Could Florida Puerto Ricans decide presidential contest? Why some say yes.

Biden and Trump focus energies on Hispanics, but will Puerto Rico ever forgive Trump's paper towel-throwing incident?

Wendy Rhodes
Associated Press
(AP Photo/Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo)

Hall of Fame baseball star Roberto Clemente died 48 years ago, but on Sept. 9, he became a player in the 2020 presidential campaign. 

On the day Major League Baseball honored Clemente's legacy, President Trump gushed praises for the right fielder and humanitarian in a tweet complete with a video of Clemente's days with the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

So did Joe Biden, a Philadelphia Phillies fan, albeit a little later in the day and not with the same bells and whistles as the Trump missive.

“There is somebody on Trump's team that has their pulse on what matters to Puerto Rico,” said Carlos A. Suárez Carrasquillo, a senior lecturer at the University of Florida Center for Latin American Studies. “That was an issue that is Puerto Rico-specific, not Latino, almost like he catered to Puerto Ricans.” 

There's little doubt why.

Political analysts say neither Trump nor Biden can win the critical swing-state of Florida without the Hispanic vote. And with Puerto Ricans now comprising the second-largest segment of that electorate, their vote is even more crucial.

“I think it will be the turning point of the election in the state of Florida,” said Sam Roman, chairman of the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Palm Beach County and chairman of the Hispanic Political Action Committee. 

Hispanics comprise over 26% of Florida's population. While recent polls showing Trump leading with 55% support among Cuban voters — the largest segment of the Hispanic electorate —  they also reflect abysmal support for the president among Puerto Ricans.

Biden has noticed. In Florida, the Puerto Rican vote has emerged as so pivotal that one of Biden's first Sunshine State campaign stops since accepting his party's nomination was an event on Tuesday in Kissimmee to kick off Hispanic Heritage Month.

MORE: Trump strategy is to label Biden a 'socialist.' Will it work in Florida?

High-profile Hispanics such as Puerto Rican entertainer Ricky Martin did not mince words in his support for Biden and criticism of what he said is Trump's duplicitous pandering after years of disparaging the community.

“We knew who he was from the beginning,” Martin said. “After Hurricane Maria, we saw how he tossed paper towels for a photo op while asking the cabinet if he could sell Puerto Rico. We witnessed his cruelty when he began his campaign by calling immigrants rapists and criminals.” 

Hours before Biden’s Central Florida event, Republicans held their own press conference nearby. They spoke about how, if re-elected, Trump will reduce unemployment among Hispanics to below 3.4% and return pharmaceutical manufacturing to Puerto Rico.

"As President Trump said, we are firing China and hiring Puerto Rico again," said Leo Valentin, GOP candidate for congressional District 7. That's a seat held now by a Democrat, two-term incumbent Stephanie Murphy, in a district that is GOP-friendly.

MORE: FAU poll: Trump-Biden a dead heat in Fla, undecideds choose president

Republican Party officials also taunted Biden for waiting so long to make his first trip to Florida since his nomination. 

"We've been here all along," said Helen Aguirre Ferré, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. "We don't need an election to bring us here."

Puerto Ricans are the fastest-growing segment of Florida’s Hispanic electorate, now accounting for one-in-three Hispanics in the state, a Pew Research poll showed. While they are most likely to register as Democrats, or with no party affiliation, they also tend to vote at lower rates, the poll showed.

Roman said Puerto Ricans, particularly those who moved to the mainland after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 devastated the U.S. territory, initially were focused on securing jobs and settling their children into school.

Now, they are turning their attention to politics.

“Opportunity, it’s all about opportunity,” Roman said. “And crime and security. They want a secure life and the opportunity to raise their families and for their children to grow up in this country and be constructive members of society.” 

Roman said there is frustration that qualified down-ballot Hispanic candidates are rarely uplifted by the major parties, as well as a perception that presidential candidates tend to woo them only when needing votes. 

He points out that while both of his organizations are non-partisan, the general perception among members is that Republicans this election cycle are doing better than Democrats at engaging the Puerto Rican community. 

But polls show something different, said Eduardo Gamarra, professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University.

“We find among Puerto Ricans that support for Trump in this survey is about 12% with 54% for Biden,” Gamarra said. “But the real trick is the very, very high number of undecided at 36.76%. Among the undecided is where the problem lies for Democrats, because undecideds tend to trend conservative. That 12% can very easily become 30% or higher.” 

One issue of particular concern for Puerto Ricans is climate change, the effects of which have driven over 100,000 from the island to the mainland since 2017.

“For the most part, people of Puerto Rico take climate change as a given,” said Suárez. “We don’t have people who would question climate change, and it is not a divisive issue.” 

But while climate change may be a given in local island politics, it remains a divisive issue in the presidential election. With Biden advocating for aggressive action and Trump denying the preponderance of climate science, it might seem obvious that Puerto Ricans would lean left on the issue.

However, another climate change denier — former Florida governor and now U.S. Sen. Rick Scott — did a stellar job of reaching out to Puerto Ricans after the 2017 hurricanes, said Gamarra, and today, Scott is still respected for how he handled the crises.

But because Trump’s concurrent response was seen as an epic fail among most Puerto Ricans, it is unlikely that any residual support for Scott will bleed over to Trump this election, Gamarra said. 

In addition to announcing he wanted to get rid of Puerto Rico because it is “dirty” and its people are “poor,” Gamarra said, Trump will probably never recover from the infamous “paper towel throwing” incident.

That occurred when Trump toured damage on the island from Hurricane Maria — the second powerful storm to hit in weeks — killing 3,000 people and leaving countless homeless. 

While visiting a relief center on Oct. 3, 2017, Trump waved and laughed, pitching paper towels like basketballs into a crowd of survivors. 

“They were screaming, and they were loving everything. I was having fun, they were having fun.” Trump said days later in response to criticism. 

He then dismissed Puerto Ricans who found his levity offensive, calling the idea that his words and actions were upsetting to them “just a made-up thing.”

It wasn’t, Gamarra said.

“Puerto Ricans believe they’ve been disrespected by this president,” he said. “Whether it's true or not, that's how they feel. They are not going to be as generous with the president as they did with the governor at the time.”

The way to capture the hearts and minds of Puerto Ricans is to treat them respectfully and present solid plans to help their community, he said.

“What all Latinos are tired of is pandering,” Gamarra said. “Republicans have been pandering with no solid plan, this idea that you come in and fly out and get the vote, or say a few nice things about the food or culture and assume that is good enough.”

Even so, he said, Democrats have failed to take advantage of a golden opportunity to swoop in and show they care in a meaningful way. 

“There have been some major complaints that the vice president hasn’t reached out lately and not really, really paid attention to the Puerto Rican vote,” Gamarra said.

Biden scored points at Tuesday’s event when he announced he is open to the idea of statehood for Puerto Rico — something leading Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have opposed. Still, while support for Trump is unquestionably lagging, Biden’s efforts may fall short of what is needed to secure the undecided votes, Gamarra said. 

Suárez said if either candidate hopes to clinch the Puerto Rican vote, they had better move fast. Even something like running ads with narrators who speak with Puerto Rican accents shows that candidates acknowledge not all Latinos are the same. And he’s glad, even at this late stage, that the candidates seem to be stepping up their games.  

“They both think they have a chance,” he said. “If it’s a lost cause, why would you put all your resources toward a campaign you are going to lose?”

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