The Mystery of the Puerto Rican Voter
Why do Puerto Ricans turn out in such high numbers on the island but not in Florida? And who will win their all-important support in 2012?
Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder holds a Puerto Rican flag as she directs a question Newt Gingrich in Miami, Fla., ahead of that state's Republican primary
ORLANDO, Fla.—Starting a caravana in Orlando is no easy business. A few cars bedecked with flags bearing the name of a local candidate may gather in a shopping-center parking lot, but when they turn out onto the public streets other cars are slow to join the procession, as they do across Puerto Rico in the days before an election. There, caravans are part of a broad political pageant in which party colors—blue for the pro-statehood party, red for pro-commonwealth—seem to wash over every inch of available surface area on the island, from murals to neckties. That flair travels to the polls: Puerto Ricans vote at some of the highest rates in the Western Hemisphere.
Over the last decade, candidates in Central Florida running for offices at all levels have tried to mobilize the rapidly growing Puerto Rican community by adopting the caravana tradition. But unlike in Puerto Rico, where caravans can go on for hours in a stream of joyful noise, a Floridian homage can be halting and unsettlingly quiet. Sometimes this is by design: Local campaign organizers warn their caravan drivers not to make too much of a racket while traveling through Anglo neighborhoods, for fear of triggering a backlash.
Puerto Rico’s culture of engagement is all the more stark when juxtaposed against voter apathy in the United States. Throughout the late 20th century, turnout for Puerto Rico’s quadrennial elections was 50 percent higher than it was for presidential contests in the 50 states. Even in 2008, when participation increased in the states and dropped in Puerto Rico, the island still turned out at a rate 10 points ahead of the mainland. But as soon as Puerto Ricans come to the mainland, they seem to abandon their enthusiasm for voting. There is no reliable method to precisely measure turnout by country of origin, but results from precincts in Orlando’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods—and interviews with pollsters, academics, and political operatives and officials—suggests that in 2008 Puerto Ricans living on the mainland voted at or below the 57 percent rate for eligible voting-age Hispanics countywide.
What drives Puerto Ricans to vote at such a greater clip than their fellow citizens on the mainland has been a subject of study for election scholars and civic activists for decades. And now that Puerto Ricans are emerging as a crucial bloc in Florida, campaigns are starting to ask a corollary question: Why do Puerto Ricans stop being such prolific voters when they move to the mainland? And what would it take to reactivate them?
“That’s the riddle everybody’s trying to solve,” says Luis Hernandez, an Orlando talk radio host and Republican political consultant backing Mitt Romney. “People like me, that’s our job.”
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It’s a riddle with high stakes. Despite the relentless focus on the state’s Cuban politics, the Puerto Rican population is growing more quickly and could soon become the largest subgroup of the 1,473,920 Latinos registered to vote in Florida. They are already an outsize presence on the electoral rolls. Because Puerto Ricans are American citizens, they are immediately eligible to vote, which is why even though Puerto Ricans comprise barely 20 percent of the state’s Hispanic population they represent 29 percent of its Hispanic electorate. (Thirty-two percent of Hispanic voters are Cuban, according to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis.) “If you look at the celebrated I-4 corridor, with a lot of Puerto Rican voters, and how they’ve voted in the last five or six elections, they’ve proven to be a swing electorate,” says Fernand Amandi, a managing partner of Bendixen & Amandi, the Miami firm that handled Obama’s Hispanic polling in 2008 and is doing so again this year.
Puerto Ricans lean farther to the left than Cuban-Americans—two-thirds would vote to re-elect Obama, according to a new Univision survey, while only one-third of Cubans back him. One of the big challenges for Democratic data mavens in 2012 is in breaking Central Florida’s Puerto Rican communities into two distinct tribes. There are those who have relocated from northern states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois, where Puerto Ricans have become enmeshed in one-party urban machines and often reflexively register as Democrats when they settle in Florida. Those who come directly from the island are believed to be less likely to associate with either American party. Or, they register as Republicans, but only because of a lexicographical quirk: The island’s pro-statehood party was until the late 1960s known as the Partido Estadista Republicano. “A lot of them just register as Republicans thinking that if they were a Republican in Puerto Rico they need to be a Republican here,” says Betsy Franceschini, who came to the United States from Puerto Rico as a teenager and is now the Central Florida director for the state Democratic party.
Some Democratic operatives see the potential to increase their ranks through a targeted re-registration program. But they have their work cut out for them. Because presidential candidates boycotted Florida’s 2008 Democratic primary because of a calendar spat, neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton mounted a concerted effort in the state to encourage voters to change parties. And the groups now running registration drives targeting Latinos—Mi Familia Vota and Democracia—are prohibited by their tax status from working on party-switching.
Because Puerto Ricans tend to lean toward Democrats, they won’t be a major factor in Tuesday’s Republican primary. The primary will be the first of the year restricted to only those voters registered with the party. Some 452,619 Latino Republicans statewide are eligible to vote on Tuesday— just over 11 percent of the total electorate—but only a small minority of those who turn out are likely to be Puerto Rican.
Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.