Miguel Arango had just turned 18 when he voted for Barack Obama in 2012.
Four years later, he was a passionate supporter of Bernie Sanders, but opted for a third-party candidate in the 2016 general election.
“I was not going to vote for Trump either,” he said. “I thought all these things about him — that he was this, he was that. And slowly it started transitioning.”
Arango says that transition involved patriotic music that he and his brother, Federico, play together. The Colombian Americans lead a group called Voices of Freedom. They sing at veterans events, and they’ve even submitted a song for consideration to be the anthem of the newly formed U.S. Space Force.
Federico Arango, who is 30, voted twice for Obama. Like a lot of young people of color, he says the Democratic Party’s message of change appealed to them.
But he says they’ve since been exposed to new perspectives. And growing up in Miami, they see the effects of socialism and communism from family and friends.
“We see the parallels between things that are happening in those other countries, in those places with the left, and the Democratic Party,” Federico Arango said. “And we see the Trump administration standing up for and implementing policies that would fight against those things.”
The state of play in Florida
President Trump’s reelection campaign is pushing a socialism message as a strategy in Florida.
In the process, the campaign is testing the narrative that younger Latinos in South Florida, who are likely less affected by the scars of Latin American autocrats than older generations, lean toward Democrats.
Jessica Fernandez, the chairwoman of the Florida Young Republicans, pokes fun at those who argue younger Latinos have upended South Florida’s electorate.
“Because you have one or two college students who are woke saying that they support leftist policies doesn’t mean that’s a reflection of the greater Latino community,” she said. “It’s just not accurate.”
Trump’s challenger, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, is ahead in most major polls of Florida Latinos. But many surveys show Trump gaining ground among Latinos, compared with results against Hillary Clinton four years ago.
Trump lost Miami-Dade County by almost 30 points in 2016, but a recent poll by Bendixen & Amandi International found he’s currently down only 17 points there.
The president doesn’t need to win the Latino vote, of course. Reducing the margins may be enough to again prevail in a state he won by 1.2% four years ago. And his support illustrates that the Latino vote is not monolithic.
“There’s clearly an opportunity here to make inroads to the Latino community,” said Mercedes Schlapp, a Trump campaign senior adviser who is Cuban American and from Miami. “We really do feel that the Democrats have taken the Latino community for granted.”
The pollster Fernand Amandi says Republicans never removed their campaign operation from South Florida. In a way, he said, they replicated former President Barack Obama’s successful strategy of maintaining a presence in the state between the two elections. He says Democrats missed an opportunity.
“It’s a mystery because for whatever reason, they have not utilized that best practice that was established by Obama who, incidentally, is the only Democratic candidate for president to have won Florida in the last 20 years,” Amandi said.
The Biden campaign is reacting. It hired more staff in Florida and increased spending on Spanish-language advertising.
Soon after the Bendixen poll was released earlier this month, Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, made a campaign trip to Miami. She included a surprise visit to a Venezuelan restaurant in Doral. A week later, Biden visited Kissimmee near Orlando, where thousands of Puerto Ricans — often Democratic leaning — have relocated since Hurricane Maria.
Christian Ulvert, a campaign adviser for Biden in Florida, downplayed the Republican advances, citing advantages Democrats hold with mail-in voting and note they outnumber Republicans in Miami-Dade by more than 200,000.
“And so as ballots get ready to go out in some counties on [Sept. 24] and by Oct. 1, you’re going have more Democrats receiving ballots than ever before,” he said.
Claudia Guerra, who was born in Cuba but grew up in Miami, doesn’t need to see polls to understand what’s at stake.
She’s worried about the amount of misinformation and conspiracy theories that inflate the fears of socialism in the community.
Sitting in her grandparents’ backyard, the 22-year-old says members of her own family members believe — incorrectly — that Biden is a socialist.
She’s alarmed by a cousin who has shunned politics for decades, but is now a vocal Trump supporter.
“I’ve had conversations with him, we’ve argued and he has told me, he was like, ‘Oh, I’ve never voted in this country because politics don’t interest me,’ ” she said. “But he buys into certain conspiracy theories. And now I saw him make a post in favor of Trump. That alarms me.”
As for the patriotic band, Voices of Freedom, it is not a conservative group. Members have all different political affiliations.
Daniela Vargas, 21, whose family is from Mexico, plans to vote for Biden. She says it’s important for people to know that the band isn’t political, and that people with different political perspectives can work together.
Sophia Martinez, 18, plays the guitar for the band.
The Cuban American realizes some members are concerned about Democrats and socialism, but she sees those fears as misguided.
She says the real problem is the president himself.
“I feel like Trump is mishandling the pandemic and this world horribly,” she said. “I don’t like the way he’s handling it. I don’t like how his presidency is going. I’m just super against it.”
Miguel and Federico Arango are still registered Democrats. They don’t count out the possibility of supporting Democrats again, but they do feel like they now have more in common with Republicans.
They also appreciate the support the party and the administration have given for their music — especially the encouragement in submitting the Space Force anthem.
“That was a big push,” Federico Arango said, “a big rocket launch to convince us to give Trump a chance and to listen to the administration more and to align ourselves more personally with the Trump administration.”