Are Puerto Rican Voters the Sleeping Giant of the Midterm Elections?

U.S. and Puerto Rico flags wave amid blue skies. Photo by TexPhoto/Getty Images

In the 1930s, Puerto Rican voters delivered New York City to the Republicans, and specifically to Oscar Garcia Rivera (the first Puerto Rican to hold office in the United States), Fiorello la Guardia, and Vito Marcantonio, dismantling years of Democratic reign in the city’s local politics. Nearly 100 years later, in 2012, Puerto Ricans once again dictated political outcomes, this time in national politics and for the state of Florida. They were instrumental in turning Florida blue, signaling a new era of Latino (and particularly Puerto Rican) politics in the state. Where Cuban Americans had once played a key role in securing wins for conservatives, the recent influx of Puerto Ricans to the Sunshine State, both from the island and from other states, has meant that it’s now open season on Boricua voters. And as we go into tomorrow’s midterm elections, the question remains as to what role Puerto Ricans will play.

New York and Florida are not the only states that have seen an increase in their Puerto Rican populations. A new book just released by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies suggests that “the demographic and socioeconomic profile of Puerto Ricans at this early point in the New Millenium is dramatically different from what it was decades ago…by 2012…there [were] 4,970,604 Puerto Ricans living stateside and 3,515,844 million Puerto Ricans residing on the island, representing a population swing of nearly 1.5 million over nearly a decade.” The data shows that not only are there more Puerto Ricans in the United States than on the island itself, but the Puerto Rican population has spread out beyond its “traditional” settlement areas of New York and the Northeast.

“The South as a region, and Central Florida, in particular,” are now “ the main destinations of interstate movers and recent migrants.” Beyond confirming the fact that we love to bask in the sun, this data also speaks to the potential of Puerto Ricans to play a major role in electoral politics across the country at both the local and national levels. All, eyes, for instance, are on Puerto Ricans in Florida, where they could be instrumental in deciding the 2014 gubernatorial race.

There are more Puerto Ricans in the United States than on the island itself.

Politicians have taken notice. Florida Governor Rick Scott and his opponent, Charlie Crist, have tailored their messaging to Puerto Rican voters, going as far as holding their first debate on Telemundo. They’ve also thrown in Spanish speaking running mates for good measure. Lew Oliver, chairman of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee, felt the weight of this new voting bloc hard when he blamed them for a decline in registered republicans. Apologies ensued. Politicians, however, are not the only ones who have increasingly payed attention to the Puerto Ricans in Florida. As Jorge Duany, Director and Professor at the Cuba Research Institute at Florida International University, writes on his work about Puerto Ricans in Florida, “During the past decade, the mass media have frequently portrayed the Puerto Rican population in Florida as a “swing vote” that could decide local, state, and even presidential elections.” And as November 4 rapidly approaches, a slew of articles trumpet the importance of Puerto Ricans in the upcoming midterm elections. Certainly, the emphasis makes sense as the Puerto Rican vote mattered in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. But midterm elections are a whole different beast.

Pioco’s Chicken in Kissimmee, Fla., has become a hub for the area’s large Puerto Rican community. Photo via NPR.
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An old Puerto Rican saying goes, “del dicho al hecho hay un gran trecho” — in other words, things are easier said than done. And recent research suggests that this is certainly the case for Puerto Rican voters. Carlos Vargas-Ramos, editor Research Associate at The Center for Puerto Rican Studies and editor of Puerto Ricans at the Dawn of the New Millenium, argues that Puerto Rican’s “engagement in political activity, both electoral and non-electoral, is generally lower than it is for the population as a whole; lower than the majority population of non-Hispanic whites. Consequently, their voice in the political process is largely muted.” Well, that’s good to know. This lack of engagement has had other consequences as well. One is the fact that, as Duany reports, “the Puerto Rican population boom has not yet translated into proportional political representation at local or state levels.” If numbers are any indication, then, Puerto Ricans are not taking full advantage of the potential everyone sees in them to be a driving/major force in the way politics go across the nation.

Puerto Ricans are not taking full advantage of the [political] potential everyone sees in them.

The theories and numbers seem to match the reality some see in places like Florida. Natasha del Toro, Fusion reporter, tends to agree. When asked about the engagement of Puerto Rican Millenials in the voting process she shared, “I didn’t notice a lot of young Puerto Ricans engaged in the process…That’s why they always refer to us as a sleeping giant politically. We could have tremendous political power if we get out and vote. But that’s not happening, partly because recently arrived Puerto Ricans don’t have the same political party structure of Dems and GOP. That’s not something they are necessarily used to. Also, Puerto Ricans vote once every four years. Here in the U.S., elections happen more frequently and we vote on a lot more elected positions, which we don’t vote for in Puerto Rico. Perhaps another reason is simply that Puerto Ricans don’t feel as connected here.” This is also perhaps why the Puerto Rican vote is up for grabs, and politicians who want to wake up the sleeping giant would be wise to address these issues.

Julio Ricardo Varela, Founder of Latino Rebels, has a different take, “I also think it is incredibly unfair to say that Millennials are not politically engaged. I think it’s quite the opposite. Younger people are more connected than ever, they have a great sense of issues, but they don’t want to be pandered to. The problem is that older generations don’t know how to connect with the younger generation, and that is the disconnect. Millenials see right through the spin of both political parties and it’s because they are digitally connected and can think for themselves. That scares political parties.”

Democratic governor candidate Charlie Crist (left) and Republican Gov. Rick Scott. REUTERS/Steve Nesius/Joe Skipper (Reuters Photos)
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The lack of familiarity with mainland voting structures may very well explain why newcomers vote in such small numbers, but what about those voters of Puerto Rican descent who were born and raised in the United States? Whether you are a newcomer to the mainland (as many Puerto Ricans refer to the United States) or were born and raised in the streets of El Barrio, the Puerto Rican realities both on the island and in the states may contribute to their choice to stand at the periphery of the electoral process. When speaking of newcomers, Maria T. Padilla, editor of Orlando Latino, seemed to echo del Toro, “Not all Puerto Ricans want to engage when they move to Florida. In fact, some want to disengage, depending on their political experience on the island or elsewhere. The key is to get people to see how influential they can be.” Interestingly, Varela who sees this lack of engagement as a thing of the past, had a similar take when discussing Puerto Ricans with longer and deeper roots to the states, which he sees as a thing of the past, “Puerto Ricans have experienced a history of discrimination and segregation in the mainland, and there was also this attitude to not rock the boat. But that is changing now, I know so many engaged boricuas who are speaking out and who understand that your voice matters. Once a few do it, then others follow and then soon we reach a critical mass. I do think digital and social media have played a huge role in connecting Puerto Ricans across this country, and that is what I am so hopeful.”

Those Puerto Ricans who choose to vote, however, share a sense of responsibility and knowledge of the power of their demographic. Sheila Faulkner, a recent Puerto Rico transplant, sees voting as “the only way to ensure that my ideals and interests count.” Alejandra, an attorney who moved from Puerto Rico to Florida disillusioned with the socioeconomic conditions on the island, couldn’t wait to vote, “Yes, I already voted, by mail in ballot. I did it because I want to have a say in what goes on where I live.” For Raquel Diaz, a Boricubiche mother of two who returned to her home state of Florida after years of living in New York City, not voting is not an option. “Every system has flaws, but if we opt out we have exactly no chance of being influential and we miss out on the ability to make our demographic heard…and elected where the candidates are qualified.” So when it come’s to tomorrow’s elections, she will indeed be voting. “I plan to vote in the midterms because, in some ways, local politics is more important than the presidential election. They are what affects our family’s daily life.”

Melissa Mark-Viverito, NYC’s First Puerto Rican City Council Speaker
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As for the issues that matter to this voting demographic, they are as diverse as Puerto Ricans themselves, for Raquel, it’s “education, healthcare, and the environment.” While Natasha spent some time on the ground in Orlando she observed that “Puerto Rican voters care about what other Americans care about–namely the economy. In Central Florida, raising the minimum wage seems to be an important issue.” As does affordable healthcare, and loan forgiveness. Essentially, the issues these Puerto Rican voters care about are issues that affect young professionals, and families, the same demographic that increasingly makes up the voting block.

What is essential to remember for both politicians and Puerto Rican voters alike is that whether or not Puerto Ricans are currently taking full advantage of their voting power as they have in the past, their small numbers have always mattered, and they can absolutely yield great sway in the future. Maria Padilla was quite sure of this, “People forget how long it takes for political activism to take root, even simple things like voting. It takes decades. For instance, political activism and participation are more mature in places like New York and Chicago, etc. Then again, the migration there also is older. That’s why you have a NY City Council president who is Puerto Rican.” Indeed, it took over 75 years to go from Oscar Garcia Rivera to Melissa Mark Viverito. Julio Ricardo Varela may have summed it best, when he said, “[W]e are here, we have always been here, we are politically engaged, we are no longer just a Chicago or Philly or New York City electorate. We are becoming a force in Florida, and those voters will be the ones who will keep pushing for the issues that matter for Puerto Rico. Like my man Andy López always says, ‘El futuro es nuestro.’”

No time like the present to start grabbing that future.