The Puerto Rican Vote in Florida

As happens every two years, Florida politics is turning  its attention to Puerto Rico, from President Donald J. Trump’s order of $13 billion in financial aid for the island to Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s promise for debt forgiveness and statehood. These are just the latest signs that Puerto Ricans are considered critical part of the state’s electorate. No surprise: They are the fastest-growing Latinx community in the Sunshine State, with 1.2 million residents — more than any other state — including 600,000 in Central Florida’s I-4 corridor.

As a U.S. territory, the island doesn’t have any electoral votes but Puerto Ricans may play a crucial role in deciding our next president, thanks to the role they have assumed as swing voters in the ultimate swing state. That status has made them a critical target for both parties. Despite their efforts, however, neither party has been able to mobilize the constituency. Why? They haven’t given Puerto Ricans sufficient reason to actually participate in the electoral process.

The Puerto Rican community in Central Florida started growing even before the island’s Hurricane Maria exodus, as its financial crisis spurred a wave of arrivals circa 2015. During the 2018 midterms, Florida politicians traveling more than 1,000 miles out of state to campaign on the island became a familiar scene as they pursued the mainland Puerto Rican constituency’s votes. At the same time, both parties made efforts to bolster Puerto Ricans’ voter registration in Central Florida. But to this point these efforts have paid few dividends

In many ways, Florida’s experience mirrors the country’s. The U.S. Latinx population has grown significantly over the last TK years, contributing more than half of the total population growth in the United States in the last decade. But as with Florida Puerto Ricans, they are voting under their weight.

Political pros in both parties frequently make the classic mistake of assuming that the Latinx community votes as a bloc where issues of interest to one subset sway all. But Puerto Ricans, for example, are U.S. citizens, not immigrants, so immigration issues are not as salient as they may be for Mexicans or others who originated in Latin America. The issue even loses its potency for the latter group among second- and third-generation citizens. Likewise, attempts in this campaign season to invoke socialism as a subject of anxiety may get traction with the Cuban-American community and Americans of Nicaraguan and Venezuelan origin, but doesn’t work with Puerto Ricans.

Instead a smart campaign will understand what issues speak to Puerto Ricans living in Florida, that are not very different from the rest of the electorate in the state, and make clear the connection between voting and seeing progress on those issues, such as unemployment, minimum wage, education, housing, and healthcare, among the most pressing.

The campaign that is able to engage Florida Puerto Rican voters and get them to actually vote in numbers will have unearthed a secret weapon in the race for 2020. They may find that as goes that community, so goes the presidency.

 

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