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May 21, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

Will the Hispanic Vote Decide the Presidential Election?

As the Bush-Kerry race for the 2004 presidency takes shape, there is intense debate about the relative influence of the U.S. Hispanic vote on the election’s outcome, especially in states where the Latino population is sufficient to produce what is referred to as a "swing vote." This concept has to do with the unique way in which the nation elects its President.

On Tuesday, November 2, 2004, there will be not one U.S. election, but fifty separate elections. Each state is assigned a number of "electoral votes," equal to its total representation in both houses of Congress. The candidate winning a simple majority of votes in that state is awarded all of its electoral votes. The system is a throwback to the early history of the Republic when voters chose "electors" who would later meet to pick a President.

This system can produce the result of a candidate winning a majority of the national vote and still losing the election. This occurred in Y-2000 when Al Gore received some 540,000 more national votes than did George W. Bush, but Bush won a majority of the states’ electoral votes. Had Gore won any additional state having at least 6 electoral votes, he would be President today. Likewise, a candidate can prevail in a majority of states and still loose the election if their total electoral vote totals less than 1/2.

Let’s do the numbers.

Over 13% of the U.S. population is self-identified as "Hispanic," approximately 37 million people as reported by the national census of Y-2000, updated in 2002. This figure does not include the some 4 million Puerto Ricans living on the island, since the U.S. Bureau of the Census does not count territorial residents as a part of the official population total. Included in the count are Mexican-Americans (70%), residents from Central and South American and the Caribbean (16%), Puerto Ricans residing on the mainland (10%) and Cuban-Americans (4%).

Some 70% of this total resides in eight states, with California, Texas, New York and Florida leading the list.

The mainland Puerto Rican population of over 3 million is concentrated in eight states, with New York, at 1.1 million, more than twice the number than its nearest competitor, Florida. They are mostly concentrated in the New York City Metropolitan Area. Florida’s 1/2 million Puerto Ricans represent some 3% of the state’s total population. Trailing behind these states in numbers of Puerto Rican residents are New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Connecticut and California.

In a close state election, a minority population’s overwhelming vote for one candidate could "swing" the entire state election to its preference. Hispanic strategists of both national parties consider "swing states" as those wherein the 2000 election was very close and where Latinos make up at least 5% of the population. This can be illustrated by taking a look at one such state, Florida.

Florida has a population of almost 17 million residents, 16% (2,700,000) of whom are self-identified as "Hispanic." Of this number, some 500,000 are Puerto Ricans, lately concentrated in Central Florida. The state itself is one of the fastest growing in the nation and the overall Hispanic presence is a dramatic part of that growth. In the decade between 1990 and 2000, Hispanic numbers grew by more that 70%. Because of its population expansion, the state’s electoral votes have increased from 21 in 1980 to 27 in 2000, the 4th largest block in the fifty states.

Both the Democratic and Republican campaigns are making an appeal to Florida’s Hispanic community, aware that it is not monolithic. The Cuban community of South Florida tends to vote in large numbers for Republicans, whereas two out of three of "all others" are thought to favor Democrats generally. The Puerto Rican voting block is relatively new and is considered to be "up for grabs." The President’s brother "Jeb" is Governor of Florida and very popular among all Hispanics. He is fluent in Spanish and his wife is Mexican-American.

In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in Florida by a mere 537 votes statewide. In winning this narrow victory, he polled 61% of the Hispanic vote. For him to prevail against John Kerry in 2004, he must maintain or better that percentage and the Democratic campaign in the state is laying heavy emphasis on convincing Hispanics to move in its direction. A recent poll of Hispanics in Florida shows George W. Bush with a 55% to 35% lead over John Kerry, with 10% undecided. That is not good news for Bush but the Republicans say that there are still six months to go and they still have not yet rolled out their war wagons.

Recently in Florida, Antonio Villaraigosa, national co-chair of the Kerry campaign, told a group of Hispanics supporting Kerry that the Senator was beginning to talk to Latino voters. "We're going to speak to their hearts and minds,'' he said. Television ads in Spanish were previewed speaking of President Bush’s "broken promises" to Hispanics, especially in lack of funding for education. On the other side, the Bush campaign touts his "No Child Left Behind" education initiative as fulfilling his promise to make primary and secondary education a priority.

Aside from the social issues — jobs, education and health care — immigration policy is the other hot button issue in the national Latino community, one that seems to be moving in favor of the Democrats. The Bush administration’s emphasis on rounding up and deporting those illegally in the country, as well as those legally here but who have had previous brushes with the law, is seen as "anti-immigration" and indicative of a punitive attitude towards Hispanics.

A question mark in Florida is the disposition of its growing resident Puerto Rican population in the state’s midsection, where Kerry held a "town hall" meeting last week. Some say that the Democrats can expect a slim majority of that vote to be in their column but that the attitude of each contender on Puerto Rico’s political status could make a difference. Presently, both are straddling the fence. Kerry has said that he favors a congressionally sponsored plebiscite but has hinted that he will allow the territorial Commonwealth option to remain on the ballot, a position despised by both statehooders and independence-minded Puerto Ricans.

The Bush administration has whispered a preference for Puerto Rico statehood, but the President has done nothing to advance the issue during his time in office. It is currently being "studied" by a commission of bureaucrats, but Herald sources suggest the possibility of public hearings by the group — conceivably in Florida -- before the elections could raise the President’s visibility on the issue.

An "ace-in-the-hole" for Kerry with the Hispanic community could be played should he appoint New Mexico’s governor, Bill Richardson, as his Vice-Presidential running mate. Arguably the best known and most popular Hispanic elected official, Richardson was a multi-term Congressman, President Clinton’s Ambassador to the United Nations and his 2nd term Energy Secretary. Richardson is a native speaker of Spanish.

This week Herald readers are asked to assess both campaigns to decide which is making the most effective appeal to Hispanics.

Please vote above!

This Week's Question:

Which presidential campaign is making the most effective appeal to Hispanics?

US . Residents
. PR
Bush is more effective

40% Kerry is more effective

13% Don’t know



.To submit your idea for a future PR Herald poll question or "Hot Button" issue, please click here.

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