Clinton’s Florida Secret Weapon: New Puerto Rican Arrivals

Sasha Issenberg and Steven Yaccino, Bloomberg, October 25, 2016

Last Wednesday morning contained an unusual landmark in the endgame of the 2016 election season: the first time in months that Central Floridians could confidently buy a plantain without being hassled about their level of civic engagement.

Throughout the year, their region has been overrun with clipboard-grasping canvassers listening for the distinctively accented Spanish of native Puerto Ricans. While in most states registration drives focus on college campuses and African-American neighborhoods–the standard marketplaces where canvassers find non-registrants who skew Democratic–Florida has presented a distinct demographic opportunity. The center of the state, across several counties sprawling outward from Orlando, has been a destination for one of the most significant domestic diasporas in recent American history. The debt crisis that has been roiling Puerto Rico for the last two years has forced residents to flee the island in droves, with many settling in Florida’s Orange and Osceola counties.

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Four years ago, President Barack Obama won 60 percent of Florida’s overall Hispanic vote, compared to Republican Mitt Romney’s 39 percent. This year, some national and Florida polls have pegged GOP nominee Donald Trump’s support among Latinos below 20 percent–a difference that could place this ultimate swing state securely into Clinton’s column, if her campaign can reach its turnout goals. Trump and Clinton each scheduled multiple days in Florida this week, no doubt aiming to reach the 2 million Hispanic voters who now make up roughly 16 percent of registered voters in the state. And in contrast with South Florida’s Cuban-Americans, a swing constituency both sides have long struggled over, Puerto Ricans in the state look this year to be an overwhelmingly Democratic bloc, requiring not ideological persuasion, but the arduous labor of registration and mobilization.

In a report released by WikiLeaks after Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s e-mail account was hacked, the campaign’s analytics team determined that nearly one-quarter of the work required to win Florida was registering new voters. In comparison, that number was less than 10 percent in Wisconsin, and nearly 60 percent in North Carolina. {snip}

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Last Tuesday afternoon, three Clinton canvassers stood outside Kissimmee Meat & Produce, looking to slow those entering and exiting just long enough to ask whether they were registered. The independently owned supermarket sits in Osceola County’s 410th precinct, where, according to a Clarity Campaign Labs analysis, 42 percent of the 246 voters who have registered since the 2014 elections are likely to be Puerto Rican. Not all are recent transplants from the island: some were raised in Florida and are just reaching voting age; others are retirees relocating from large Puerto Rican communities in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois.

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It turned out that it did not take much persuasion to move the new Puerto Ricans into Clinton’s column. Latino Decisions, a polling firm that supplies her campaign with research on Hispanic public opinion, found Clinton winning 74 percent of the vote to Trump’s 17 percent, with an even larger margin among the subset of those born on the island. The island-born viewed Clinton more favorably, and Trump more unfavorably, than their mainland-born peers. And within both groups, only 11 percent of voters said the debt crisis was the most important issue to them, behind even “immigration or deportations”–even though as citizens those issues are unlikely to affect Puerto Rican families directly. In Florida’s Senate race, Puerto Ricans were split between the Cuban-American Rubio and his challenger, Patrick Murphy, with the island-born leaning toward the Democrat, and mainland-born slightly preferring the Republican.

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Unlike foreign immigrants, as U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are all immediately eligible to vote, and many are more habituated to voting than many Americans. Puerto Rico has some of the world’s highest voter-turnout rates, which observers credit both to the fact that Election Day is an official holiday and to the block-party atmosphere that inspires. {snip}

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