Call it the Puerto Rico ripple effect.
The island’s default this week on $174 million in bonds serves as an exclamation point to a multi-year migration that has fueled the growth of Florida’s Puerto Rican population to more than a million.
As a result, the ongoing financial crisis on the island of 3.5 million could help tip the balance toward the Democrats in the crucial swing state of Florida when voters go to the polls in November to elect the next U.S. president.
The influx from the island — estimated at 800 to 1,000 families per month — is strengthening the stature of Democrat-leaning Latinos in the Orlando area, remaking the state’s Latino electorate map that has historically tilted to Cuban Republicans in Miami.
“We’re really seen an acceleration in this migration,” said Mark Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center in Washington. “This isn’t just an out-migration of the most-educated or even the poorest Puerto Ricans — its people of working age who are leaving to find jobs.”
What had been a small community of Puerto Ricans in and around three counties in central Florida — Osceola, Orange and Seminole — has mushroomed, bolstered by the relocation of Puerto Rican nationals from Democratic strongholds in the Northeast and Chicago, drawn to Orlando for jobs in hospitality, or to retire, Lopez added.
Yet unlike other fast-growing Latino communities in central Florida, such as Colombians, Puerto Ricans moving to Florida arrive as U.S. citizens. Registering to vote is as simple as proving local residency. And while Puerto Ricans living on the island aren’t allowed to vote in U.S. presidential elections, they can do so if they relocate to one of the 50 states.
“This is their first opportunity to vote for president, and that’s really important to them,” Soraya Marquez, statewide coordinator of Mi Familia Vota, a Latino-focused voter registration organization, said in a phone interview from Orlando. Puerto Ricans accounted for 48% of voter registrations made by Mi Familia Vota statewide in 2015.
The backdrop for this demographic overhaul is Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth that has seen its monetary problems steadily worsened since 2006, when decades of special tax breaks and economic incentives were phased-out. Those tax breaks and incentives served as the engine behind Puerto Rico’s post-World War II boom when dozens of U.S. pharmaceutical, textile and other manufacturing companies opened facilities on the island.
Yet, as its economy began to slow some 10 years ago, Puerto Rican officeholders turned to Wall Street for financing even as it neglected calls to reform tax collection and fight corruption. More than three years of bitter negotiations with creditors owed some $72 billion has forced layoffs in manufacturing as well as in government, which accounts for about one-fourth of the total workforce, according to Bloomberg.
And while the island’s financial problems were the focus of recent trips to Puerto Rico by Florida Senator and Republican presidential contender Marco Rubio as well as Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, both likely had their sights set on Florida.
And for good reason.
Four years ago, Barack Obama narrowly defeated Mitt Romney in the state by a vote of 50% to 49.1%. Since then, both Democrats and Republicans have actively courted the area’s Puerto Rican voters as well as a collection of immigrant communities from Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Central America that accounts for about 35% of Latinos in the three counties. But the two parties have had differing success.
Between 2006 and 2014, Hispanic voter registration in the state climbed by 56%. But while the number of Hispanics registering as Democrats, or indicating no party affiliation, jumped by about 80% during that time, Latinos identifying as Republican increased just 14%. Much of that jump took place in central Florida; but, even in Miami, Hispanics registering as Democrat grew 66%, while Republicans rolls were roughly flat, according to the Pew Research Center.
In Orlando, that’s led to a fourth term for Democratic Mayor Buddy Dyer, and the convincing re-election of liberal Congressman Alan Grayson in 2014.
Nonetheless, Republicans have had some success as well. Two Republican state legislators from central Florida are Puerto Rican to go along with three Democrats. Democratic State Senator Darren Soto is running to be Florida’s first congressman of Puerto Rican ancestry as Grayson frees up his seat to run for the U.S. senate office that Rubio is vacating.
“Democrats are doing much better generally in central Florida than they have in the past,” Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist, said in a phone interview from Orlando. “It’s had an impact and that impact looks likely to grow as Puerto Ricans become a bigger part of the population.”
As of November, there were 11.9 million registered voters in Florida, with Democrats holding a 38% to 35% lead over Republicans. Some 2.6 million of them are Latino. Shifting demographics has shrunken Miami’s Cuban community to 30% of the state’s Latino population, from 50% in 2000, while the population of Puerto Ricans, mostly in central Florida, has risen to about 29%.
“Here in central Florida, you’ve already seen Orange County go from ruby red 20 years ago to deep blue today,” said Jose Fernandez, an Orlando businessman who served as chief of staff to Dyer from 2003 to 2007. “That’s a result of the changing demographics, and the difficulties Puerto Rico has had financially.”
These changes could bolster the Democratic presidential nominee’s chances of winning Florida’s 29 electoral votes, even if Rubio or former Governor Jeb Bush captures the Republican nomination, Fernandez said.
Jeb Bush, who is married to a Mexican and speaks Spanish, had success with Latinos in central Florida, Fernandez said. But since Bush left the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee, his profile in state politics has been much reduced. Rubio, though popular in south Florida, carries less stature in Orlando, owing to political rivalries between Puerto Ricans and Cubans.
Whichever party can reach the most Puerto Ricans on the issue of immigration could have an advantage. Sensitives around the issue remain high.
“Puerto Ricans pay attention to immigration even though it doesn’t impact them directly,” said Fernandez, 45, who emigrated from Nicaragua when he was eight. “That’s because of the racial tone, and to some extent, the discriminatory tone. Yes, being a U.S. citizen is different than being an immigrant, but there’s a sense that these comments are pointed at all Latinos.”
For Puerto Ricans, voting in a presidential election also means potentially influencing how policymakers in Washington might address the island’s needs.
Puerto Rican voter participation is also heightened by a tradition of roughly 90% turnout for the island’s gubernatorial elections, which are held on Sundays, Marquez said.
“The challenge for us is getting Puerto Ricans to vote as much in U.S. elections as they used to do in Puerto Rico,” Marquez said. “Because what happens in central Florida depends on whether Puerto Ricans vote.”