By: Glenn Ojeda
Up to 50,000 newly arrived Puerto Ricans will now be voting in Florida. Does this mean that Florida will no longer be a swing state?
In November 2010, Republican Rick Scott was elected governor of Florida by a margin of about 61,550 votes. Similarly, in 2014, Governor Scott was reelected in Florida by approximately 64,145 votes. In 2016, Donald Trump won the state of Florida by a margin of some 112,911 votes. Meanwhile, in 2006 and 2012, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, the only Democrat currently holding a statewide office in Florida, was reelected by margins of over 1 million votes.
All eyes are on the contentious race that has begun between incumbent Bill Nelson and Governor Rick Scott for the US Senate seat that will be put up for a vote this November. Given recent demographic changes in the state, predictions as to the outcome will be difficult, but results will be indicative of what to expect in 2020.
In the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, it is estimated that anywhere between 12,000 and 50,000 US citizens from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands have moved to Florida as permanent and voting residents. It is not surprising that Florida’s politicians and public servants have taken note of this dynamic. Immediately after the hurricanes struck the Caribbean territories, Governor Scott as well as Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson were amongst the first figures to provide aid, facilitate technical support, call for the approval of funding, and welcome fellow citizens to Florida as natural disaster refugees.
Subsequently, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello, a pro-Statehood Democrat, vowed to mobilize the Puerto Rican diaspora throughout the mainland for the midterm elections. In the hopes of pressing Washington, DC, for more funding and federal representation for Puerto Rico, Governor Rossello has already held rally-style meetings throughout Florida, in cities with large Puerto Rican populations such as Orlando and Tampa. Furthermore, during the last week of April, Governor Rossello launched “Poder Puerto Rico”, which is a national initiative intended to empower recently displaced Puerto Ricans by helping them register to vote and directly impact mainland politics.
Nevertheless, the level of grassroots engagement to be expected from Puerto Ricans on the mainland during the midterm elections is still a big question mark and turnout will be key in determining whether these new voters make a difference. Likewise, it is important to note that Puerto Ricans are not a monolithic voting bloc and that a potential language barrier exists in some cases and remains a challenge for many when it comes to formulating new political opinions.
While many Puerto Ricans who are disappointed with what they consider to be the current government’s incompetent assistance to Puerto Rico might use their newfound voting power to express their frustration, it is still unclear how many Puerto Ricans will show up at the voting polls. After all, the midterm elections are an electoral exercise foreign to islanders because elections in Puerto Rico are only held every four years. Therefore, candidates on narrow local and statewide races will have to make more of an effort to speak directly with and address the concerns of the Puerto Rican diaspora. It is not a lie that most of the Puerto Rican diaspora dislikes President Trump’s style, from the tossing of paper towel rolls during his visit to San Juan in 2017 to his anti-Hispanic rhetoric. Therefore, it will probably be harder for candidates perceived as being close to President Trump to gain the support of the newly registered Puerto Rican voters in Florida.
Glenn Ojeda Vega is an emerging markets consultant focused on Latin America. He was a Boren Scholar focused on West Africa and based in Dakar, Senegal, in 2012-2013. You can read more articles from Glenn here and here.