How a Surge in Puerto Rican Voters Is Changing Florida Politics

Luisita Lopez Torregrosa, Yahoo! News, October 20, 2014

The road to political victory in Florida is not just a metaphor, it’s a place: Interstate 4, the busy highway that cuts across the vote-heavy heart of the state from Tampa to Daytona Beach.

And the I-4 corridor, as it’s called, now runs through a swing-vote region undergoing significant demographic change.

Puerto Ricans have been migrating by the thousands to the area–part of the largest exodus from their island territory to the mainland since World War II. They currently make up about 10 percent of Central Florida’s population, and their numbers continue to grow.

A Pew Research Center report released in August shows that Orange County alone was home to nearly 150,000 Puerto Ricans in 2010, up from 86,583 a decade earlier, out of a total population of 1.4 million. The surge pushed it to No. 3 in a ranking of U.S. counties according to Puerto Rican population; only Brooklyn and the Bronx ranked higher.

“The I-4 corridor is the key to winning Florida: Win the area and you win the election,” says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, pointing out that roughly 45 percent of the state’s registered voters live in the Tampa and Orlando media markets.

Yet some Floridians, including politicians, are still trying to figure out how to talk about the newcomers. Because many Puerto Ricans work at Disney World, Floridians dub them “Disney Ricans” or “Mickey Ricans,” labels they don’t find amusing.

And it didn’t go unnoticed when the chairman of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee, Lew Oliver, blamed the “Puerto Rican influx” for a decline in registered Republicans and called the island territory “semisocialist” and a “basket case.” Under fire from various groups, Oliver issued an apology, saying his words were taken out of context.

The episode highlights the struggle the GOP faces in Central Florida, where more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans are concentrated in a region of 3 million to 4 million people. Though Republicans can still rely on the Cuban vote in South Florida, they’re falling behind in the vital I-4 corridor.

The change is part of a broader shift in the Hispanic politics of the Sunshine State. Historically, Cubans in the Miami area have been the majority of the state’s Hispanics and have leaned Republican. But that dominance is slowly eroding. Younger Cubans are increasingly turning Democratic, and the swelling Puerto Rican population seems to lean Democratic, too.

Puerto Ricans now number nearly 1 million statewide and represent 28 percent of Hispanic registered voters–closing in on a Cuban population of 1.3 million that comprises 32 percent of Hispanic voters.

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“No question, the influx of Puerto Ricans has had an impact,” says Steve Schale, a Tallahassee strategist who was a senior adviser in President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and is an adviser to Charlie Crist’s gubernatorial campaign. “Until a few years ago, Central Florida was reliably Republican. No more.”

The Puerto Rican vote could make a decisive difference in the upcoming presidential election. It may have already done so in 2012, when Obama won the state by 50.1 percent to Mitt Romney’s 49.13 percent. The difference was only 74,000 votes, the slimmest margin in the country.

Yet the Puerto Rican vote is no sure thing for the Democrats.

“It’s an up-for-grabs community,” says Andres W. Lopez, a Harvard-trained lawyer and national Democratic Party fundraiser who lives in San Juan and commutes often to Florida and Washington.

Puerto Ricans who have lived for long periods in the United States tend to register as Democrats, but those who came from the island recently are likely to be more independent and unaffiliated.

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“Puerto Rican communities in Orlando, Miami and Tampa differ substantially from their counterparts in New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia,” says Jorge Duany, an anthropologist at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. In his research study “Mickey Ricans? The Recent Puerto Rican Diaspora to Florida,” Duany finds that the Puerto Rican migrants of the 21st century have more financial resources and are better educated than their predecessors. They tend to live in middle-class and high-end suburban settings, like Coral Gables and Doral in Miami. “The current Puerto Rican experience in Florida is largely unprecedented,” he says.

The GOP believes these new immigrants could be its kind of people.

“No party has a lock on Hispanics,” says Alex Garcia, the Republican Hispanic Initiatives field director for Florida, speaking specifically about Puerto Ricans. Hispanics favored Republican Jeb Bush in earlier elections, Garcia points out.

In this election cycle, both Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his challenger, Charlie Crist, have Hispanic running mates. Scott recently made his first Spanish-language TV commercial, and the first televised debate between the two candidates–a fractious tit-for-tat on Oct. 10–was hosted by the Spanish-language Telemundo network.

Both candidates have tried to tailor their message to Hispanic voters. Scott pitches jobs, low taxes and social conservatism (he’s against equal marriage and abortion rights, stands that likely appeal to Hispanic social conservatives). Crist emphasizes issues that, according to surveys, rank high with Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics: health care, Medicaid expansion, increasing the minimum wage, immigration reform.

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