No sooner the new year got off to its firecracker start that questions began popping up about the role of Puerto Ricans in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Which means we’re off to the races!
The big question is, will Puerto Ricans in Florida play a decisive role in the upcoming presidential contest? Especially the post Hurricane María migrants to Florida.
A crush of Puerto Ricans left the island after Hurricane María decimated it, boosting numbers in Florida another 50,000 or so, the highest migration to Florida in a single year. It comes on top of the existing 1 million-plus Puerto Ricans already residing in the state.
The key is that all Puerto Ricans can vote because they are U.S. citizens. But whether they turn up in droves to cast a vote is another story. With nearly 11 months to go until election day, anything can happen given the dynamics of the race.
Many people want the rah-rah of the Puerto Rican vote. But, having lived in the Orlando area for over 20 years, I’ve learned that the impact of the Puerto Rican vote in major elections is not a big bang theory. It is incremental. As in drip, drip, drip. It has become more influential over time, not all at once. In fact, its biggest effect has been felt at the local level, where many Puerto Ricans have been elected to office.
Bear in mind that Puerto Rican political participation is not assured, since voter participation tends to drop as Puerto Ricans jump the pond to the states. This is due in part to stateside elections being more complicated than in Puerto Rico, where elections are held every four years. On the island, once people vote they don’t have to worry about returning to the polls any time soon. Not so in Florida, where people not only vote more often but also for many more positions.
More important, the very condition of migrants is different from regular voters. They are unsettled, not necessarily thinking about voting but of getting food on the table, an affordable roof overhead, finding a job, obtaining transportation to and from work, getting their children situated in school. That was apparent during the 2018 mid-term elections.
When some newcomers were asked about getting involved in Florida politics, they actually recoiled at the thought. Some who voted said they didn’t understand who or what they voted for, but felt pressured to do so by political organizers who were providing other assistance.
Even if Puerto Ricans post a solid turnout – defined as approximating that of Puerto Rico’s 80 percent or so voter participation – note that Puerto Ricans are challenged by other demographics at every turn. The impact of the Puerto Rican vote can be – and has been – tempered by participation of other voters casting ballots in the opposite direction.
For instance, Osceola County, home to the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in Florida, a county that is now majority Latino, is one of the top two fastest growing counties in Florida. But so is Sumter County, where The Villages retirement community is based. Puerto Ricans tend to vote Democrat but residents of The Villages are mostly elderly, mostly Republican with a higher voter turnout.
In the 2016 presidential election The Villages tipped the scales in favor of Donald Trump, explaining why the president visits often. South Florida’s Cuban-American community also voted for Trump. Each diminished or cancelled the Democratic influence of Puerto Ricans, helping to turn the state red.
It’s all a ground game. It’s not enough to register Puerto Rican voters. That’s the easy part. But what will motivate Puerto Ricans enough to boost turnout in the upcoming 2020 elections?
Reminders of Trump withholding hurricane aid to Puerto Rico? Reminders of Trump’s many slights against Puerto Ricans? Reminders of the hardships endured after Hurricane María? Reminders of how Puerto Ricans are still unsettled ? Reminders of how much influence Puerto Ricans have exerted at local political levels? Reminders of something else entirely?
˜˜María Padilla, Editor