Trump owes Florida victory to the Vene diaspora; Biden likely to keep sanctions

Trump owes Florida victory to the Vene diaspora; Biden likely to keep sanctions

  • The Venezuelan community’s role in Trump’s Florida victory shows the importance of electoral maths in foreign policy
  • Biden is unlikely to meaningfully ease sanctions on Venezuela and Cuba – the electoral costs are too high
  • Diaspora communities in swing states may also constrain Biden’s policy towards Colombia, Haiti and Nigeria

With Joe Biden closing in on the presidency, all eyes (and analysts’ pens[1]) will be focused on what his policy programme means. Indeed, we’ve looked at what it means for foreign policy and for emerging markets, and why it may not mean much for financial markets.

I worry, however, that the impact on the politics, rather than the policy, of foreign relations may be underappreciated. Indeed, this election could be a watershed for how electoral maths drives US foreign policy.

When I was in government, I rapidly learned there are three emerging markets where you needed to think carefully about the domestic politics of their diaspora in the US: Israel, Cuba, and Armenia. Expanding to developed markets, we add one more: Ireland, whose population of just under 5mn is dwarfed by the 33mn Americans, including the President-elect, who identify as Irish. Domestic politics always influences foreign policy, but these four countries are different.

Figure 1: Four diaspora communities with an outsized impact on US foreign policy (millions)

Diasporas in America

The 2020 Presidential election has changed this. Donald Trump seems not to have won, but he has come closer than most commentators expected. Florida was the bridge to his path to potential victory, and the Venezuelan American community handed Florida to Trump. Although liberals and progressives across the country saw Trump as a dictatorial threat to US democracy, Trump has been able portray the Democratic Party, and particularly its progressive wing, as a “socialist” threat to the US. On that basis, he has portrayed himself both as a bulwark against “socialism” in the US and as the greatest supporter of the Venezuelan opposition and its self-proclaimed interim President Juan Guaido. The Venezuelan and Cuban American vote swung towards Trump, enabling him to win Florida.

Latinos now account for 17% of Florida’s registered voters, up from 12% when Obama won the state for the first time in 2008.

Figure 2: Florida's registered Latino voters has almost doubled since 2008

Registered Latino voters

Figure 3: And have risen from 12% to 17% of total registered voters

Percentage of Florida voters who are Latino

Of these, the largest percentage are Cuban Americans (29%) and Puerto Rican Americans (27% and more likely to vote for Biden than Cuban or Venezuelan Americans). South American diaspora groups are the fastest-growing though. The Colombian American and Peruvian American voting populations have doubled, and the Venezuelan American population has nearly tripled.

Figure 4: Florida's South American diaspora groups have grown faster than other Latino diaspora groups in Florida

Florida's South American diaspora groups have grown faster than other Latino diaspora groups in Florida

The minutiae of Trump’s Florida victory will be picked over by psephologists, but I want to look at the lessons that America’s political establishment is likely to take from this and how it will, or at least could, change the conduct of foreign policy.

Six lessons from the 2020 election for diaspora politics and policy

1) Many more diasporas will matter politically and for different reasons. The Venezuelan diaspora is a small fraction of the size of the four diasporas mentioned above. The 484,445 Venezuelan Americans are only 1.66% of Venezuela’s domestic population of 28.87mn, and only 0.15% of the US population. However, the Venezuelan community mattered because it was concentrated in Florida, because Florida was already on an electoral knife-edge and because the Venezuelan American community’s concerns also helped to mobilise the much large Cuban American community in Florida.

2) Where a diaspora is matters more than how big it is. As America becomes more electorally polarised, diaspora communities will matter most when they can influence elections. The Indian American (from South Asia, not American Indian/Native American) community is more than four times larger than the Venezuelan American community, but its political influence is limited by the fact that it is widely dispersed and mostly resides in securely Democratic New York and California. By contrast, the diasporas with the greatest political weight will be those that are heavily concentrated in swing states, like Florida (Cuban, Colombian, Venezuelan and Haitian Americans), Michigan (Arab Americans) or indeed in the future possibly Texas (Mexican and Nigerian Americans).

3) Diaspora voters cannot be taken for granted by either party. It is often said that when Irish immigrants got off the boat, they were welcomed by the parish, the precinct, the pub and the Democratic Party. Black Americans are similarly strong supporters of the Democratic Party, with 88-95% of Blacks voting for the Democrat in every Presidential election in his millennium. But Latinos and Arab Americans, most of whom are Christian, do not break so cleanly or consistently. Polling by the Arab American Institute shows that Trump’s support among Arab Americans has grown from 25% in 2016 to 35% today.

Figure 5: Arab American support for Trump grew from 2016-20

Arab American support for Trump grew from 2016-20

Meanwhile, Latinos remain flexible voters, with different voting intentions in different states, reflecting differences in both local issues and national origins. Florida Latinos are notably more inclined to support the Republican party than their counterparts elsewhere.

Figure 6: Latino party support is flexible and varies between states

Figure 6: Latino party support is flexible and varies between states

4) Biden will have an eye to 2024 as he shapes policy towards Venezuela, and towards other emerging markets with influential diasporas. Many commentators, including Tellimer’s Chief Economist Stuart Culverhouse, have asked whether Biden will continue with Trump’s hard-line on Venezuela or, as the current sanctions have failed to dislodge Maduro, move to a more constructive stance, possibly modelled on the Obama administration’s détente with Cuba. Trump’s success in Florida makes this less likely, and it will make Biden, and his successors, both Democratic and Republican, more attentive to the views of diaspora communities in shaping policy.

5) In a globally interconnected world, diaspora communities will be much more tied to, and thus more influenced by, events at home. At a personal level, I understand Venezuelan American aversion to socialism. When my father fled Communist Hungary for the US in 1956, he had no expectation of ever going back—his future was as part of the American melting pot. Thirty years later, when I was in primary school in Texas, the notion of the US as a melting pot, in which immigrant cultures fused together, was being replaced with the notion of the US as a salad bowl, in which many different, distinct cultures combined to create a multicultural whole. While many in the Democratic Party bemoan their failure with Latinos, in fact Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, Colombian Americans, Venezuelan Americans and others have voted differently and for different reasons, a fact reflected in the much higher percentage of Latinos who voted for Biden in Arizona than in Texas or Florida.[2] Similarly, Nigerian Americans and Kenyan Americans may see the world differently than both Black Americans and one another. Ubiquitous telecommunications and, at least before Covid, relatively easy international travel have allowed diaspora communities in the US to remain connected to their home countries, helping them to remain distinct and mobilise around America’s influence on their home countries.

6) This connectedness means that leaders, including opposition leaders, in countries with potentially influential diasporas in the US may try more proactively to leverage them for political influence. Ireland is perhaps the world’s greatest expert at leveraging its diaspora. Most leaders spend their national day at home, but Ireland’s Taoiseach always spends St Patrick’s Day in the US. Now that the 2020 election has shown the power of smaller diaspora communities, more leaders may seek to follow Ireland’s lead. Could Nigeria mobilise its diaspora to pressure Biden to drop the US’s opposition to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala heading the WTO?

Four diasporas to watch

Taking these six lessons on board, there are four diasporas that could have an outsized influence on US electoral politics, and thereby US foreign policy. Like Venezuelan Americans, Haitian Americans and Colombian Americans have sizable communities in the swing state of Florida, and therefore will be a political priority going forward. If the Democratic Party is able to more effectively target Mexican Americans, Texas’s changing demographics will put it in play, perhaps as early as 2024,[3] making its small, but well-organised, Nigerian American community a key building block of a potential Democratic victory in the second most electorally valuable state in America.

Figure 7: The new diaspora kingmakers are smaller, and have a much smaller share of their population in America, but are concentrated in swing states (millions)

The new diaspora kingmakers are smaller, and have a much smaller share of their population in America, but are concentrated in swing states

Implications: Venezuela and Cuba sanctions to stay, diaspora special interest groups will influence US foreign policy more under Biden

US foreign policy will increasingly be shaped by the influence of diasporas in American as well as foreign policy objectives. Investors trying to anticipate the US’s approach to Venezuela, and indeed to other emerging markets, need to focus on the electoral implications of a given policy, not just the macroeconomic and geopolitical implications.

Specifically with respect to Venezuela and Cuba, this makes it more likely that Biden will maintain, or even ratchet up, sanctions, and less likely that he will seek a détente with Maduro or return to the Obama-era policy of normalising relations with Cuba, which would cost the Democratic party Florida in 2024. Trump’s attack in Florida had two prongs: that Biden’s embrace of the Progressive wing of the Democratic party risked introducing “socialism” to the US and that Biden would be soft on Maduro and Castro. As a one-term President seeking to anoint a rival who will carry the Democrats to victory in 2024, Biden cannot afford to shun the Progressives. As such, Biden’s only option to swing Venezuelans and Cubans to the Democrats in 2024 will be to show that he can be as tough on Venezuelan socialism and Cuban communism as Trump was. Having won the Presidency by a hair’s breadth, Biden will be hesitant to trade Florida’s 29 electoral votes in 2024 for a better policy towards Venezuela and Cuba. Even if Biden is inclined to pursue Obama-style normalisation, the electoral maths prevents him from doing so.

Author’s note: Even with the best possible intentions, writing about race, ethnicity and national origins is a minefield, and this is doubly so after one of the most divisive elections in American history. If you feel that I’ve gotten something wrong here, please give me that opportunity to discuss it rather than take offense. I’m available at paul.domjan@tellimer.com and would love to hear from you.

[1] Unless, of course, you’re a tech strategist, in which case divided government = no meaningful new regulation = NASDAQ up.

[2] See the CNN exit polling for Arizona, Florida and Texas. Research from Unidos US shows both that Florida Latinos are less concerned about immigration and more concerned about the economy than Latinos in other US states and that their specific concerns about immigration also differ.

[3] In this election, a 13-percentage point swing in the Latino vote in Texas would have delivered the state to Biden.


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