Why Puerto Rico could swing the Florida vote to Hillary Clinton

More than 1 million Puerto Ricans now live in Florida, with many new arrivals leaving the island because of a weak economy.

Ricardo Arduengo/AP
In this July 29, 2015 file photo, the Puerto Rican flag flies in front of Puerto Rico's Capitol building in San Juan.

In US presidential elections, Cuba has always loomed large for aspirants to the nation’s highest office, given the presence of so many of its natives in Florida, a key swing state. But the outcome of the race in 2016 may come down to those hailing from a different Caribbean island.

Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have moved to the US mainland in recent years, many of them driven out by the island’s collapsed economy. Many have settled in Florida, where the Puerto Rican population now rivals that of the traditional hub of New York, comprising 27 percent of all eligible Hispanic voters there. And as the race for the presidency grows closer than ever, some say that the Puerto Rican vote could even be the deciding factor.

“There’s no question that in a swing state like Florida, the mass influx of the past decade is going to play a major role,” says Amílcar Antonio Barreto, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern University and author of several books on Puerto Rican politics.

Since 1920, when the US Supreme Court ruled on the last of what became known as the Insular Cases – a series of decisions dealing with the rights granted to residents of the island, considered an unincorporated territory – Puerto Ricans have had the right to vote in US elections if they establish residence on the mainland, but not if they live on the island itself.

That means that, unlike immigrants, notes Dr. Barreto in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, new arrivals from Puerto Rico can vote soon after they get situated. And unlike Cubans, they tend to favor the Democratic Party, suggesting that voting patterns in the state might break down more along the same demographic lines as in other parts of the country.

“Puerto Ricans may put Florida back into the norm with the other states in terms of politics,” he says.

A New York Times/CBS poll conducted from Sept. 9 to 13 found that Republican candidate Donald Trump had pulled to within two percentage points of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Other recent polls in Florida put the candidates neck-and-neck.

“The elections were decided by less than 1 percent in 2012 [in Florida],” points out Carlos Vargas Ramos, a researcher at Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies who studies migration from the island and its impact on newcomers’ political behavior. Since then, he tells the Monitor, the proportion of voting-eligible Puerto Ricans in the population has continued to grow.

That may be good news for the Democrats.

“There’s no question about the fact that most of the [Puerto Rican] voters in the US lean or are Democratic,” says Dr. Vargas. “The ones that are moving to Florida” – who he adds are often coming from the northern United States, not just Puerto Rico itself – “by and large continue to have that slant.”

The New York Times reported in August that the Libre Initiative, a conservative group funded by billionaire Republican donors Charles and David Koch and aimed at increasing support among Latinos, has also begun a longer-term effort to sway voters in Florida, though the brothers are sitting out the 2016 presidential election. But in an April poll by Latino Decisions, 91 percent of Puerto Rican voters in the state said they held an unfavorable opinion of Donald Trump.

Voter turnout for elections in Puerto Rico is perennially high, often hovering around the 80th percentile. And the Clinton campaign, especially dependent on the Latino vote, has been pushing to mobilize new voters in cities like Orlando by using tactics familiar to recent arrivals, with Democratic caravanas plying the streets with music and reminders to vote for Mrs. Clinton, reported the Times.

“These are folks who have a strong history of voting on the island,” said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party and Clinton campaign advisor, in an interview with Politico. “And while in gubernatorial election years we have concerns, in presidential election years we believe we will get these folks to cast ballots early and on Election Day.”

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