Florida has always been a demographer’s wonderland. Long a magnet for Yankee transplants (especially retirees) seeking a warmer climate, the Sunshine State was famous for the northeastern flavor of some southwest Florida communities, and the midwestern background of many Tampa Bay residents — even before the Hispanic influx that began with Castro’s revolution in Cuba and has now remade the state. Meanwhile, much of north Florida and the panhandle feel like parts of the Deep South, with sizable African-American populations and conservative white folks in sometimes uneasy proximity.
So even as Florida has steadily grown in its population and political clout (the electoral votes it casts have more than doubled, from 14 to 29, since 1968), it has become necessary to recheck regularly what we think we know about the electorate’s composition. This year one of the most important moving parts — perhaps the most important, if the state is as close in the presidential and Senate races as polls have often shown — involves Puerto Ricans.
There are already more than a million Puerto Ricans living in Florida, with the largest concentration found along the I-4 corridor that runs from Orlando to Tampa. Politically they are Democratic-leaning to an extent that they largely offset the pro-Republican tendencies of Florida’s large and very active Cuban-American community. What makes them so significant in this year’s close elections is that the debt crisis in Puerto Rico itself has led to a large new influx into Florida — an estimated 1,000 families a month. Because they are already U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can immediately register to vote, and back home they exhibit some of the highest voting rates in the world.
Now, you would think that because immigration is not a problem for Puerto Ricans they might be relatively immune to the powerful hostility Donald Trump’s views on that issue have aroused among other Hispanic voters. But as Sasha Issenberg and Steve Yaccino report in their detailed analysis of voting in Florida, Clinton’s doing very well among Florida’s Puerto Rican population:
Latino Decisions, a polling firm that supplies her campaign with research on Hispanic public opinion, found Clinton winning 74 percent of the vote to Trump’s 17 percent, with an even larger margin among the subset of those born on the island. The island-born viewed Clinton more favorably, and Trump more unfavorably, than their mainland-born peers.,
Part of Clinton’s appeal stems from her familiarity with Puerto Ricans and their views, developed when she represented New York — with its own sizable Puerto Rican population — in the Senate, and supplemented by many visits to the island. Trump’s perceived hostility to Hispanics generally has hurt him even among those not affected by immigration policy; he seems to be running well behind GOP Senate candidate Marco Rubio among Puerto Ricans.
In any event, the Clinton campaign is expending considerable resources on registering Florida’s Puerto Ricans to vote and trying to re-create the festive preelection atmosphere that makes voting on the island so very nearly universal. After Hurricane Matthew struck Florida, it was a major victory for Democrats when a federal judge overruled Republican governor Rick Scott and extended the voter-registration deadline in Florida by a week. But Matthew and its aftermath compressed the time available for getting registered voters to the polls for early voting and making plans for a big push on November 8.
The most recent polls show Clinton making gains, but it’s still a close race in Florida, a state Trump has to have to win. He’s now spending a lot of time there. But new Puerto Rican voters could make the difference for Clinton and perhaps other Democrats in competitive congressional races. After the election we will probably have to recalibrate our understanding of Florida’s political dynamics once again. And congressional Republicans may realize they should have dealt with the Puerto Rico debt crisis earlier and with more sympathy.