WASHINGTON — 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 Rep. 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 signaled that he will intensify those attacks, regardless of the eventual Democratic nominee.
One recent series of ads by the Trump campaign on Facebook claimed that “every 2020 Democrat candidate” has embraced “the ideas of radical socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar to try and appeal to their extreme left-wing base.”
“We’ve seen socialism completely FAIL in countries like Venezuela and Greece,” the ad says before asking voters to take an “official socialism approval poll.”
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. Among the crowded Democratic field, only Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist,” while the attacks have helped push Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden to state they are capitalists.
At a debate in September, Sanders was pressed by a Univision reporter to explain the difference between his views and those of authoritarian socialists like Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. “Let me be very clear: Anybody who does what Maduro does is a vicious tyrant,” Sanders responded.
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Trump is already pushing hard on the attack line in online ads that are aimed at building up lists of potential voters and donors.
A recent online ad segues from a news segment on the Green New Deal proposal endorsed by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez to images of Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro and a flag-burning by a fringe U.S. group, the Revolutionary Communist Party, all shown beneath a banner urging viewers to text the campaign.
Trump is spending big on online ads already, putting $24 million toward ads on Facebook and $13 million for ads on Google so far, making him one of the biggest advertisers on both platforms.
But Florida Democratic Party spokeswoman Luisana Pérez Gonzalez said many of the key voters there can be reached better through local radio and TV shows. That led the party to launch “Democracia al Dia,” a half-hour radio show on Saturdays that reaches about 6,000 listeners each week, and why it’s training media surrogates to appear on local news shows.
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Among the arguments that Democrats are making: criticizing the Trump administration’s handling of Venezuela’s troubled government, deportations of Cuban residents and failure to grant temporary protected status to Venezuelans. They’re also hitting back with an epithet of their own, calling Trump a “caudillo,” a Spanish word for an authoritarian leader.
“His systematic attacks against the free press, his intentions to pack the judiciary, his idea of justice — where the whole Justice Department, the FBI and the intelligence community has to be loyal to him — this is exactly what we fled in Latin America,” said Leopoldo Martinez, a Democratic National Committee member who fought the regime of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. “This is not a thing of left or right.”
But Republicans argue that Democrats brought the charge of socialism on themselves. Rory Cooper, a Republican political strategist, said that Democratic proposals for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and free college have reinvigorated the debate over socialism, as has the prominence of Sanders in the primary.
“If you look at the platform that the Democrats are struggling with right now, it’s very clear that within their own party there is this generational tension between the Bernie Sanders platform and the Obama-Biden pragmatic platform,” he said. “I think it makes complete sense for Republicans to take advantage of that tension.”
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