How Puerto Rican migrants could swing the largest swing state

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The further north you go, the further south you are. So goes the axiom describing the anomaly that is Florida, a political swing state that seems to become increasingly “Southern” the closer it gets to its northern neighbors Georgia and Alabama.

But shifting demographic patterns are making that less true with each passing year. Now a Pew Research Center report released today shows that a new wave of Puerto Ricans leaving their island’s severe economic woes has been finding its way to Central Florida and rapidly changing the ethnic and political makeup of the country’s largest swing state. Florida, which has played a crucial role in the past two presidential elections, has 29 electoral votes that could play a crucial role in the 2016 presidential race.

Puerto Ricans, however, don’t vote as a single bloc, so just how this demographic shift will influence the upcoming elections is anyone’s guess.

An estimated 31 percent of all 334,000 Puerto Ricans who moved to the U.S. mainland between 2005 and 2012 landed in the Sunshine State, according to the Pew report. That makes Florida the top U.S. destination for Puerto Rican migrants, compared to 10 percent who moved to New York during that same time.

These graphics illustrate how the Puerto Rican population in Central Florida’s Orange County, home to Orlando, was not even on the radar for Puerto Ricans back in 2000. But by 2010, it had became the no. 3 county for Puerto Ricans living in the continental U.S.:

Surrounding counties have seen similar demographic shifts, most notably Osceola County, whose Puerto Rican residents now comprise 27.2 percent of the population, according to data from the U.S. Census.

This region in Central Florida, known as the I-4 corridor for the highway that runs beween Tampa and Orlando, has been dubbed “the highway to political heaven” in Florida’s political circles. “If you win it, you win the state,” Susan McManus, political science professor at the University of Central Florida in Tampa, told Fusion. “If you lose it, you lose.”

Consider the following: since the controversial 2000 presidential election when Florida decided the winner by a spread of 537 votes, the presidential candidate who has won the most counties in Central Florida has won the state and ultimately the whole election.

“Around 45 – 46 percent of all the state’s registered voters live in the Tampa and Orlando media markets,” McManus said. “These are also the most partisan divided markets in the state.”

During the 2012 election, Florida’s voter split was the closest of any state in the country. President Obama won 50 percent of the vote, while Mitt Romney took 49.1 percent. The difference was only 74,000 ballots.

This means that Puerto Ricans are increasingly becoming “the swing group in the swing state,” as one commentator said in 2012.

Yet unlike many African-Americans communities, McManus said, Puerto Ricans do not tend to vote monolithically. Those who recently migrated from the island tend to be more independent or unaffiliated, while those who were born stateside or have lived here longer tend to identify as as Democrats.

Politicians in both camps consider Puerto Rican voters up for grabs.

“Puerto Ricans are being courted heavily by both Florida’s Democrats and Republicans,” she added, “The bottom line is that both parties see them as an important part of their future in the state.”

Campaign spending patterns reflect that. Florida media spending was the highest of any state in the in the 2012 elections, and the markets in Orlando and Tampa got the lion’s share, according to the Smart Media Group, a media group that helps with political campaign strategy. Those two cities alone were two of the top five markets in regards to Spanish-language political ad spending for that election, reported the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2012.

In the lead up to 2016, Democrats appear to have the advantage so far. Voter registration numbers for Central Florida show the region is becoming less Republican, and it appears that Hispanics — Puerto Ricans in particular — are to thank (or to blame) for that shift.

From 1980 to 2012, the population of Puerto Rican Hispanics living in the U.S. South skyrocketed by 694 percent, and nearly doubled over the past 12 years alone, according to the Pew report. That migration pattern is expected to continue; Puerto Rico’s population is projected to decline by half a million people by 2050, according to the Census projections.

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