In 2017, Florida overtook New York as the U.S. state with the largest Puerto Rican population. This milestone illustrated just how much political influence the Puerto Rican diaspora had come to exercise. Puerto Rico itself has no vote for president. But more than a million of those who identify it as their origin now cast votes in one of the most politically competitive states in the nation.
This is important, given that most presidential candidates’ — and all Republican presidential candidates’ — paths to the White House run through Florida. Moreover, the data show that the relevant counties in Central Florida where Puerto Rican residents are concentrated are bellwethers for statewide election victory and have been so for decades.
In 2020, The James Madison Institute published a white paper examining these crucial Floridian voters’ attitudes toward Puerto Rico’s status. We analyzed a series of surveys among Florida’s Puerto Rican voters, in hopes of determining what kind of politicians they liked and disliked, and which messages – especially on statehood – were likely to succeed or fail in attracting their support.
From the data, we were able to draw several useful conclusions. First, we found that a mere display of respect for the issue and its significance to these Floridian voters can keep a lot of doors open, whereas messages that merely disparage the idea risk closing those doors.
Second, we observed that those Puerto Rican voters most likely to be persuaded to vote for Republican candidates are also the ones most supportive of Puerto Rican statehood. To those unfamiliar with the island territory’s politics, that may seem paradoxical, but it reflects an incongruity over how the issue is treated in the mainland United States versus how it is treated in Puerto Rico itself.
Puerto Ricans are American citizens from birth. They carry U.S. passports, serve in the U.S. military, and pay all federal taxes except income tax on Puerto Rico-source income (for which they do still have to pay Puerto Rico’s income tax). Still, the island territory’s legal status is different from that of U.S. states.
Florida (and national) presidential candidates cannot afford to overlook Puerto Rican voters, who have become concentrated in Central Florida, in the state’s all-important I-4 corridor. And when courting these voters, candidates cannot overlook the strong opinions they tend to retain about Puerto Rican statehood, revealed in multiple opinion surveys in recent years.
Based on the data and these basic ideas, we posited in 2020 that Sen. Rick Scott’s constructive approach to this issue during his 2018 campaign for office had probably turned a narrow election loss against a relatively popular incumbent into a very narrow win. We also warned that leaders such as President Trump and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, while they were certainly entitled to oppose statehood on whatever ground they chose, needed to be careful about casting the entire issue as some kind of Democratic Party power-grab with no further significance.
Another election has intervened in the time since we published that white paper, and several additional polls have been taken. This update, recasting and applying the new available data, revisits the original paper’s conclusions and attempts to apply the lessons to the new nuances of today’s political debate.