If it’s September in an election year, there’s a good chance the action is in Florida.
On Tuesday, the campaigning came from former Vice President Joe Biden, who made his first trip to the perpetual battleground state as the Democratic presidential nominee, amid mounting concern from his party about lackluster support among Latinos.
In appealing to that crucial voting bloc, Biden portrayed himself as a champion of the community and accused his rival, President Trump, of doing “nothing but assault the dignity of Hispanic families over and over and over and over again.”
“There’s no separating out Hispanic heritage from American heritage. These stories are one and the same and growing more vibrantly and twined every single day today,” Biden said at a speech in Kissimmee, a hub of Florida’s Puerto Rican population. “It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the success of this country depends on Hispanics having the opportunities and the tools they need to succeed.”
Recent polls have shown a neck-and-neck race, fitting for the Sunshine State, which has regularly been decided by the slimmest of margins. In 2016, President Trump won the state’s 29 electoral votes by roughly 114,000 votes, an edge of 1.2%.
The most recent survey, released Tuesday by Monmouth University in New Jersey, found that Biden had between a three- and five-point lead over Trump in the state. Although Biden has a wide lead with voters of color overall, that advantage narrows when it comes to Latinos.
“Biden’s current lead among Latinos is similar to [Hillary] Clinton’s margin four years ago. One difference, though, is how Florida’s Latino electorate has shifted since 2016,” said Patrick Murray, director of the university’s polling institute. “There has been an influx of residents from Puerto Rico and a growing number of young voters. These groups tend to be more Democratic, which actually suggests that Trump could be doing slightly better among older Latino voters than he did four years ago.”
In Florida, Latinos made up roughly 18% of the vote in 2016, and they sided with Clinton over Trump by a nearly 30-point margin. But the Latino community in Florida is anything but monolithic. Cuban voters that year were about twice as likely as non-Cubans to pick Trump, according to Pew Research Center.
Biden marked the start of Hispanic Heritage Month on Tuesday with an event featuring actress Eva Longoria, and musicians Ricky Martin and Luis Fonsi. After starting his remarks with a brief musical interlude — playing Fonsi’s hit “Despacito” on his phone — Biden touted his just-released plan for Puerto Rico, which would provide debt relief and infrastructure investments for the island but will defer to local representatives on the question of statehood.
He listed a number of ways he would depart from Trump on issues pertaining to the island and the Latino community more broadly.
“I’m not going to steal the money that [was] desperately needed to reconstruct the island in order to build a wall along the border that does nothing to keep Americans safe. I’m not going to suggest that we sell or trade… Puerto Rico. I’m not gonna throw paper towels at people whose lives have just been devastated by a hurricane,” Biden said, recalling Trump’s visit with victims of Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Republicans have repeatedly bashed Biden, portraying him as beholden to the far-left elements in his party, an attack that could have particular resonance for residents of Cuban and Venezuelan descent.
Jeanette Núñez, the state’s lieutenant governor, said in a Trump campaign call that a Biden presidency would mean a return to the Obama administration’s opening of relations with Cuba, a move that makes it easier for the island’s leaders “to prop up socialist dictators like [Nicolás] Maduro in Venezuela.”
While Biden aimed to shore up his base of Latino voters, his Florida trip also aimed to coax military voters away from Trump.
Though veterans are typically a GOP-leaning voting bloc, polling has found that Trump’s lead with that group has dwindled. The Monmouth poll Tuesday found that Trump had a four-point edge over Biden among Florida’s military and veteran households, which make up about a third of the state’s electorate.
The president’s appeal to those voters is particularly fraught in the wake of reporting by the Atlantic alleging that Trump privately disparaged wounded and fallen service members, including the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and questioned why people would serve in the military. Trump has denied the report, although the president has continued to speak about his clashes with McCain. Other outlets confirmed the report, which said Trump called soldiers “losers” and “suckers.”
“Quite frankly, it makes me very upset, the way he gets in front of the camera and crows about how much he’s done for the veterans and then turns around and insults our service members, our fallen heroes, when the cameras are off,” Biden said at a roundtable for veterans in Tampa.
Biden spoke at length about how it felt to be a parent of a serviceman abroad; his late son, Beau, was deployed in 2008 as a member of the Delaware National Guard to Iraq. The former vice president also accused Trump of falsely taking credit for an Obama-era measure to expand healthcare options for veterans.
“President Trump likes to say he passed VA Choice. Just like everything else he seems to be saying, this figment of his imagination is a flat lie,” Biden said.
In a Trump campaign call with reporters, Jennifer Carroll, a former lieutenant governor of Florida and retired naval officer, sought to undercut Biden’s appeal to the military by pointing out incidents of long wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals during the Obama-Biden administration.
“The scandal of neglect and mistreatment of veterans at the VA hospital was a heartbreaking and scandalous story that happened under Joe Biden,” Carroll said. “Joe Biden knows that his record on the military and veterans is one of failure.”
The delays, which came to light in 2014, prompted reforms of the healthcare system; Veterans Choice, which pays for veterans to see doctors outside the VA system, was passed that year under Obama.
Trump has made multiple trips this year to Florida and has given his Palm Beach estate Mar-A-Lago the moniker “The Winter White House.” His most recent visit to the state was July 31, when he rallied supporters on the tarmac of the Tampa airport.
For Trump, Florida is a near necessity in his campaign to clinch 270 electoral votes. Though Democrats say they can win the White House without it, the state it also remains a high priority for Biden.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster working for Biden, told reporters Tuesday that Florida was “too close to call” and a “very, very volatile place.”
“Winning Florida is like winning Western Europe,” Lake said. “You have to win England and France and Germany and Spain, and they’re all so different.”
Times staff writer Janet Hook in Washington contributed to this report.