Research has shown that states that vote for the president or might vote for them in the future tend to get more federal support than those that didn’t or won’t vote for the president. Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections, and some observers point to this as part of the problems Puerto Rico faces.
Congressional representatives are in Washington to represent their constituents, to speak for the people in their states. Naturally, they do not focus on the needs of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has a small voice in the American democracy, with just one member of Congress who can vote in committee work but not on the House floor and no senators.
However, a report from the James Madison Institute points out that the State of Florida could be a game-changer in this situation.
The report notes that there are now more Puerto Ricans in Florida than in New York and “when courting these voters, no candidate can afford to ignore the strong opinions they tend to retain about Puerto Rican statehood.”
Florida’s Puerto Rican voters care deeply about Puerto Rico’s political status
“Few mainland politicians really understand or study the issues surrounding Puerto Rican statehood. But if they want to win Florida — and that means winning the all-important region of Central Florida where so many Puerto Ricans now live — they need to start,” says David Freddoso of the James Madison Institute. “This very important group of American voters cares about this issue intensely. Those seeking their votes need to study it carefully and understand why. They don’t have to take positions they don’t believe in, but they do need to approach the question with a degree of seriousness and sensitivity that you don’t often see when it is discussed in the mainland press.”
The report shares poll data from several points in the 21st century. The results show that Puerto Rican voters in Florida are increasingly in support of statehood, and increasingly see the issue as an important factor in their votes. A recent poll found that 85 percent “think that Congress should abide by the election results of a yes/ no statehood vote in the island of Puerto Rico.”
Historically, candidates for office have generally told Puerto Rican voters that they favor “self-determination.” Certainly since the 2012 plebiscite, this claim has been seen as a way to sidestep the issue. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have taken a firm stance and tried to align it with their party affiliation. According to the James Madison Institute, that essentially leaves this group of voters up for grabs in future elections.
”As Florida continues to represent the dynamics and diversity of the United States, and in a state typically decided by one percentage point or less, it’s our hope that this analysis is helpful for any candidate, regardless of ideological philosophy or political persuasion,” says Sal Nuzzo, Vice President of Policy at the James Madison Institute.
Advice for either party
The report notes: “In the end, one very reasonable conclusion is that the adoption of even just a certain tone on this topic could make or break a presidential candidacy, throwing tens of thousands of votes one way or another in a state that tends to be won by the slimmest of margins.”
That strategy proved to be a success in the recent presidential election. When Trump visited Florida in October, he did not slam statehood, which he had in the past. He spoke instead about the funds his administration provided to Puerto Rico. He was not disrespectful.
And in the end, according to polling, Trump received the support of almost a third of the Puerto Ricans who voted in Central Florida, about an 11-point gain since 2016. Trump was even more popular among Puerto Ricans than Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) was in his 2018 race, in which he approached but did not exceed 30% of the Puerto Rican vote. That represented a significant change.
To the extent that Florida stands in for Puerto Rico in U.S. politics, Florida voters could have a more powerful voice than Puerto Rico voters. That could allow Puerto Rico to benefit from presidential particularism, rather than suffering from it.