A report by Colin Wilhelm for Politico.
Puerto Rico, the island territory that a majority of Americans don’t know is part of the United States, could have an outsized impact on this year’s presidential election.
The commonwealth has been in a recession for over 10 years, leading to massive numbers of Puerto Ricans leaving for better economic opportunity on the mainland. Many of them have landed in Florida, the Orlando area especially, and they’re overwhelmingly voting for Hillary Clinton.
Donald Trump’s path to the presidency relies heavily on winning Florida, which means the island’s economic troubles could have the cascading effect of swaying the entire presidential election.
So far, the state looks like a toss-up — POLITICO’s battleground states polling average has Trump with a razor-thin edge over Clinton, 46 percent to her 45.6 percent. But the surging Puerto Rican population — who can vote in Florida as long as they were in the state 30 days before Nov. 8 — are turning out heavily for Clinton.
A Univision poll conducted by Republican polling firm the Tarrance Group and Miami-based consulting firm Bendixen and Amandi International in late October found that Clinton drew 71 percent of the Puerto Rican vote. That number has helped Clinton’s total support among Hispanics in Florida reach 60 percent, according to the same poll, which would earn her the same share of the key population group that President Barack Obama won when he carried the state in 2012.
“I certainly am troubled by the number we have [Trump] at in Florida” among Hispanics, said Tarrance Group Vice President Brian Nienaber, who helped put the Univision poll of Hispanics together. He noted that 33 percent of the Hispanic voters polled in the Florida poll listed jobs and the economy as their number one concern—easily beating the next highest issue, immigration, which only 12 percent valued the most as a policy issue.
Though the Puerto Rican population in Florida was growing before the commonwealth’s recession, their numbers have surged in Florida due to the island’s troubles.
“The economic instability is driving people here,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic political consultant and veteran of Florida politics. It’s a fact that was recognized by Congress and the Obama administration as the two grappled with a compromise earlier this year to address the territory’s more than $70 billion in crippling bond debt.
The recession began after a manufacturing tax break was repealed by Congress in 1996—during Bill Clinton’s administration—that didn’t take effect until 10 years later. A report written by former World Bank economist Anne Krueger found the repeal wasn’t the only factor that led to decline, but that it “undoubtedly hollowed out the manufacturing base.”
A late 2015 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the number of Americans of Puerto Rican descent living in Florida had surpassed 1 million, and that the Puerto Rican population has grown by 110 percent since 2000—outpacing both overall and general Hispanic population growth in the state.
“We saw the first big impact on central Florida in ’08,” Schale said, when Obama won the Puerto Rican vote — as well as the state.
Most of the influx of Puerto Ricans to the state has concentrated around the Orlando metro area, which according to Census data had approximately 314,000 residents of Puerto Rican descent — a 15 percent increase from the year before.
And because Puerto Ricans are American citizens—a fact that a majority of Americans didn’t realize in an Economist/YouGov poll conducted earlier this year—they can almost immediately participate in the presidential election upon arriving to the mainland.
Schale, who helped run Obama’s election efforts in the state during 2008 and 2012, credits the increased Puerto Rican demographic across not only Orlando’s Orange County but also neighboring Osceola and Seminole Counties. with stronger early voting numbers among registered Democrats—many of them first-time voters—in the area when compared to the last presidential cycle. It’s an area that’s crucial to either Clinton or Trump’s chances.
“It really comes down to winning the I-4 corridor,” Nienaber said.