Obama visits Orlando as Democrats push to improve early turnout among Puerto Ricans

Bianca Padró Ocasio, David Smiley
·7 min read

In an election where an unprecedented rush to vote before Election Day is raising Democrats’ hopes of defeating President Donald Trump in his must-win home state, a key segment of Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s Florida winning coalition is bucking the trend: Puerto Ricans.

Democrats are on pace to shatter records for ballots cast before Election Day. But the party’s turnout has been disproportionately older and whiter. And while Hispanic turnout is up over 2016, those numbers are being driven by conservative-leaning Cuban-Americans in Miami rather than left-leaning Puerto Ricans in Central Florida.

Neither trend has been unexpected, and Biden’s campaign isn’t sounding an alarm.

But to win Florida, the former vice president will need a stronger showing over the final week of the election from Puerto Ricans, part of a growing group of non-Cuban Hispanics, often with no party affiliation, capable of swinging the election.

The election “is not going to be decided by the Democrats or the Republicans,” said former Republican state Rep. Bob Cortes, whose former district is in purple and increasingly Hispanic Seminole County. “It’s going to be completely and absolutely decided by the independent and Hispanic vote.”

To shift turnout in the right direction in Central Florida, the Biden campaign on Tuesday is sending former President Barack Obama to Orlando, the center of a community of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican voters.

Democrats have hoped the influx of left-leaning Latinos will help change the political dynamic along Interstate 4, a battleground region that Trump won decisively four years ago. Polls show that many Puerto Ricans registered to vote in Florida strongly dislike Trump following his handling of 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

“When a hurricane devastates Puerto Rico, a president’s supposed to help it rebuild, not toss paper towels, withhold billions of dollars in aid until just before an election,” Obama said Saturday during a speech in North Miami. “We’ve got a president who actually suggested selling Puerto Rico.”

But dislike of Trump doesn’t necessarily translate into a vote for Biden. And so far, turnout by Democrats in the two Central Florida counties with the highest number of voting Puerto Ricans — Orange and Osceola — is lagging behind the Democratic Party’s state averages in early and mail ballot turnout by about 2.5 percentage points.

Osceola’s turnout among independents has been even worse. Most voters without party affiliation in Osceola are Hispanic, likely a reflection of Puerto Ricans’ tendency to forego Democratic and Republican party affiliation on the mainland. Only 28.4% of independent voters in the county had voted as of Monday morning, compared to 45.5% of Democrats and 43.5% of Republicans.

Cortes, who is Puerto Rican, said the Boricua voter bloc is “not organized,” and said civic participation remains low due to experiences with Puerto Rico’s tumultuous and scandal-plagued government. He blamed his loss in 2018 on low turnout among Central Florida’s Hispanics in an election even though other Republican candidates like Sen. Rick Scott showed an ability to over-perform expectations in heavily Puerto Rican communities.

“A lot of folks that came from Puerto Rico after Maria have a total distrust in government overall because of the experience they had in Puerto Rico,” said Cortes, who has previously spoken at Trump campaign events in Central Florida.

To turn out Puerto Ricans and other Biden-leaning Hispanic voters, the Biden campaign and its allies continue to spend heavily on Spanish-language ads on TV, as well as on radio and in print publications. They’ve also funded a late-arriving field operation to compete with the Trump campaign’s ground game and get campaign foot soldiers on the phone and in front of voters to encourage them to vote.

Maria Revelles, a Puerto Rican community organizer in Central Florida, said that after a massive push to get Latinos to request a mail ballot, many of the homes she knocks on these days say that they did get them. They’re just not sending them in.

“But what’s the wild card here?” she said. “Puerto Ricans are not used to voting by mail. Many of those ballots have just been left at home.”

Turning out new voters in Central Florida also remains a priority. The Biden campaign has been tasking phone banking volunteers from Puerto Rico with reaching out to Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. through their “Boricuas con Biden” coalition. And last week, the campaign launched an “#HazloXMí” ad program — or “Do It For Me” — in which island Puerto Ricans ask Puerto Ricans in the states to vote for Biden on their behalf.

Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and residents on the island cannot vote in presidential elections. But Puerto Ricans can vote for president if they are residing on the mainland.

“Being from the island, we really are detached from national politics... In my room, I have an Obama ‘08 poster, but I was too little,” said Steven Ramos, a 25-year-old Biden volunteer based in Puerto Rico. “Puerto Ricans are learning to understand that we’re 1.3 million voters in Florida. And we have power and we demand influence.”

And while other Orlando-area Democrats agree that the campaign has made gains in its overall Hispanic outreach, there’s work to be done to educate registered Puerto Ricans about how they can still cast a ballot.

Samuel Vilchez Santiago, secretary of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Orange County, said that while he was working at a yard sign distribution event for Biden this weekend in Azalea Park, a majority-Hispanic city, many of the people who came to grab a sign said they didn’t know they could vote early or how they could find early voting locations.

“In one way or another, that’s really concerning because we’re less than 10 days before the elections. For this part of the electorate to not have that information is worrying,” Vilchez Santiago said.

Part of the problem, Revelles said, is a cultural divide. Election days are holidays in Puerto Rico, and there’s no early voting.

“It’s like watching the Macy’s parade for Americans [in the States]. But for us, it’s about sitting down and watching the elections results marathon,” said Revelles.

In an effort to replicate that feeling, the campaign is hosting food truck events throughout the week at early voting locations, to simulate the Puerto Rican tradition of “chinchorreo,” or hopping through street food kiosks throughout the island.

“Obama got 80% of the Puerto Rican vote in 2012. I don’t think Biden will reach that high... but the Biden campaign has been a lot more aggressive with the Latino vote,” said Federico de Jesús, who worked for the Obama campaign in 2008.

Democrats, who lost considerable ground to Republicans in newly registered voters from 2016 to 2020, still gained more than 50,000 voters over Republicans in Orange, Osceola and Seminole. But “you cannot dismiss that Trump has also been effective in Spanish-language ads on Cuban issues, on Puerto Rican issues, on Venezuelan issues,” De Jesús added.

Juan Carlos Benitez, a member of the Latinos for Trump advisory board, said Biden “is a typical politiquero who only pretends to care about Boricuas when he needs our votes.” Benitez also criticized Biden for voting in favor of legislation that undercut the pharmaceuticals industry on the island.

“It is also a fact that Joe Biden spent decades neglecting Puerto Rico while his incompetent and corrupt political allies bankrupted the island,” he said. “More and more Puerto Ricans are recognizing that President Trump is cleaning up the mess that Biden and the Democrats left behind and that is why our Boricuas for Trump supporters continue to grow.”

Still, Democratic strategists say they aren’t concerned about current turnout trends among Puerto Ricans.

“While it’s not necessarily where we want it to be, we are seeing Puerto Rican turnout not lagging,” Steve Schale, who led Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida, told reporters last week. “The Puerto Rican community tends to be late, in-person, early voting, and an Election Day voting electorate.”