President Obama pays a flying visit to Puerto Rico today, the first U.S. President to make an official trip to the Commonwealth since John F. Kennedy in 1961. The four-hour visit is being viewed as a campaign swing through the Caribbean island because even though residents cannot vote in the election, the growing Puerto Rican population in Florida can.
And Florida, a highly competitive swing state with 29 electoral votes, will play a pivotal role in the 2012 election arithmetic of both Obama and the eventual Republican candidate.
The island has been hit particularly hard by the Great Recession. Although many areas of the United States have seen double-digit unemployment, Puerto Rico is dealing with 16.2 percent of its labor-force searching for work.
As a result, it’s estimated that at least 350,000 islanders have relocated to the Sunshine State in recent years, swelling Florida’s total Puerto Rican population to more than 850,000 . And even more are on the way, with between 20,000 and 30,000 migrants expected to leave the island for Florida in the coming year.
Florida’s electoral rolls have long been among the most culturally diverse in the U.S., with candidates for state and national political office routinely having to build ad hoc coalitions of white, Cuban, African-American, Jewish, Latino and Haitian voting blocs.
But this ongoing Puerto Rican exodus could potentially shake up the traditional election calculus.
“For years, the Puerto Rican vote in states such as New York and New Jersey has been safely Democratic,” said Angelo Falcon, the president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. But that won’t necessarily be the case in Florida when the 2012 election is held, he added.
Falcon pointed out a large number of those job-seeking immigrants now arriving in Florida are college-educated and middle class, driven from their home because of Puerto Rico’s contracting economy. Politically, socially and economically conservative, Democrats should not take their political loyalties for granted.
Falcon said Florida is the only state in play in ’12 where Puerto Rican voters could potentially determine the outcome and the President is solely in “campaign mode” on today’s trip.
“The four hours … will basically be meant to make a nice impact on voters in Florida,” he said.
In 2008 Obama carried Florida by a slim margin of 236,450 votes — 4,282,074 compared to John McCain’s 4,045,624.
With the number of first-time Puerto Rican voters in Florida continuing to swell, it’s only a matter of time before Republicans take a page out of Obama’s play book and attempt to woo this growing, possibly game-changing demographic.