Now that the Republican race is tighter than lil Wayne’s pants at the VMAs, candidates seeking to grab electoral votes in the Sunshine State may want to pay attention to a historically ignored, but increasingly powerful constituency: nearly 900,000 Puerto Ricans.
Puerto Ricans already account for the second largest group of Hispanics in the U.S. (they make up 10% of all Hispanics), but are growing at an increasingly rapid pace, especially in Florida. More importantly, so is their voting power.
As natural-born citizens of the U.S., Puerto Ricans are the only group of Hispanics that can move between their place of origin and anywhere in the country at any time for any reason, without government approval. Given this unique advantage, combined with a poor economy on the island, Puerto Ricans have left their homeland for greener economic pastures, making the group among the fastest growing stateside Hispanics.
(Comparatively, Mexicans – who comprise the largest group of Hispanics at nearly 65% of the Hispanic population – have experienced stagnant immigration growth over the last couple of years.)
And where do Puerto Ricans go when they seek a home in the continental United States? New York, Chicago, and, you guessed it, the swing state of Florida (that’s right, it isn’t just cliché).
Being the next stop on the Republican Party’s rollercoaster ride of a primary, and the first with a significant Hispanic population, Florida Hispanics have the opportunity to meaningfully impact primary results. Within that heavily-Hispanic demography, Puerto Ricans specifically are demanding more and more respect, growing more than 75% in the last decade to 32% of the state’s Hispanic vote. At the same time, the total number of Florida voters has dropped, making Puerto Rican growth have an even greater impact.
Cubans, who have long been considered the political powerhouse of the Florida Hispanic vote, slimly beat out Puerto Ricans with 36% of Florida’s Hispanic vote. But if the Puerto Rican and Cuban populations maintain their respective growth rates, Florida voters will be sipping a Café Puertorriqueño before hitting the polls in 2016.
Outside of rapid growth, the Puerto Rican demographic has a couple of other unique political advantages over Florida Cubans that make their communities a necessary stop on the campaign train.
Whereas Cubans have a tradition of voting for Republican candidates, Puerto Rican voters have shown a distinct turn towards independent-mindedness. Sure, Puerto Ricans in New York and Chicago are Democratic strongholds (if you have any doubt, check out the 16th Congressional District in the Bronx, considered among the safest Democratic seats in the country), but no party has locked down the Puerto Rican vote in Florida.
According to Emilio Pérez, former president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, Puerto Ricans in Florida consider themselves “NPA: No Party Affiliation.” To prove their lack of loyalty, Puerto Ricans favored Al Gore and John Kerry in presidential elections, while simultaneously choosing the Republican Jeb Bush as their governor. In local politics, most elected Puerto Ricans are Republicans.
The Puerto Rican vote in Florida may also have the greatest opportunity for growth in voter participation within its existing population. Although Puerto Ricans have been known to have a lower voter turnout than the rest of the population, some analysts suggest this means they have nowhere to go but up. After all, while in the “motherland,” Puerto Ricans have astounding voter turnout rates. With rates as high as 90% (averaging in the mid-80s), islanders don’t joke around when it comes to their right to influence the process.
The problem is, however, that candidates have a problem transferring the political parties and ideals represented by Puerto Ricans on the island to the traditional electoral process in the U.S. While average Americans are used to traditional dual-party politics, Puerto Rico has three dominant political parties, whose platforms generally cater to status issue politics (i.e., whether it should remain a commonwealth, become a state, or go independent).
Whatever the reason for the lack of a lockdown on Florida-Ricans, the next political powerhouse continues to stand by, waiting for a leader.
Candidates looking for an edge in Florida, have an inimitable opportunity to gain the loyalty of a previously untapped demographic, while swaying the Florida Hispanic vote, wooing a valuable swing state, and enlightening political analysts and media pundits everywhere that spending a little more time in Orlando, and a little less time in Miami, may just be the key to the White House.
JUSTIN VELEZ-HAGAN is Senior Contributing Writer and Commentator for Politic365.com. He is also the National Executive Director of The National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at Justin@Politic365.com