HIALEAH, Fla. — Republicans in South Florida are a tough bunch, hardened by decades of swing state campaigns in counties that house much of the state’s Democratic base.
When I visited the area at the same point in the race in 2008, birtherism had already spread like wildfire and anti-communist signs were everywhere. The “socialist” epithets now standard at tea party rallies around the country carry much more emotional heft here, where the dominant — and very conservative — Cuban community has seen lives uprooted by a communist dictatorship.
Now take that siege mentality, add four years of a president they despise, a surging Republican nominee, plus a hefty dose of economic pain in a state that’s been among the worst hit by the recession and you get an idea of how fired up Romney supporters have become since then.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) rallied supporters outside Romney’s field office on Monday in Hialeah, Fla., a huge Cuban enclave considered one of the most conservative cities in America, and it didn’t take a lot to get the crowd going. Nearly all of the speeches from the stage were delivered in Spanish, but Rubio briefly switched to English to suggest attendees watch fellow speaker Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s (R-FL) Congressional hearings on C-SPAN. This drew jeers from a couple of supporters. “They’re liberal!” one woman yelled. Another chimed in: “They’re liars!”
Continuing, Rubio asked in Spanish why Obama refused to give his plans for the next four years. “Socialismo!” an older audience member answered, pumping his fist into the air.
In general, voters and volunteers I talked to were torn between their contempt for the press and a strong desire to vent after months of being told daily how their candidate was a hapless loser. Many asked to pass on a few choice words to Candy Crowley, who has become a pariah on the right after fact checking Romney mid-debate on Libya. After the perfunctory media-bashing, though, most were eager to talk. And while the local party runs hot in general, it doesn’t take long before you hear real recession horror stories magnifying the anger.
At the Rubio rally, Stuart Sklarek, 55, felt me out a bit before politely agreeing to talk. “I was a little leery, you could be from the New York Times,” he said. “President Obama’s getting so aggressive, he wouldn’t be above sending out thought police, taking down license numbers.” He paused a beat: “I know that sounds paranoid.”
Soon, though, he was talking about how real estate losses in 2008 upended his retirement as a physician and forced him back to work. I asked if things are getting any better lately. “Not really,” he said.
Sklarek is far from certain that Romney will win, but he’s very impressed with his recent campaign after voting for Gingrich in the primary. “The more I see of him the more I like him,” he said.
This is a popular notion. Romney may have had trouble winning over the right during the hard fought Florida primary, but now that he’s within striking distance of a victory and Obama is taking shots at him personally, the rallying effect is big.
“He’s 100 percent better than I expected,” Pedro Peraza, 57, tells me. Peraza’s son, Michael, 27, adds that he would have taken back his Gingrich vote in the primaries had he known Romney would campaign this hard.
The elder Peraza has also seen some tough times. He built a profitable business “starting with 50 bucks” selling fire protection equipment, only to see sales plummet when construction ground to a halt. “It’s been horrible,” he said. “People are afraid to put money into buildings now.”
He said he originally leaned Democrat back when he lived in New Jersey, where he volunteered for a number of Sen. Bob Mendez’s (D-NJ) local campaigns. But he swung to the right decisively when the Obama phenomenon took off in 2008.
“We know from childhood what communism looks like,” he said. “All populist movements lead to socialism.”
The Peraza’s isn’t the only family business at the rally struggling. Romney backer Jose Manuel, 18, has been working shifts between classes at FIU and during weekends for his folks’ fast food joint ever since they laid off several workers to make ends meet. “We have to fill in the gaps — sales have gone down and we can’t afford to hire more people,” he told TPM.
The event did have at least one undecided voter, though, in William Serrano, 19. His friend pushed him to the front to meet Rubio: “This guy’s undecided! You got an undecided here!”
“Watch the debate tonight, you’ll make up your mind,” Rubio said.
Serrano told me he was intrigued Ron Paul’s isolationist platform during the primaries, but didn’t consider himself a dedicated supporter. Now he’s leaning ever so slightly Obama, but not for the most uplifting reasons.
“The worst case with Obama is you get four years of the same,” he said. “But the worst case with Romney is you get four years of Bush.”
Hialeah may seem like hopeless territory for Obama. But older Cubans complained to me frequently in 2008 that the younger generation was a weak link in the Republican coalition, perhaps partially accounting for a huge swing in the overall Hispanic vote in the state to Obama that year (he won 57% per CNN’s exit poll, beating Bush’s 56% in 2004).
This time, however, the Hispanic vote is looking more Republican in polls. Polls that, not coincidentally, show Romney gaining strength over the last month. Florida-based GOP consultant Ana Navarro offered up some possible reasons for the shift, noting the continued economic struggles in the state and an improved Republican ground game that can better reach their voters. It also reflects Florida’s unique makeup.
“Romney’s biggest obstacle with Latinos nationally has been his immigration positions,” she said in an e-mail. “Florida’s two largest Latino voting blocs, Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans are less affected by immigration debate than other groups.”
Over at the Obama campaign’s Little Havana field office in Miami, Democrats are hoping to counter the Republican’s strength in the Cuban community elsewhere. Despite the name, the working class neighborhood contains a large Central American community, a region that’s brought an influx of new residents to Florida in recent years.
“It used to be a Republican bastion,” Alfred Fuente, who grew up in the area and heads up the office, told TPM. “It’s more of an area for newly arrived immigrants now.”
The question is how quickly that demographic shift can be converted to votes. Fuente says he’s been highly encouraged by the campaign’s “wildly successful” neighborhood operations, which he says have earned strong support from the locals. But many supporters are not yet citizens and can’t vote, limiting the net gains.
As for the other side’s enthusiasm, Fuente says he’s had his share of passing drivers shouting “communist!” at him. “They are old, they are angry, they are rude,” he said. His office does indeed have a mellower vibe — I was more likely to hear about the “great love” for Obama from supporters than rage towards Romney — but that’s considered a point of pride, not weakness.
“It’s a poignant contrast when you see these younger impassioned voters and those older impassioned voters,” he said.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.