When you work in politics, you find out really early that the most important question you have to answer is what is a person’s “vote-moving” issue?
Floridians who have moved from Puerto Rico — American citizens who have the full right to vote in Florida — are no different. These 1.1 million potential voters have overwhelmingly moved to Central Florida, in the stretch between Tampa and Orlando. Speaking to the vote-moving issue of these voters is increasingly the key to winning statewide, especially for Republicans.
A new study by Florida’s James Madison Institute tells us that the vote-moving issue for the 1.1 million central Floridians of Puerto Rican descent is openness to Puerto Rican statehood. Two-thirds to three-fourths of these voters favor statehood for Puerto Rico, according to recent polls.
And it’s not just a preference, but a vote-moving intensity. Eighty-five percent of these Floridians found the issue of Puerto Rican statehood to be “extremely” or “very” important. The status issue ranked much higher than other issues in order of importance to these voters. Seventy-one percent are more likely to vote for a candidate (of either political party) who is open to Puerto Rican statehood.
My party, the Republican Party, cannot win Florida without winning Central Florida. And we can no longer win Central Florida without carrying a high enough percentage of this Puerto Rican “diaspora” vote. Central Florida has been decisive for every Republican presidential candidate since 1992. In every election where the Republican presidential candidate wins 50% or more of a dozen key Central Florida counties, he wins the state and the presidency. When the GOP candidate for president fails to do so, he loses Florida and the White House.
As Central Florida goes, so goes the road to the White House. The margins can be razor-thin. Donald Trump won those dozen Central Florida with 50.2 percent in 2016, and therefore won the state and the presidency. Mitt Romney did very well with 49.8 percent in 2012, but that small difference cost him Florida where it did not for Trump.
We’ve also seen the importance of Central Florida and its Puerto Rican diaspora population in recent Florida statewide elections. In 2018, Sen. Rick Scott embraced the cause of Puerto Rican statehood and quickly made up the deficit among self-identified Puerto Rican voters. While Sen. Bill Nelson was on the record in favor of Puerto Rican statehood, he had to temper that position given the overwhelming support he also had among those who were strongly opposed to statehood. Nelson paid the price for this in Central Florida, losing to Scott in the crucial dozen counties by a relative landslide — 2 full percentage points, 51-49.
Scott ran ahead of Gov. Ron DeSantis in Central Florida. Unlike Scott, DeSantis did not advocate for Puerto Rican statehood, but he has been respectful and open to the idea with those for whom it was their vote moving issue. As a result, DeSantis carried Central Florida with 50.4 percent of the vote, just enough to win the state.
What does all this mean for Republicans in 2020, especially President Trump? The lesson is simple — when a voter tells you this strongly what their vote moving issue is, you listen to them if you want to get their vote.
The Puerto Rican diaspora voters of Central Florida have a strong preference and intensity for Puerto Rican statehood. You can’t win Central Florida without clearing this hurdle with enough Puerto Ricans who live there. You can’t win Florida without winning Central Florida. And for Trump, you can’t win the White House without winning Florida.
That means it is extremely destructive, for example, when any Republican has as part of their stump speech a promise that a vote on Puerto Rican statehood will never advance. That might play wonderfully in 49 other states, but it’s a killer for Republicans in Florida.
None of this means a candidate must endorse Puerto Rican statehood in order to win Central Florida. It does, however, absolutely require that a candidate (especially a Republican one) be open and respectful toward this aspiration — which is, after all, the vote-moving issue for many of the 1.1 million Puerto Ricans living here.
In a way, Puerto Ricans living in the United States have already chosen statehood, so we shouldn’t be so cavalier when addressing it. I would encourage President Trump and his campaign to pay attention to this pre-existing and well-worn roadmap.
Former U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida is now a senior adviser at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.