Florida is a “must win” state for Romney, and polling in the final stretch of the presidential campaign shows him with an edge. Given the solid support for President Obama in the critical swing state in 2008, it is worth examining what is different this time. The state’s emerging Puerto Rico population may hold some clues.
Florida’s Hispanic demographic has undergone a transformation in recent years. As we previously reported, an influx of Puerto Ricans moving to Florida has increased the power of this voting block; Puerto Ricans now represent twenty-eight percent of Florida’s 2.1 million eligible Hispanic voters. They trail only Cuban-Americans, who make up thirty-two percent of the eligible Hispanic vote. There are roughly 588,000 eligible Puerto Rican voters in Florida, who account for approximately one in fourteen Florida voters overall.
The emerging Puerto Rican electorate is significant not only because of its size, but also because of its characteristics. Although many of Florida’s Puerto Ricans identify with the Democratic Party, many are also Republicans or unaffiliated. Florida’s Puerto Ricans are social conservatives who have showed a willingness to vote for Republican candidates. They cast their ballots for Gov. Jeb Bush and President George W. Bush. Although President Obama received their votes in 2008, Sen. Marco Rubio won them back in 2010.
When courting the Hispanic vote in Florida, Democratic candidates need a strong Puerto Rican democratic turnout to counter traditional Republican support from Cuban Americans. Both campaigns seem to have recognized how much they have at stake in the growing Puerto Rican community. Republican Governor Luis Fortuno (R) has been a visible part of the Romney campaign in Florida, while the Obama campaign has sent Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D) and other Puerto Rican officials to Florida to help get out the vote.
The importance of Puerto Rican support in Florida stands in marked contrast to the irrelevance of the Puerto Rican vote in Puerto Rico itself. After campaigning for President Obama in Florida, former Puerto Rican Governor Carlos Romero Barceló observed:
“[T]he votes by Puerto Ricans in Central Florida are extremely important for Obama’s and Romney’s election, which is the reason both candidates are visiting Central Florida so often. However, because we are disenfranchised U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, neither of the candidates needs us to win the election, and they haven’t been to Puerto Rico since the primaries, and won’t come to the island before the elections. However, if we had the right to vote, we would have seven to eight electoral votes, more than 25 or 26 states have, and they both would then certainly come to Puerto Rico to campaign for our votes.”
It may be that the only way Puerto Ricans can flex their political muscles every four years is to volunteer on the campaigns themselves. The National Journal recently described how Puerto Ricans living on the island, as U.S. citizens who cannot vote for president, are making phone calls to Orlando in support of Obama. Given the closeness of the presidential election at this point, any efforts to influence Puerto Rican voters in Florida could make a difference.