The critical swing state of Florida is a must-win for Republican incumbent President Donald Trump. We can expect the President to do well in Northern Florida, as he did in 2016 while losing heavily Democratic South Florida, and Central Florida will likely swing the state one direction or the other. A dynamic in that region that has risen recently is the increasing population of Puerto Rican voters. To win enough votes in Central Florida to win the state, Puerto Rican voters might be the key for President Trump’s re-election.
While the population of Puerto Rican voters in Florida was already growing, many more migrated to the state after Hurricane Maria tragically ripped through the island. There are 1.2 million Puerto Ricans in Florida, roughly 600,000 of which live in Central Florida along the Interstate 4 corridor.
These voters, while historically Democratic, present an opportunity for the Republican Party. We have seen this with some Republican elected officials who have earned the support of Puerto Rican voters, like Senator Rick Scott, who out-performed in the I-4 corridor in his 2018 campaign for Senate.
Scott’s success with this growing voter block is a road map for President Trump to win over these voters as well, and possibly the state of Florida in the process.
Even before the midterm elections in 2018, Rick Scott was “better-known and better-liked” among Puerto Rican Floridians than the incumbent Senator he was challenging, Bill Nelson, with Scott garnering a positive image rating of 75 percent in a poll conducted in the summer of 2018. At the same time, President Trump had an only 18 percent approval rating among Puerto Ricans.
When the votes were counted, Osceola County, just south of Orlando, where many Puerto Ricans settled after Hurricane Maria, gave 42 percent of their vote to Rick Scott. In the previous election, Trump only earned 36% of that same county. Given how historically close Florida Presidential elections are, with Trump winning the state by just over 100,000 votes in 2016, and given how many Puerto Rican voters there are in the state, it is clear that Puerto Rican voters could swing the election for or against the president.
So what did Rick Scott do that President Trump could learn from to be successful in November?
One important factor is that Senator Scott has been a vocal supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico, stating that Congress should “respect the will of the people of Puerto Rico,” who have voted for statehood twice in the past ten years, and are on track to do so again in the upcoming plebiscite on November 3rd.
The Republican Party has long been in support of Puerto Rico statehood, with that position being included in their party platform for decades, and every previous Republican President since Reagan endorsing statehood. President Trump’s recent comments on Hannity dismissing the results of two referendums in the last 10 years that clearly demonstrated Puerto Rican voters’ support for statehood are a break from Republican tradition and, more immediately, are unhelpful to his chances for reelection. He should issue his unwavering support for statehood, if the people of the island chose so in their upcoming election, and vow to urge Congress to act to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.
In addition, what Senator Scott has always understood about Puerto Rican voters is that many came from the island to Florida to seek economic opportunities in hopes of a more prosperous future. Scott has made economic development a priority not just in Florida, but also encouraging job creation in Puerto Rico, stating in an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel that “Just like Florida families, Puerto Rican families want great jobs.”
President Trump has already made the correct first step by promising nearly $13 billion in federal disaster funding to help Puerto Rico repair its electrical and education infrastructure Hurricane Maria decimated. By prioritizing bettering the economy both on the mainland and the island, President Trump could garner additional support from Puerto Rico voters in the I-4 corridor.
All signs point to Florida as a must-win for President Trump. And the outcome of the state could be determined by the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans living along the I-4 corridor. Therefore, President Trump should fight to earn their vote by issuing his unequivocal support for statehood and focus on an economic message that prioritizes job creation and economic development, not just in Florida but in Puerto Rico as well.