention in August that featured DeSantis and Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.

She noted that those invited were being asked whether they were Democrats, Republicans, or independents, which showed an effort to reach across the aisle.

Pérez-Verdía said it’s this kind of robust outreach that should make Democrats nervous. She told of an encounter she had after at a recent asado in Tampa with friends, in which a “strong Ecuadorian Obama and Biden voter” told her that “with the way the Democratic Party is going, if they don’t have a good candidate for president, I might vote for someone like DeSantis.”

Some Republicans argue that Trump can barely get out of his own way, which still has the potential to torpedo his candidacy.

According to a source in Trump’s orbit, a draft of his announcement speech included a damning line once again embracing the Big Lie that he won the 2020 election, before it was ultimately struck from his remarks.

“One of first sentences in his speech was going to be that he’s best-positioned to run because he’s won two national elections,” a source said.

On the influential Spanish-language airwaves in south Florida, hosts and analysts are still wary of taking sides in the possible Trump-DeSantis war, but many listeners have no such compunctions. Some who like both men have suggested that Trump should run now and DeSantis should wait his turn in 2028, the Miami Herald reported.

“We love DeSantis for what he’s done in Florida,” one woman calling in to Pérez Castellón’s “Ninoska en Mambí” show said, adding, “You have to give 100% of the credit to Trump, and after that to DeSantis.”

At his rally, Trump seemed to revel in the knowledge that he still has fervent backers among the Hispanic community.

“They say it’s the Trump party they’re coming to,” Trump said. “I say, let it be the Republican Party. But you do like me, I know that.”

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