Puerto Ricans in Florida: Swing Constituency in a Swing State

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

A surge in the number of Puerto Ricans moving to Florida suggests a major shift in the impact of Latino issues in next year’s U.S. elections. As the island’s economic crisis deepens and severe austerity looms large, thousands of Puerto Ricans are arriving in Florida monthly, according to estimates, with the single biggest destination being Central Florida. The director of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration office in Central Florida has estimated a 15 to 20 percent increase in the number of new arrivals in recent months. The director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center has called it “the biggest movement of people out of Puerto Rico since the great migration of the 1950s.” Anecdotal accounts follow trends first identified in the 2010 census and a 2013 Pew Research Center indicating an uptick in island-born Puerto Ricans arriving in the mainland. Puerto Ricans in Florida now number almost one million – only 200,000 short of the number of the state’s Cuban-Americans. The three counties around Orlando – seen by pundits as essential to any statewide or national campaign – were home to about 271,000 Puerto Ricans (representing about 14 percent of the total population of those three counties) in 2013, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Many of the new residents are white-collar workers, in contrast to those in the last major wave of arrivals who came to work at Disney World in the 1980s.

Because Puerto Ricans residing on the island are citizens but do not have the right to vote in presidential elections, an influx of hundreds of thousands onto the mainland introduces a substantial expansion of the 2016 electorate, which could be of particular relevance in the hotly contested election in Florida. Although polls show that Puerto Ricans tend to vote Democratic, their support for the party’s candidate at the presidential level is not a foregone conclusion. The director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York has said that among the new arrivals “there is a large number of independents … and party affiliations mean less to them” than among mainland-born Puerto Ricans. Of the six members of the Florida State Legislature of Puerto Rican descent, three are Democrats and three Republican. (Orlando-area State Senator Darren Soto – born in New Jersey but strongly identifying with the island of his father’s birth – is running as a Democrat.) Democratic strategists privately claim confidence that the new diaspora will be in their column. They note deep dissatisfaction among on-island Puerto Ricans and the new arrivals toward the Republicans’ opposition to legislation that would allow the island the right to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy, as well as polls showing significant support for Hillary Clinton. The Orlando Sentinel reported recently that Democrats had taken the lead in voter registration in Osceola County and won control of the County Commission. A deputy director for strategic initiatives at the Republican National Committee, however, told the Washington Post that she sees the Puerto Rican vote in Florida as “up for grabs.”

A decade and a half after the trauma of the Bush-Gore presidential vote in 2000, neither U.S. party dares to take Florida’s 29 electoral votes for granted. The Pew Research Center estimates that some 800,000 Latinos are turning 18 each year –about 2,200 per day – nationwide, making them the biggest source of new voters in each election cycle. It’s hard to see, however, what the Republican Party is doing to win the hearts and minds of Puerto Rican voters in Florida and elsewhere. As American citizens, Puerto Ricans do not have a direct stake in U.S. immigration reform – an issue that galvanizes other Latino constituencies – but the tone and policy prescriptions of that debate may well influence their perceptions of the two parties. The claims and counterclaims of optimistic partisan operatives aside, some Republican candidates’ rhetoric about immigration, Latin America, and U.S. Hispanics in general – including Donald Trump’s colorful admonition of Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish in public – has got to alienate many Puerto Ricans. Perhaps, as AULABLOG previously stated, one or two of the Republicans are likely strike a moderate-sounding approach to immigration in the coming months. Indeed, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush yesterday endorsed immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for “DREAM Act” children, and said, “We don’t need to build a wall. We don’t need to deport every person that’s in this country.” But particularly if the eventual GOP nominee proves reluctant to call for federal legislative or financial assistance for a bankrupt Puerto Rico, the party may face an uphill struggle trying to appeal to Florida Puerto Ricans – a rapidly growing swing constituency in a crucial swing state.

September 22, 2015

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