Will Puerto Ricans Decide the 2016 Election?

The effect of Puerto Ricans in presidential elections is not a new topic. Despite being U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are unable to vote due to being residents of an “unincorporated territory.” However, they still contribute to national politics in other ways. Puerto Rico still has delegates, and they lend to decisions in partisan primaries. Yet another way they affect the presidential election has started getting more widespread attention in the media. I myself first realized this when a certain far-right news site shared an outlandish story about one of the presidential candidates actively importing people from the island in order to sway the upcoming election. This story is improbable simply because it’d be a ill-conceived waste of resources to go out of the way to physically bring Puerto Ricans up to the mainland en masse when they’re already doing that.

Despite how some keep trying to frame the whole disaster, the current economic crisis has been happening more or less for decades. Puerto Rico has frequently experienced fiscal turmoil during the U.S.’s overlordship, and this virtually always culminates in migration to the mainland. The lopsided political relationship between the U.S. and the commonwealth ultimately falls hardest on the working-class in Puerto Rico and many of their number find more and better opportunities in the continental mainland, especially when the alternative is no opportunity. Some of these migrants were even able to earn enough working in the mainland to build mansions back in their significantly poorer communities. You’ll occasionally see hand-built mansions mingled in with shacks on the rough mountain roads through places like the traditionally isolated San Sebastian, which provided many of those migrants to places like New Jersey.

The current migration, however, has a considerably different makeup. The demographic that’s leaving the island now to settle in the mainland is not made up almost solely of poor laborers and farm workers, but is constituted very significantly by professionals and specialists of all segments of the middle class. Despite this, many have found less opportunities than their forebears, who flocked to grab onto factory jobs and other labor-intensive professions that were still available in relative abundance in the Northeastern United States at that time. These new migrants have instead congregated in Florida, where they deal with poverty and rising racial tensions. You may be asking why all this background information is important – it’s because it’ll give you an idea of how these Puerto Ricans will vote, if at all, and why.

Coverage of this issue is divided between the usual far-right panic attacks about mass Hispanic migration throwing swing states to the Democrats, and whether or not Republicans could possibly take advantage of the new demographics in Florida. Reporters point out that Puerto Ricans, like most Latinos, are inherently socially conservative and emphasize family values. However, this point is frequently misread by outsider observers who don’t really seem to realize what Puerto Ricans on both the island and the mainland prioritize in terms of values. I see no way the current Republican party could possibly poach any voters from Clinton, and it’s their own fault. That’s not to say that the Democrats have done any better, but though both parties shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to enticing Latino voters (and probably all other minority voters, and arguably just all voters), only one continuously rubs salt in their own wounds. The Republican party of this election has been adding some dirt and fungus to that gaping open wound as well, and they’re behind even the Democrats in realizing Puerto Ricans and other Latinos have been watching the whole time.

Clinton is enjoying a lead of around 60-70 percent among the Puerto Ricans living in Florida, which is about the percentage she had over Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary in Puerto Rico. A study conducted by the Center for American Progress offers some more interesting breakdowns. The biggest concern amongst the Florida Puerto Rican community by far is the economy/unemployment, with healthcare being the runner-up, and issues like immigration, education and racism trailing behind at more or less equal levels of interest. The vast majority would not vote for Trump, and though nearly half like Marco Rubio most would still choose a Democratic presidential candidate over him. A slim majority are pro-statehood and consider a presidential candidate’s views on Puerto Rico to be a deciding factor in casting their vote. Of those surveyed, most were older (over 40), had some level of education beyond high school, had resided in the mainland for over 15 years, were children of first generation immigrants, and were from lower income households. Most also followed the news regularly, primarily through TV.

Though this was one study, it provides some interesting insights. One of the biggest is that the majority of Puerto Ricans in Florida are not newcomers. Most are the children of people who migrated there in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, when Puerto Rico went through several recessions coinciding with economic downturns in the mainland. Most are also educated, to various degrees, but still poor, and stay connected the news and to current events in Puerto Rico. In the latter case, that’s despite over half not being born on the island. We can make several inferences from all this data: mainland-based Puerto Ricans still far outnumber those residing on the island, and they fall in line with most other Latinos demographically and ideologically. One of the biggest differences is also one deciding factors in determining their 2016 votes – their continuing connection to Puerto Rico. The lukewarm to frigid reception of Republicans is a product of this, as though both parties and their associates blame each other for the problems in Puerto Rico, only one is more vocal and binary about their views regarding the island. Trump’s nomination only made it worse, with Puerto Ricans having the same low view as other Latinos of his past comments about Mexico. Though Puerto Ricans have been citizens for generations, most still pretty open-minded about opening paths to citizenship for the undocumented. It’s also interesting to note that though the report claims most are pro-statehood, it doesn’t go into detail about committed they were to the cause – which may have shed more light on why Puerto Ricans wouldn’t be more inclined to lean Republican as nearly every pro-statehood Puerto Rican politician does.

I’ve found that most Puerto Ricans have become, deep down, rather pragmatic politically due the issues they face regarding their identity as part of the United States. Many see Puerto Rico becoming a state as an inevitable reality, as, typical of colonized people, they cannot see themselves operating independently and risking becoming one of the poor islands occupying the Caribbean. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of Puerto Ricans who are patriotic Americans, but many don’t take for granted that the U.S. has their best interests at heart. Many becoming reactively leftist, especially those coming from the island. Indeed, I’ve seen firsthand how elitist conservatives can become liberal political activists when they come North. I’ve seen some juggle contradicting views of the poor on the island and the poor in the mainland. Puerto Ricans in the U.S. clearly see themselves as of the “have-nots” and the right-wing’s continued rhetoric demonizing Puerto Rico has left little room in their minds as to who’s to blame. Republicans keep unloading into that foot, and they’re panicking now because although Puerto Ricans aren’t really swarming to Florida as it’s been portrayed, they’re adding numbers to an already disenfranchised but politically conscious community.

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