A Low-Hanging Fruit
Despite little effort on the part of the Democratic Party, the Boricua vote radically changed the outcome of the 2020 elections.
Puerto Ricans played a significant role in getting Joe Biden to the White House, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania, where the 2020 elections were decided. At least 70 percent of mainland Puerto Ricans voted for Biden. Yet, Democrats were incapable of harnessing the Boricua voters' full potential and made it easy for Donald Trump to carve inroads into the vital voting bloc. This could have real consequences in 2022.
Biden owes much of his victory to Latinos — in general — including a large percentage of Puerto Ricans. Of the 15 million Latinos that voted this year, nearly 70 percent voted Democrat. According to Latino Decisions, at least 70 percent of Boricuas living on the mainland voted for Biden. With the help of the Latino vote, Biden managed to flip Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
But the Democrats failed to attract enough of the 5.6 million people of Puerto Rican descent — both born in the mainland and on the island — for a slam dunk win nationwide. The Boricua vote should have been easy pickings for the Democrats, especially in Florida, home to 1.3 million Puerto Ricans and 800,000 eligible Boricua voters — many who had fled the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and loathed Trump for his treatment of the island.
“The Puerto Rican vote is a low-hanging fruit that comes from a tree which needs to be watered and taken care of,” said Natasha Otero—Santiago, a Puerto Rican publicist and community activist in Florida. “If it is not done consistently, the fruit will not grow or worse, it will be taken by the ‘gardener’ who takes better care of it,” she said.
Instead, it was a missed opportunity. Pennsylvania and Florida are the two sides to this electoral story. Both swing states carry the lessons to be learned before the midterm elections. Trump might be gone, but the movement he unleashed will be with Americans for the foreseeable future.
In Philadelphia, the second U.S. city with the largest Puerto Rican population (New York is first) and dominant Latino group — more than 135,000 — Boricuas helped Biden to the White House. In 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania by less than 45,000. This time, Puerto Ricans came out to vote and tipped the scales blue.
Exit polling showed that as many as 6 in 10 Latinos — and remember that Boricuas are the dominant numbers in Philadelphia — voted for Biden. Trump got 35 percent of Latino voters. But Trump’s inroads in Puerto Rican—heavy neighborhoods in Philly should be a wake—up call for Democrats.
Perhaps one of the most-watched states — Florida — did prove to be that alarm bell. The results there smothered any hope the Democrats had of a massive blue wave. Trump won Florida by more than three percentage points, almost twice his 2016 margin, turning Florida a deep red.
Trump’s gains weren’t only with Miami's Cubans or border—region Tejanos or Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia. Mexican Americans in Milwaukee also went to Trump. He also did better with Latinos in exit polls of each of the top 10 battleground states.
And, surprisingly, about 30% of Puerto Ricans in Miami—Dade voted for Trump, even in light of how he treated the archipelago after Maria. (And after Mitch McConnell slammed down statehood for the island.)
Hurricane Irma and Maria shattered the island in 2017, plunging it into darkness and causing the deaths of almost 3,000 Puerto Ricans. That and a lingering recession, the ouster of a corrupt governor, earthquakes, a federally imposed fiscal board, and COVID—19 pushed more than 130,000 Puerto Ricans to the mainland, tens of thousands to central Florida.
Puerto Rico has been a colony of the U.S. since Washington invaded in 1898 and rendered Puerto Ricans voiceless. Boricuas vote for governor but not for U.S. president. Only Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland can vote for president.
“Democrats gave so much attention to the Cuban and the Venezuelan vote (in Florida) that they lost an opportunity to engage the Puerto Rican vote. Why?” Otero-Santiago said. “Is there implicit racism towards Puerto Ricans?”
In Florida, Biden and Trump both competed for the coveted Boricua vote. Biden announced a comprehensive plan for the island and said he supported self-determination. Just a couple of days later — Trump told Boricuas he was "the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico,” and promised nearly $13 billion in federal disaster funding almost three years after Maria devastated the island and years after Congress had destined virtually three times as much, which he refused to distribute.
And if this wasn’t enough, Trump considered swapping Greenland for Puerto Rico, because, in his words, "Puerto Rico was dirty and the people were poor."
Still, Puerto Ricans voted for him. Why? Because he spoke to them independently and directly.
The Trump campaign dialed down its immigration rhetoric and unleashed a bilingual social media and TV ad campaign based on where the specific Latino came from, what gender they were, and what religion, and banged on about anti-abortion and anti-socialism.
And this is the problem. Democrats never understood that there is no such thing as a “Latino vote.” Trump did. “Folks don’t seem to understand that Latinos are not monolithic. We are not all Democrats; we are not all liberals,” Jose Perez, Deputy General Counsel for LatinoJustice, a civil rights group, said.
“We are not all Democrats automatically, but there is validity to the criticism that Democrats often take Latinos, and particularly Puerto Ricans, for granted,” he said.
“They (the Democrats) did invest in the Boricua community, but not with the same heart with which they should invest — with a specific message. Instead, they repeat the same thing,” said Ricardo Negron-Almodovar, National Coordinator For LatinoJustice Cada Voto Cuenta Initiative.
“Yes, we know Trump threw paper towels at Puerto Ricans (after Maria,) but there has to be more than that,” he said.
The reality is the Boricua voter bloc is not organized. There is a significant drop in participation when they go to the mainland and in general. Boricuas in the United States not only have lower voter participation than non-Hispanics, according to a 2016 study by Hunter University, they often have lower participation rates than Hispanics on average.
What is needed is direct and specific engagement and not to assume that because Boricuas are Hispanic and we speak the same language as all Hispanics, we care about the same things. An ad in English dubbed to Spanish is not a Hispanic One-Fits-All.
This is also a new Boricua Diaspora, one that is more attached to the island and speaks Spanish, and has little knowledge of the U.S. electoral system. There is also reluctance in the political process because of the rampant political corruption experienced at home.
“The Florida Democratic Party did not engage the Puerto Rican voters early. Their leadership and staff did not reflect the diversity of Florida and specifically, the largest Democratic Hispanic group in the state — Puerto Ricans,” Otero-Santiago said.
Democrats need to understand who we are, what we need, and that there is a difference between Boricuas born in Puerto Rico and those born in the United States. They also need to inform themselves about what is happening in the archipelago.
Puerto Ricans dealt a significant blow to their two-party system in the general elections this month, with progressive forces (The Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (MVC) and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) ) making a historic breakthrough. The left has now become a relevant player in the political arena.
“All the parties wanting to connect with Boricuas must start making contact with members of the Puerto Rican community now, not wait until months before the midterm elections, ” Negron-Almodovar said. “You have to reach the leaders of the community and talk to them and listen to people.”
If Democrats do not learn Florida’s lesson and learn to speak directly to the powerful Puerto Rican voting bloc, it could well prove to be their Achilles heel in 2022.