Some have predicted massive political change for Florida a state that is a key in winning presidential races, due to the number of Puerto Ricans who have fled their native island in the wake of two disastrous hurricanes in 2017. In late 2017, Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, warned that Puerto Ricans were fleeing at the rate of 2,000 per day. The stakes are high in politics, especially for the 2020 presidential race. 

Because Puerto Ricans are American citizens, they can vote for in presidential elections if they live in one of the 50 states or in the District of Columbia. While residing in Puerto Rico, American citizens are effectively disenfranchised in federal elections in accordance with the U.S. Constitution. The governor of Puerto Rico is elected by the people of Puerto Rico. The current governor if Ricardo Rossello, who was a delegate to the Democratic National Covention in 2016. Because Puerto Rico is not a state, it sends two Resident Commissioners as its voice in the U.S. House of Representatives. Currently, those seats are occupied by Jenniffer Gonzalez and Carlos Romero Barcelo, both of whom caucus with the Democratic Party. 

The possible political impact of the arrival of Puerto Ricans in Florida is still being assessed. Florida is the third-largest state. It has 29 electoral votes in presidential elections, which candidate Donald Trump won by less 120,000 votes in 2016 when more non-Hispanic white voters came out for him than for past Republican candidates. Florida is a winner-take-all state. Donald Trump won 4,617,886 votes in Florida, while Hillary Clinton got 4,504,975. If Puerto Ricans who take up residence in Florida should remain true to their inclination toward the Democratic Party, Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes could be lost to Trump in the 2020 election. According to the current rules, a presidential candidate needs 270 Electoral College votes to win a presidential election. Trump won 304 Electoral College votes in 2016. Should a Democrat win in Florida in 2020, Trump would have 275 votes. Should Trump lose Electoral College votes from just one more state, it would mean losing his re-election bid.

Democrats invest in Florida

The opportunity presented by Florida was not lost on U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois who claims Puerto Rican heritage. In a roundtable discussion on March 17, Gutierrez provided his perspective on the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania, which saw Democrat Conor Lamb elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Saying that Democrats should remain faithful to what he said are “our core principles and to our beliefs.” Noting that he will retire at the end of the current Congress on January 2, 2019, Gutierrez described what his focus will be in the coming year. “It's going to be in Pennsylvania. It's going to be in Ohio. It's going to be in Michigan. It's going to be in Wisconsin. Because I think we can take literally tens of thousands of permanent residents that today are permanent residents that can become citizens. I think that investment is going to pay off in 2020.” 

Gutierrez added, “I think we need to invest more in Florida, where I'm going to be spending some time. We have a crisis in Puerto Rico. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the island, most of them to Florida. You can't become president without winning Florida. And I'm going to go down there and say that Florida is really a metaphor for all that is wrong with Donald Trump.” He went on to say of President Trump, “The way he's treating Puerto Ricans is the way he treats transgender community or women or any number of communities like Muslims and others. And so I'm going to go speak to them. So I think also expanding the base of voters is important.”

What are the numbers?

In an email response to Spero News, Prof. Richard Doty of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida wrote that his current estimate of the net number of Puerto Ricans who have come to Florida since Hurricane Maria is about 53,000. In December, after Gov. Rick Scott (R) had suggested that more than 280,000 Puerto Ricans had come to Florida after Hurricane Maria, Doty told the Orlando Sentinel that Scott’s estimate was a “ridiculously high” figure. At that time, Doty told the newspaper that the most accurate number is derived from new registrations at schools. In December, that number stood at 11,200 for arrivals from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

As pointed out by Doty in the email to Spero News, the total number of Puerto Ricans coming to Florida is higher than the figure for students registered. The figure used by Gov. Scott was based on the number of passengers arriving from Puerto Rico, many of whom may have had onward travel to other states. Doty told Spero that while the estimate of 53,000 is based on limited data and will continue to change, his estimate is more reasonable than estimates based on incoming flights to Florida.

The influx of Puerto Ricans to Florida dates before the disastrous hurricanes of 2017, however. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York released a study recently that projects that island may lose as many as 470,335 residents between 2017 and 2019. Many migrants may end up in Florida, especially in the central corridor of the state.

A golden opportunity

In an October 2017 interview on Public Radio International, Professor Susan McManus of the University of South Florida in Tampa noted that Florida is a magnet for immigrants and Puerto Ricans. When she was asked whether the influx of the islanders may affect the delicate balance of power between Democrats and Republicans, she said, “For the last four elections, two governor's races and two presidential races, the margin of victory in our state as just been one percent. We're known as ‘the one percent state,’” She noted that Florida attracts people from other regions of the U.S., Puerto Rico, and foreign countries. “Only about a third of the people who live here were born here,” she said.

As to the political leanings of Puerto Ricans, McManus said that in the past, Puerto Ricans “have been very up for grabs by most parties and particularly influenced by adept campaigners who can speak Spanish.” She noted the success that Sen. Marco Rubio (R) and former governor Jeb Bush (R) have had with the Puerto Rican community. McManus said that Puerto Ricans who have lived in New York and New Jersey are staunch Democrats, even while young Puerto Ricans are more independent. However, she averred that when young Puerto Ricans have a choice and when races are party intensive, “they lean more Democratic. The Puerto Rican population coming here is fairly young, and so Democrats right now are salivating. They see a terrific opportunity to register all the new arrivals, and Republicans are very worried because we are a one percent state.”

When PRI interviewer Steve Curwood suggested that incoming Puerto Rican may be angry at President Trump over the federal government’s response to the hurricane disasters, McManus replied “That's certainly what Democrats are counting on, and it's why they are already aggressively organizing registration drives for people who arrive here.” While adding that while the net figure of Puerto Ricans deciding to stay in Florida is as yet unknown, “Democrats see this as a golden opportunity, knowing that the demographics of this state are changing and the Hispanic vote is very important.”

Koch Bros.

Funded by the Koch fortune, the non-partisan LIBRE Initiative is conducting outreach to the Hispanic community in Florida. While it does not engage in voter registration, LIBRE offers messages of "economic freedom," school choice and deregulation in swing states such as Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina. In 2017, the Koch network revealed that it will spend upwards of $400 million during the 2018 election year on groups such as LIBRE. In 2016, LIBRE groups received a combined budget of $13.5 million in 2016, according to The Boston Globe.

The LIBRE Institute, which is part of the overall LIBRE Initiative, has offered help to the poor in Florida's Hispanic community in teaching English as a foreign language, writing résumés, donating food, scholarships, and medical assistance. By cooperating with churches and Spanish-language radio stations, for example, LIBRE's offices have been able to provide assistance to Puerto Rican evacuees sent by state offices.

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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