Puerto Ricans in Florida could have great impact on presidential race

Posted at 10:36 AM, Aug 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-08 10:36:37-04

The presidential election could come down to Florida’s rapidly growing population of residents from Puerto Rico, a reality that has set off a political gold rush in the Sunshine State.

The Puerto Rican population in Florida has exploded in recent years as a result of the island’s bankruptcy crisis, which has wreaked havoc on the territory’s economy. More than a million Puerto Ricans now live in Florida, a number that now rivals the state’s Cuban population, a group that has long dominated Latino political power in the state. A majority of recent new residents are resettling in the counties along the “I-4 corridor,” named after a major highway stretching across a swath of Central Florida, which is known as a crucial swing region for elections.

This new batch of potentially undecided voters has sparked an aggressive effort on both sides of the political aisle to register them to vote and make a good impression.

“Central Florida is a key region of this swing state. And there’s a swing vote in this swing region in this swing state, and that’s the Latino vote. Specifically, it’s the Puerto Ricans,” said Esteban Garces, the Florida state director of Mi Familia Vota, a progressive advocacy group that aims to register more than 30,000 Latino voters in the state before Election Day. “They’re going to decide really who the next president is.”

Unlike other immigrants, Puerto Ricans arrive as citizens because of the island’s status as a US territory. As residents of the island, they can’t vote in the general election, but once they relocate to a US state, it’s easy to establish residency and become registered to vote.

Florida could prove especially crucial to Hillary Clinton’s chances for victory in November. A CNN Politics analysis of this year’s Electoral College map shows that even if Trump wins six of the eight key battleground states, he would still lose the election should Clinton nab Florida and just one other swing state with five or more Electoral College votes.

Without Florida, Clinton has several more possible pathways to reaching the 270 Electoral College votes needed, but securing this state would all but deliver a death blow to Trump’s chances. (No Republican has lost Florida and gone on to win the presidency since 1924.)

And her campaign knows it, which is why Clinton has set up a robust effort here aimed at registering voters, making an impression on the newcomers and ensuring they vote in November.

Clinton already has a long history with the Puerto Rican community, both on the island and on the mainland. She traveled to the island as first lady and made inroads with New York’s large Puerto Rican population while she represented the state in the Senate. She won the territory’s Democratic primary during both of her presidential runs and returned to the island each cycle. And she has been vocal about her support for measures to aid Puerto Rico in response to the bankruptcy crisis.

On the other side of the aisle, the Republican Party of Florida and the Republican National Committee have spent the past two years investing in relationships with Puerto Rican community leaders in the state by having a presence at church gatherings and Latino festivals.

While Puerto Ricans traditionally lean Democratic, Republicans sense an opportunity in reaching the newcomers, many of whom don’t yet have an attachment to a mainland American political party.

“We have hundreds of thousands of voters in Florida who might go either way,” said Francheska Markus, a regional director of the Republican Party of Florida.

The migration has also inspired the conservative-leaning Libre Initiative to invest in workshops and seminars aimed at helping Puerto Ricans transition to life on the mainland. The group has additionally sent field workers to the island and conducted studies on how best to respond to the bankruptcy crisis.

“The Puerto Rican voter that figures massively in the electoral map is a force to be reckoned with,” said Libre Executive Director Daniel Garza, whose group has been critical of Trump. “And anyone who ignores them, ignores them at their peril.”

Donald Trump, however, has complicated the Republicans’ efforts. His rhetoric about Latinos and general hostility toward immigrants could keep Puerto Ricans here from supporting him, a group he will surely need to win the state.

Although the state Republican Party has been active here for some time, his campaign appears far behind Clinton’s operation in efforts to secure the state’s Puerto Rican population. The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment to discuss operations here.

Still, despite Trump’s slow-to-start outreach efforts, others still plan to work through the summer and fall to register as many new Puerto Ricans as possible.

“This year is going to be a test,” said Garces of Mi Familia Vota. “The Puerto Ricans have a lot of power. Our job this year is to make sure we do everything to help them realize this power.”