The "Florida Phenomenon:" Puerto Ricans and the 2004 Elections!
Tourists arrive for the sun and Atlantic Ocean beaches. Conventioneers strive for "birdies" on the emerald green golf courses and to hook a tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands descend each day to begin Caribbean cruises and millions of retirees migrate to this state to inhabit its planned communities, catering to every geriatric whim. Then, of course, there are the family pilgrimages to the magic kingdom of that cute little black rat, Mickey
The attraction of the states climate and the abundance of its recreational facilities have caused a new word to come into American usage. A "snowbird" is a non-aviary migrant that leaves the impending chill of the northern reaches of the U.S. mainland to temporarily winter in Florida. After the onset of the vernal equinox, they are back into their RVs, yachts and airplane seats, headed north to coax the crocuses and daffodils out of the thawing ground of home.
Recently, a new species of "snowbird" has landed in the state, not keeping to the same chronological or migratory patterns as sun worshipers. Republican elephants and Democratic donkeys are arriving in the torrid heat of the Florida summer and they will not head back north until November 3, 2004, no matter what the weather reports from Washington might forecast. These "party animals" are now seen driving past the sunswept beaches and manicured golf courses at dizzying speeds, feverishly seeking out community centers and the back yards of Florida voters, especially those of Hispanics.
A recent Washington Post story suggested that the burgeoning Puerto Rican population in the state could change the political face of Florida.
Florida is the most significant "battleground state" in the 2004 presidential election both in terms of the number of its electoral votes in play (27, the fourth largest in the nation after California, Texas and New York) and the closeness of the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Bush won the state by only 537 votes, this after a battle for a recount, ultimately decided by a Supreme Court decision that stopped the counting, effectively giving Florida and consequently the election to the current President. Democrats are still seething from that rebuke and are determined to turn it around this time at the voting booth.
There is another phrase coming into current usage about "The Sunshine State," both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland. "El fenómeno de Florida" (The Florida Phenomenon) describes the extraordinary recent immigration of Puerto Ricans to the state, especially to its midsection, a population center radiating out from its core, Orlando. Those coming from such mainland states as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois cite the better climate and less expensive housing. Most coming from Puerto Rico say they seek better employment and improved education for their children, in a climate replicating their Caribbean hometowns.
Currently, polling has the presidential race in Florida at "dead even" between the two parties. The current issue of U.S. News & World Report describes the huge Hispanic population gains in Central Florida, suggesting that Orlando is fast replacing South Florida as the states political center of gravity.
Both major Presidential tickets have campaigned long and hard in Florida, their media advisors buying up airtime for TV commercials, many in Spanish. Since it is assumed that the majority of Floridas estimated 850,000 Cubans will vote Republican, Democrats are hopeful of winning the vote of a significant number of the new Puerto Rican residents of the state. They are banking on the traditional tendency of mainland Puerto Ricans to vote Democratic, realizing, however, that the political orientation of newer "Boricua" arrivals are more tied to island party loyalties and to issues of Puerto Ricos political status than they are to mainland issues. This can breed confusion over the issues and apathy on Election Day.
Extrapolating from 2000 Census data, there are nearly 3 million residents of Florida self-identifying as "Hispanic" or "Latino." Owing largely to the popularity of the Presidents brother Jeb, who is a second term Governor of the State, Republicans own the loyalty of a sizeable segment of the states Hispanics. Recent polls show the Bush/Cheney ticket leading in popularity among this group by a 55%-35% margin, but this is a result not as good as the 61%-39% spread among Hispanics that the team scored against Gore/Lieberman in 2000. Republicans hope to match or exceed this spread next time around.
Cuban Americans gave the Bush/Cheney ticket some 80% of its vote, a percentage that Democrats are working to reduce in the upcoming election.
The U.S. Census Bureau showed 482,000 Puerto Ricans living in Florida in 2000, a doubling of their numbers from the previous count in 1990. Current estimates show the number increasing in the last four years by about 40%, bringing the total to more than 650,000. Because this population influx is composed of U.S. citizens, therefore eligible to vote in mainland elections once they have established residence, it has become a focus of politicians seeking state and national office. No one is willing to predict how this population will vote in 2004, but both political parties are working feverishly to win its loyalty.
Registering new Hispanic voters has been a priority by both major parties and several non-governmental civil rights organizations. Florida has been a significant target of opportunity for Puerto Rico Governor Sila Calderons national voter registration campaign, dubbed "Que Nada Nos Detenga" ("Let Nothing Stop Us"). The registration effort is run for her by Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) offices in selected states.
The Washington Post story inaccurately reported that some 38,000 Hispanics had been registered statewide since December of last year under this initiative. A Herald inquiry to PRFAA headquarters revealed that the number represented the total registrants placed on the voter roles in Florida since the campaigns beginning two years ago. Celeste Díaz Ferraro, PRFAAs Director of Communications, told the Herald that "since the campaigns launch in July of 2002, Puerto Ricans have been newly elected to office nationwide (a 20% increase) and Puerto Rican participation in elections has increased by as much as 70% for first-time voters, and 34% overall."
The Sunshine States first Puerto Rico visitor -- and aspiring permanent resident -- was its first Governor, Ponce de Leon, who claimed "Pascua de Florida" for the Spanish crown in 1513. His expedition failed, but his undiscovered "fountain of youth" has become a river of opportunity for his fellow islanders some twenty generations later. If present trends continue, there will be over 1 million Puerto Ricans living in Florida by the end of the decade.
If this burgeoning Puerto Rican population in Florida should become a Democratic voting block, such as the one presently existing for Republicans among Cuban Americans in the states South, it could tip the balance for state and national elections for decades to come. Many Democratic Party volunteers in Central Florida are even skipping the hoopla of their national convention beginning Monday in Boston to help make that dream a reality.
This week, Herald readers are asked to predict if Puerto Ricans in Florida will follow the elephant or the donkey in 2004.