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A wave of Puerto Rican arrivals could help Clinton win in Florida

Most Puerto Ricans arriving in Florida are registering as Democrats, a Univision News analysis shows.
8 Sep 2016 – 12:54 PM EDT
Puerto Ricans Gabriel Rodríguez and Carmen Delgado say they support Hillary Clinton. Crédito: Fernando Peinado

KISSIMMEE, Florida It doesn't look like much, but what happens every morning outside a Unidos supermarket in a residential Kissimmee neighborhood could have a decisive impact on the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Five activists from Mi Familia Vota , a Latino rights group, greet the supermarket customers at the door and offer to help them register to vote.

Many area residents are Puerto Ricans, like Gabriel Rodríguez and Carmen Delgado, retirees who moved to Florida a year ago as part of the exodus unleashed by the island's economic crisis. Puerto Ricans who live on the island cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections, but become eligible when they establish residency in the continental United States.

Rodríguez and Delgado, like the majority of Hispanics around Kissimmee interviewed by Univision News, say they favor Clinton. “We support her because we need people who support our race,” said Rodríguez.

The Puerto Ricans' mass exodus to Florida – about 200,000 moved to the state since 2012, according to island government figures – could decide the Nov. 8 presidential vote in a state usually fought over by Democratic and Republican candidates. And the numbers of recently registered voters tend to favor Clinton, according to an analysis by Univision News and Cifras y Conceptos.

The numbers look good for Clinton

The analysis couldn't determine how many of the newly registered voters are Puerto Rican because the Florida Division of Elections doesn't ask for birthplace. But the researchers looked at the ethnicity listed by new voters in central Florida counties with high numbers of recent Puerto Rican arrivals.

In Orange County, where Orlando is located, 37 percent of the 39,568 voters who registered between Feb. 16 and Aug. 1 described themselves as Hispanic. In Osceola County, where Kissimmee is located, Hispanics accounted for 71.6 percent of the 9,380 new voters registered in the same period.

The new voters showed a clear preference for the Democratic Party. Of new voters, about 53 percent in Orange County and 73.3 percent in Osceola County registered as Democrats.

The preference for the Democratic Party isn't a surprise, because Puerto Ricans who live in the continental United States have long favored the party.

The growth of the Puerto Rican vote in central Florida already may have contributed to President Barack Obama's narrow victory in Florida in the 2012 election. An exit poll by Bendixen & Amandi indicated Obama won 87 percent of the Puerto Rican vote in the state, while Republican Mitt Romney received 13 percent. One pre-election poll by Florida International University estimated that two out of three Puerto Ricans planned to vote for Obama.

Changes in the overall Hispanic vote in Orange and Osceola counties over the last four years also bode well for the Democratic Party. The number of registered Hispanic Democrats rose by 0.5 percent in Osceola and dropped by 0.6 percent in Orange, while Hispanic Republicans dropped by 2.2 percent in Osceola and 1.7 percent in Orange. Independent Hispanic voters saw the biggest growth: 1.7 percent in Osceola and 1.9 percent in Orange.

If Puerto Ricans continue to arrive and vote for Democratic candidates, Florida could well lose its status as a swing state and turn into a Democratic stronghold. About 1.1 million Puerto Ricans already live in Florida, according to an island government estimate provided to Univision.

For now, the state remains a battleground, according to the latest polls. An average of the most recent surveys give Clinton an edge of two to three percentage points over Trump.

Some Kissimmee area Puerto Ricans, like Pastor Hilario Pérez, say they do support Trump. Pérez said he's familiar with the candidate's business success because he lived in New York more than 30 years. “He would be good for Hispanics because he would create a lot of work,” he said.

The taste of roast pork”

But Clinton and the Democratic Party can't take Puerto Rican votes for granted. It's one thing to fill in a voter registration form, and another to wait in line to vote on election day.

Activists with Mi Familia Vota and other non-partisan groups working in central Florida say they have run into problems trying to persuade recent Puerto Rican arrivals about the importance of casting their ballots.

Potential voters are unfamiliar with the complex electoral system, aren't interested, feel frustrated with politicians – and often blame them for the island's problems – and are focused more on working and educating their children, activists said.

“Some of them tell you, 'I don't have time for this. I have two jobs,'” said Jeamy Ramírez, one of the Mi Familia Vota activists working the entrance to the Unidos supermarket.

“There are people who tell you that everything is useless, but we try to persuade them,” said Meilin Rivera, an activist with the group Hispanic Heritage who was registering voters in the popular Melao Bakery in Kissimmee.

Surveys have shown that the extraordinarily high voter turnout among Puerto Ricans when they live on the island drops significantly when they move to the continental U.S. That's why turnout in November remains a question.

Barber John Crespo, who moved to Florida more than a decade ago, says he voted only once in his life, in Puerto Rico when he was 18 years old. “The truth is, it doesn't interest me,” he says. “I leave that to others.”

Jimmy Torres, founder of Boricua Vota, a group dedicated to getting out the Puerto Rican vote, blames the apparent apathy in part on the U.S. electoral culture. “The campaigns here are bland. That's why we founded Boricua Vota, to give them the taste of roast pork.”

In true island style, Boricua Vota organized a motorcade around Kissimmee streets on Saturday to drum up support for Puerto Rican candidates in state and local contests.

But some barriers faced by recent arrivals are more complex. Some have not been able to register to vote because they live in motels, cars or the street, and do not have a permanent address to use on their registration forms.

Jorge Rivera, a 34-year-old waiter at the Melao Bakery, said he wants to vote for Clinton, but will not be able to do so. “I am living in a motel, and I have to move on Tuesday,” he said.

Federica Narancio contributed to this report.