Trump's Hardline Flip On Cuba Most Likely Backfired – At Least For Now

Sep 21, 2016

COMMENTARY

Politics makes desperate bedfellows.

So it's not such a big surprise that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Miami Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, also a Republican, appear to have finally slipped under the same campaign sheets.

For Trump that involves a flip-flop more dramatic than his comb-over. During a stump stop in Miami last Friday, he reversed his stance on normalizing relations with Cuba – a policy he called “fine” a year ago – and promised he’ll cancel President Obama’s re-engagement with the communist island until there's more democratic reform.

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For Diaz-Balart, a hardline Cuban exile voice on Capitol Hill who praised Trump last week, this may involve ditching deep reservations about The Donald – including the GOP candidate’s “murderers” and “rapists” slurs about immigrants – as long as Trump embraces isolating Cuba.

At first glance, what each gets out of this one-night stand looks so embarrassingly minimal it could be a scene in “Wedding Crashers.”

Trump solidifies a reliably Republican voting bloc – older, more conservative Cuban exiles – who were once presidential kingmakers but whose clout today is fading faster than Benny Moré songs on Miami radio.

At first glance, what Trump and hardline Cuban exiles get out of this one-night stand looks so embarrassingly minimal it could be a scene in Wedding Crashers.

Since Trump has alienated every other Latino group in the battleground state of Florida – and just about everywhere else – the Cuban hardliners are all he’s got in that swing demographic. They’re the reason Cuban voters as a whole still favor him over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by four points in a new Florida International University poll.

For his part, Diaz-Balart can now say: See? My party’s presidential candidates still believe in tightening the screws on Cuba – even if it’s done nothing to loosen the Castro regime’s grip on power there.

And that means a lot to Diaz-Balart because, just days before Trump’s hardline hop last week, the FIU poll showed that in Miami-Dade County more Cubans than ever support engagement with Cuba. In fact, two-thirds of them say it’s time to dump the U.S. trade embargo. Trump essentially gifted Diaz-Balart a thread of legitimacy and relevance on Cuba when both are steadily slipping away from him and like-minded politicos.

Not just in Miami but in Cuba itself. Trump and Diaz-Balart barked the jaded “standing with the Cuban people” line last week. But in a key sense they don't. A poll by Miami-based Bendixen & Amandi International last year showed Cuba’s Cubans overwhelmingly believe renewed U.S. relations will benefit them – and 80 percent of them admire Obama.

Either way, Trump’s about-face on Cuba may not have gotten him a big Florida bounce. According to a Monmouth University poll out today – conducted over the weekend – he’s 5 points behind Clinton here after many recent polls had him edging ahead.

'54 CHEVY

Here’s a possible explanation – one that suggests his Cuba ploy may backfire like a ’54 Chevy on Havana’s Malecón.

A key Monmouth finding is that Trump keeps digging a deeper hole with Florida’s non-white voters. They now back Clinton by a gaping 69 percent-to-16 percent margin. Chief among them are all those Latinos Trump has dissed – especially the burgeoning bloc of non-Cuban Latinos.

Non-Cuban Latinos have long felt themselves looked down upon by conservative Cubans. By so transparently sucking up to the latter, Trump may well have further galvanized the former, not to mention younger and more moderate Miami Cubans.

A Cuban-American voter shows support for Trump before the GOP primary debate in Coral Gables last March.
Credit Tim Padgett / WLRN.org

You can also speculate that Trump’s Florida foray last week may have affected conservative Cuban pols like incumbent Senator Marco Rubio – who after running a solid 5 points ahead of his Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy is suddenly just 2 points in front in the new Monmouth poll.

Still, you’ll notice that earlier I said, “At first glance.” There may well be a second glance come election time – especially if non-Cuban Latino and more moderate Cuban voters don’t show up at the polls in adequate numbers. That’s a valid prospect considering how anemically Clinton – unlike Obama in 2008 and 2012 – is connecting with Florida Latinos despite their disdain for Trump.

After all, Cuban pols like Diaz-Balart keep getting re-elected because the hardline exile core, fading or not, still hauls itself to the voting booth with a ferocity the rest of Florida’s Latino electorate has yet to match.

And Donald knew that before he desperately dived under the Cuba covers.