By Hastings Wyman –
As of October 3, more than 27,000 individuals have arrived in Florida from storm-ravaged Puerto Rico through Miami International Airport, Orlando International Airport, and Port Everglades. Others are arriving on flights or cruise ships in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. The number is expected to grow, with estimates as high as 100,000, or even more.
Donald Trump carried Florida last year by fewer than 113,000 votes and Puerto Ricans mostly vote Democratic. As a result, “Democrats are very optimistic. Republicans are worried,” says Dr. Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida,
Puerto Ricans are American citizens and can register to vote as soon as they arrive in one of the 50 states. But politics may be the last thing on the minds of many of these refugees from Hurricane Maria; they are more likely to be focused on housing, jobs and schools for children. “It would probably take several years for them to have an impact,” says MacManus. “They will not be as active in primaries or in the general in 2018.”
“Puerto Ricans tend to vote in large numbers,” says Tallahassee-based political analyst Barney Bishop. As for their political impact, “A lot will depend on how many stay in Florida.” He adds, “It isn’t certain when the larger Puerto Rican electorate will manifest itself in the state. Depending on how quickly they settle in, you could see an impact in certain areas in 2018. More likely an impact will be felt in 2020 and in 2022, when redistricting will be based on the 2020 census.”
The impact on congressional and state legislative elections “could be potentially significant if they come to certain areas, such as Orange and Osceola Counties, says Bishop. “If they continue an influx in those areas, it will make them more Democratic; also, Miami Dade, Palm Beach and Broward Counties.”
Trump’s controversial remarks and tweets about the catastrophe in Puerto Rico, such as calling the mayor of San Juan an “ingrate” and suggesting Puerto Ricans want the recovery efforts done for them, are keenly felt by Florida’s Puerto Rican voters. It would be a great irony if by insulting Puerto Ricans and not giving a major federal focus to the island’s recovery, President Trump facilitated his own defeat in 2020. This could very well happen if the state’s Puerto Rican electorate is enlarged and delivers Florida’s 29 electoral votes to the Democratic presidential candidate.
In any case, it looks like the number of Puerto Ricans could soon match the number of Cuban-Americans in Florida. This would mean the emerging Puerto Rican influence – mostly Democratic – could offset the Cuban influence, which is largely Republican. This could reshape Florida politics, where Cubans have helped fuel the GOP’s political, in a more Democratic direction.
On the other hand, it is not entirely clear who the Puerto Ricans coming to Florida will blame Trump for their circumstance. “Will they blame Trump and the Republicans in Congress,” asks MacManus, “or blame the Puerto Rican government for running Puerto Rico into bankruptcy?” Indeed, recent surveys indicate that, even before Hurricane Maria, some 10% to 14% of Puerto Rica’s residents were considering moving to the US mainland, primarily because of the state’s fiscal crisis, centered on debts of $73 billion.
Florida Republicans, ever mindful of the potential impact, have tried to blunt the negative impression President Trump has made. The state’s top two Republican officeholders, Gov. Rick Scott and US Sen. Marco Rubio, were among the first mainlanders to arrive in Puerto Rico after the hurricane had passed. And they have been actively pushing for more aid to the island, as well as more services in Florida for those displaced by Maria. After his visit to Puerto Rico, Scott visited the White House to urge more aid. And Vice President Mike Pence came to Florida specifically to address the Puerto Rican community, then the next day flew to the island itself.
Puerto Rican officeholders in Florida who are Republicans, including three state legislators, have joined other Republicans in calling for more school funding to help the state’s schools accommodate the expected influx of school age children. Gov. Scott has order the state Department of Education to facilitate school enrollment of Puerto Rican students by approving additional funds for schools, simplifying regulations so teachers from the island can teach in Florida, and eliminating school registration fees. Scott also declared all 67 counties disaster areas, so the impact on schools can be spread out. He also authorized in-state college tuition for Maria refugees.
Nevertheless, in 2016, Hillary Clinton won nearly 75% of the state’s Puerto Rican votes. And Democrats have also been active on behalf of the state’s new residents. US Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D) collected the signatures of 29 other members of Congress to sign a letter to the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee calling for the federal government to send emergency funds to schools enrolling students who have fled Hurricane Maria. The letter cited as precedent similar action following Hurricane Katrina. And Sen. Bill Nelson (D), who could face a tough challenge from Scott next year, quickly denounced Trump’s negative comments about Puerto Ricans.
All things considered, says political scientist MacManus, “Democrats are salivating over the prospect of increased votes.” Stay tuned.