Swing Voters

Will Puerto Ricans Decide
the Florida Election?

The relationship between Puerto Ricans and Donald Trump, who frequently behaves as if Puerto Rico is not part of the United States and he is not its president, has never been worse.

This past August, as Hurricane Dorian seemed about to strike Puerto Rico, Trump unleashed a number of tweets lambasting Puerto Rico, its government, and its elected officials instead of offering reassurance to the island’s 3.2 million American citizens that he and the federal government would do everything they could to protect them.

Hurricane Dorian spared Puerto Rico, but Trump has not spared attacking Puerto Rico since September 20, 2017, when Hurricane Maria decimated the island, killing 2,975 residents (according to an official analysis of death records by researchers at George Washington University). It took almost a year for the island to restore the electrical power grid.

“The overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans are deeply troubled by the lack of care, concern and outright distain this administration has shown for the people of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria,” said José Calderon, president of the Hispanic Federation, a national organization that has been advocating for Hispanics since 1990.  “The enduring image that is ingrained in the mind of just about every Puerto Rican when they think of Trump’s response to [Hurricane Maria] is that of him throwing paper towels at [a crowd of] people. It spoke volumes on the president’s self absorption and lack of empathy for some people, and crystalized for Puerto Ricans the utter lack of respect he had for them and their needs.”

Michael Caputo, a former campaign advisor to Trump, wrote in Real Clear Politics that Trump could lose Florida next year based on the Puerto Rican vote:

 “Two years later, the island’s long, slow recovery after Hurricane Maria is set to loom large in 2020. Tens of thousands of furious Puerto Rican survivors now living in Florida may deny President Trump the Sunshine State’s 29 electoral votes, and therefore his re-election – something the White House and the campaign must address immediately,” Caputo wrote. “Since Trump’s 112,000-vote margin of victory over Hillary Clinton, Republican fortunes have waned in the state: In 2018, Ron DeSantis won the governor’s race by only 33,000 votes and Rick Scott was elected senator by just 10,000. That’s a terrible GOP trend heading toward 2020.”

According to Caputo, Trump has also angered the 115,000 Haitian-born voters in Florida for allegedly calling Haiti a “shit hole,” not to mention voters whose families hail from the Bahamas – and those from El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Honduras, who fear they could lose TPS protections under Trump.

Trump still claims that official death toll of 2,975 is exaggerated, but offers no proof to counter that carefully documented figure. And Trump has also said that the United States provided Puerto Rico $92 billion in disaster aid. The fact is that as of July 2019 the island has only received $14 billion of the $42.5 billion in disaster aid allocated by Congress, with only $1.5 billion going to reconstruction.

Meanwhile as Trump continued to characterize Puerto Rico as a drain on U.S. resources, thousands of Puerto Ricans found themselves forced to migrate from the island and move to the United States, with the majority of the estimated 70,000 to 100,000 settling in central and part of northern Florida.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 and 2018 American Community Surveys, almost 30,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to Florida in 2017 and another 40,000 migrated in 2018.  Texas and Pennsylvania were in second place with 2018 figures of over 10,000 each followed by New York with just under 10,000.

And as those Puerto Ricans migrated to Florida, grass roots voter registration and voter education organizations such as Vamos 4PR, Mi Familia Vota, Alianza for Progress along with the Hispanic Federation, are among the many Latino organizations making it their mission to register as many Puerto Ricans as possible in time for the November 3, 2020 election, given that in 2016 Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Florida by only 112,000 votes and walked away with 29 Electoral College votes.

“The Puerto Rican vote, along with other newly registered voters who are tired of Trump could help the Democratic Party win Florida in 2020,” said Florida State Senator Victor M. Torres, Jr. whose district in Osceola and Southern Orange County covers the largest Puerto Rican population in Florida.

 “But that will only happen if those registered voters actually go out and vote. Getting registered voters to vote has always been the biggest challenge. Too many voters stay home. Too many voters fail to fill out their absentee ballots correctly and mail it in on time. Too many voters fail to take advantage of early voting and wait till Election Day. If all of the Democrats who are registered to vote went out to vote and voted Democrat, Trump would never have been elected.”

Florida is an important swing state during presidential elections. Armed with 29 Electoral votes, Florida has picked the winner of every presidential election since 1964, with the only exception being in 1992 when it picked incumbent George Bush instead of Bill Clinton.

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Hispanic registered voters in Florida reached 2.2 million in late 2018, an 8.4% increase over 2016. Voter registration after Hurricane Maria jumped from 2.02 million to 2.19 million.

“Counties with some of the largest Puerto Rican populations had some of the fastest growth in registered voters, including Polk, Pasco, Osceola, Lake, Marion and Volusia – all counties where Hispanic voter registration grew by 15% or more over 2016,” according the Pew Research Center.

Marcos Vilar, Executive  Director of Alianza for Progress, an organization dedicated to mobilize the Puerto Rican and Latino vote in Florida, estimates that 547,500  of the 2.19 million registered Hispanic voters in Florida are Puerto Rican, but he stresses that is an estimate as voter registration tracks Hispanics as a whole, not individual Hispanic groups.

Vilar also stressed that most of the Puerto Ricans who migrated from Puerto Rico to Florida over the last two years prefer not to register for any political party and wait to see what the candidates have to offer, as was the case with the 2018 mid-term elections, where Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidates.

“Puerto Ricans who migrated to Florida from Puerto Rico will have an impact in local elections as many of them who could not afford to live in Orlando have settled central and northern rural areas of Florida,” Vilar said.

And the rise of the Puerto Rican voter means that Puerto Ricans could become the dominant Hispanic voting bloc in Florida.

“One of every five Latinos in Florida are Puerto Rican and now we are even larger than the [traditionally Republican voting] Cuban population, which the Democratic Party needs to pay attention to,” said Javier Cuebas, executive director of Vamos 4PR, a national organization made up of numerous labor unions, community, cultural and human rights organizations dedicated to educating and empowering the Puerto Rican community.

“The Puerto Rican community did not support Trump in large numbers in 2016 and that will be reflected even more so in 2020. But that does not mean that the Democrats can take the Puerto Rican vote for granted.   Puerto Ricans who migrated from the island to Florida are fed up with corruption and know the power of the vote. But you have to give the Puerto Rican voter a reason to vote for you. Democrats have yet to each out effectively to the Puerto Rican voter. Being against Trump is not enough for them and not enough to win an election,” said Cuebas.

Karina Martinez, Communications Director for Mi Familia Vota, a national organization that engages and builds partnerships with numerous Latino groups, says they are placing special attention to the needs of Puerto Ricans in Florida.

“In Florida, Spanish language access ballots is not enough, especially for Puerto Ricans who go by a different voting system on the island,” said Martinez. “We’ve adapted our programs to educate Puerto Ricans on the U.S. systems and provide them with information to help equip them to vote on election days, and integrate them into civic engagement programs afterwards as well so that they feel their impact, because our work extends year-round beyond elections.”

Election and campaign strategy consultant Denise Velazquez-Lugo, of DNL Consulting, LLC stresses that candidates must always remember that Puerto Ricans in Florida are not monolithic.

“Puerto Ricans from the island are swing voters depending on how they are approached, supported and civically activated, mostly around the issues of greatest concern to them – affordable housing, good paying jobs, and educational opportunities,” Velazquez-Lugo said.

“Trying to talk to Puerto Ricans about the importance of voting after the federal, state and all levels of government failed them in the worse way is a waste of time. If progressive organizations, the Florida Democratic Party and grass roots organizations can create a strategic layered approach of creating a social service/civic engagement model, they will gain the loyalty of a voting block for decades. The failure to do so will yield a Miami type block of Puerto Rican voters similar to the Cuban Republican voting block in Miami-Dade County,” she said.

Cynthia Busch, chairperson of the Broward Democratic Party, the South Florida county that always plays an important part of every Florida election, agrees.

“Elections are won through outreach, communication, and engaging every single registered voter. It’s a never-ending process of letting the voter know what impact the policies of the candidates will have on them and their families, getting that message across clearly, and making sure they vote.” Busch said, stressing that this is critical for all national, state and local elections.

“We have a long way to go with achieving that with Hispanic voters but we are gaining ground with more Spanish language communications and outreach. Election 2020 will be another tough and close election. The Puerto Rican vote, as all votes, has to be earned, not assumed. This is the only way we will win in 2020.”

By Roberto Santiago



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