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Influx of Puerto Ricans could be game-changer in country's biggest swing state

Rafael Rivera left Puerto Rico for central Florida late last year, fed up with the island’s escalating debt crisis and dwindling sales at his cellphone shop.

Five months later, Rivera, 36, has a nice apartment in the Orlando suburb of Kissimmee and a job at a nearby Hyundai dealership. He’s also registered to vote.

Rivera is a part of a wave of Puerto Ricans fleeing the island’s beleaguered economy and transforming the Florida electorate. Each week, as many as 1,000 Puerto Ricans arrive in central Florida, according to some estimates, joining a community of more than 1 million Puerto Ricans across the state that has grown tenfold since 1980.

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Like Rivera — and unlike many other new Latino migrants — they are all U.S. citizens and immediately eligible to register to vote.

The surging Puerto Rican electorate, a swing demographic in the nation’s quintessential swing state, supported Barack Obama for president but backed Charlie Crist for governor when he was a Republican. They could soon surpass Cubans, whose conservative leanings long dominated Latino politics here.

Because Puerto Ricans are the fastest-growing group of voters in a contested corridor of a battleground state, “you could make the case that they’re the most important voters in the United States,” said Fernand Amandi, a Florida pollster.

“Puerto Rican voters have completely upended the understanding of how the state is going to vote in November,” Amandi said. “They could wake up in San Juan, have breakfast and be registered to vote in the U.S. come dinnertime. You see both parties doing a full-court press to win over what could very well be the decisive vote.”

Faced with $72 billion in debt and soaring unemployment, Puerto Rico is losing tens of thousands of people each year. The Caribbean island’s population dropped each year by 48,000 people from 2010 to 2013, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

Many landed here, along the Interstate 4 corridor that connects Tampa and Daytona Beach, an area characterized by swamps and strip malls and plentiful jobs. The Orlando metro area led the nation in job creation last year, according to Gallup.

Politicians from both sides of the aisle in this state have been paying close attention to Puerto Ricans ahead of Florida’s March 15 primary and the November general election.

Hillary Clinton’s supporters festooned cars with flags over the weekend and embarked on a caravan through Puerto Rican neighborhoods — a nod to the boisterous style of campaigning that characterizes elections on the island. Clinton backers in Puerto Rico will gather at a restaurant there Saturday to make phone calls to recent arrivals in Florida, urging them to vote for Clinton in the Democratic primary.

On the Republican side, Sen. Marco Rubio, who is of Cuban descent, is also making a major play for Puerto Rican votes. His campaign organized several Puerto Rican leaders for a news conference in Orlando this week, and Rubio made multiple campaign stops on the island before the Republican primary there last weekend, which he won handily.

As residents of a U.S. commonwealth, citizens in Puerto Rico are able to vote in presidential primaries, but they cannot cast votes in general elections.

That’s just one of the key differences between voting in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico.

Turnout is another. On the island, elections are held every four years on a day designated as a national holiday, and voters typically turn out at very high rates. But once they arrive on the mainland, Puerto Rican newcomers quickly start voting at the same relatively low rate as other Latinos in the U.S.

Elections are “a lot of fun over there, like a party,” said Evelith Olmeda-Garcia, who was raised in Puerto Rico and is now the principal of Liberty High School in Kissimmee. “Here it’s kind of lame.”

At her mostly Latino school, where about 1 in 4 students was born on the island, a voter registration group called Mi Familia Vota is trying to change that.

“The Latino community here is going to determine who is the next president,” Esteban Garces, an organizer with the group, tells students at Liberty and other schools in the area. “You have a lot of power.”

On a recent day, Garces and another organizer, Jeamy Ramirez, fanned out around the school’s outdoor seating area, where many students were speaking rapid Puerto Rican Spanish and playing games on their cellphones between bites of lunch.

Ramirez, who left Puerto Rico four years ago because her job at a casino in San Juan wasn’t paying enough, approached an 18-year-old senior, Anisah Garcia, who agreed to fill out a voter registration form so that she can vote against Donald Trump in November.

“I don’t think he should be president,” said Garcia, who is of Puerto Rican origin and was born in New York.

Puerto Ricans moving from states such as Illinois and New York have been another big source of voter growth in Florida, according to the Pew Research Center, which predicts Florida may eclipse New York at the state with the nation’s largest Puerto Rican community. Growing numbers of Mexicans, Venezuelans and Colombians are also helping to diversify the state’s Latino electorate.

“If you go back 20 years, the Hispanic vote could be summed up by a few words: exile-era Cubans,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant who helped Obama win Florida in 2008. Competition for their votes “came down to who most hated Fidel Castro.”

Now, he said, new Latino voters are overwhelmingly voting as Democrats, although many register as nonparty voters, whose ranks in the state have surged by about 600,000 over the last four years. And political candidates must tailor their messages to reach a wide spectrum of Latino voters, including younger generations of Cubans who are more liberal than their parents.

After all, the U.S. embargo on Cuba doesn’t really matter personally to Puerto Ricans. Neither does immigration. They would probably care more about a candidate’s plans to solve the island’s protracted financial woes.

“It’s hyper-complicated and expensive,” Schale said.

Although Puerto Ricans in New York and Chicago often skew Democratic, conservative groups and candidates believe they have a good shot at winning over new arrivals from the island, many of whom are frustrated by the Puerto Rican government’s failures.

“When you have a government in Puerto Rico that is very big and involved in everything you do, there isn’t any opportunity for growth,” said David Velazquez of the Libre Initiative, a conservative Latino group backed by the Koch brothers that views the Puerto Rican neighborhoods around Orlando as fertile ground for conservatives.

“Our message is that limited government equals more opportunity,” said Velazquez, who is of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in the Bronx in New York.

On a recent afternoon, Velazquez and several of his colleagues donned baby blue polo shirts and went door-knocking in the middle-class neighborhood of Buenaventura Lakes, where one resident had raised a Puerto Rican and an American flag in his grassy frontyard.

At another house, Nelso Toro, 32, opened the door. The Libre workers, who don’t support specific candidates but who aim to spread conservative ideas among Latinos, asked Toro about how the Affordable Healthcare Act has affected his life and whom he would vote for if the November election was held today.

Toro, a firefighter who moved to Florida from Puerto Rico at age 4, said he would vote for Sen. Ted Cruz.

“We’re a military family,” explained Toro, whose father and brother are veterans, “and Republicans tend to treat us a little better.”

The workers took down Toro’s contact information and pledged to reach out to him about some of the free social services they offer, including a financial planning course.

As he walked in the sun to the next house, Velazquez said he counted the interaction as a success.

“Everyone is after their vote,” he said. “We want to make sure they know what we’re all about.”

For more on campaign 2016, follow @katelinthicum.

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