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Will Puerto Rico Become The New Cuba In Florida In The 2016 Election?

Puerto Ricans will pass Cubans as the largest Latino group in Florida in the coming years. But will the issue of the island becoming the 51st state mobilize Puerto Ricans in the key swing state in 2016?

Last updated on April 3, 2015, at 1:45 p.m. ET

Posted on April 3, 2015, at 1:45 p.m. ET

Hillary Clinton enters a campaign event at San Juan Batista Medical Center in Caguas, Puerto Rico, Saturday, May 31, 2008.
Elise Amendola / AP

Hillary Clinton enters a campaign event at San Juan Batista Medical Center in Caguas, Puerto Rico, Saturday, May 31, 2008.

When President Obama became the first sitting president to visit Puerto Rico since John F. Kennedy in the midst of the 2012 cycle, it wasn't because the island is a pivotal swing state. Residents of Puerto Rico can't vote for president, even though they're U.S. citizens.

That is not the case in Florida, however, where the Puerto Rican population is booming. Between 2010 and 2013, nearly 150,000 more people left Puerto Rico than settled there, according to Pew. Puerto Ricans, in fact, are poised to pass Cubans as the largest Latino group in the state in the coming years. Obama would go on to win Florida by less than 1%, with internal campaign numbers showing they won 86% of the Puerto Rican vote.

The question of what appeals to Puerto Rican voters — what will bring them out to the polls — will increasingly play in the Democratic calculus for the critical state. The answer is less than clear. But some donors and activists are already pushing hard for Puerto Rican statehood as a campaign promise from Hillary Clinton or for granting Puerto Rico residents the right to vote.

"The island is collapsing under the weight of an ancient territorial infrastructure," said Puerto Rican lawyer Andrés W. López, co-chair of the Futuro Fund, which raised $32 million for Obama's re-election. "Absolutely, she needs to clarify. That's how the Cuba issue became salient. You had to take a position on what the policy ought to be on the island."

In 2008, Clinton said that as president she would enable the question of status to be resolved, but "without any preference among the options." Sen. Marco Rubio, who is expected to announce his candidacy for president this month, has also said that it is up to Puerto Ricans to decide what they want to do.

"That's a bullshit hedge," López said. "You're either pro-immigration or anti-immigration. Pro-marriage equality or anti-marriage equality. On this, you're either pro-equality or you're not, you can't be in the middle."

During that first campaign, though, Clinton also said she supported the right of Puerto Ricans to vote for president. Kenneth McClintock, Puerto Rico's lieutenant governor for four years under previous governor Luis Fortuño, a Republican, said Clinton has a positive history with Puerto Ricans. (In 1998, for example, she surveyed damage in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Georges.) She was on the island more than Obama in 2008, too, those who watched the race say.

"The reason why it's important that every Puerto Rican think about participating in this primary is because you do not have the right to vote in the general election, which I think is wrong," she said at the time. "I believe that you should have the same opportunity as American citizens do in helping to pick the president."

Phillip Arroyo has been circulating video of those remarks on Facebook and YouTube. He has made a documentary on Puerto Rico's issues and started a nascent effort at Florida A&M law school, where he is a student, to draft a constitutional amendment for Puerto Rico to gain the right to vote.

Watching Obama's well-received speech on the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, Arroyo was moved by his words but hurt by the reality his island faces.

"I got a little angry when I was watching the president give his speech at Selma," Arroyo said. "When I [interned] at the White House I was the only intern who couldn't vote for his re-election. It hurt me, like, 'Damn, he's giving this great speech about equality and about voting and 3.5 million Puerto Ricans citizens can't vote.'"

A 2014 survey conducted by Voter Consumer Research of 400 Puerto Ricans in the I-4 corridor — the critical stretch of Central Florida that often decides the state's elections — found that 64% support statehood. This came after 61% of Puerto Ricans on the island chose statehood in a 2012 nonbinding resolution, a substantial increase from the 46% who supported statehood in 1998. But these votes are highly politicized and the 2012 referendum was criticized by commonwealth supporters as set up to encourage higher support for statehood.

Matt Barreto of polling firm Latino Decisions said Puerto Rican voters have the potential to become a force in Florida. "The Puerto Rican population, because it has citizenship on the island and when they move to the state of Florida, is able to more rapidly enter the electorate, faster than any other demographic, including Cubans," he said.

But while there are Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. who support statehood, members of both parties rejected the idea that Puerto Rico's status could become a galvanizing election issue for these voters.

Rene Plasencia was recently elected in House District 49 in Orange County, which he says is the most Democratic district represented by a Republican in Florida. With that in mind, he told BuzzFeed News he knocked on 6,000 doors of Latino Democrats and those with no party affiliation and he found that statehood for Puerto Rico was not a major issue.

Josh Romero, a regional political director for Obama in the I-4 corridor in 2012, agreed. "It's one of those issues that can energize Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, but it doesn't come up until you bring it up," he said.

Carlos Ramos, with the AFL-CIO in South Florida, said he lived in Orlando and Puerto Ricans from the area are diverse, hailing from New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New Jersey, as well as the island. He said this contributes to less of a singular Puerto Rican identity.

"They're a mixed group, they still don't control the political establishment," he said.

But many who are knowledgeable about the issue of Puerto Rico's status said one likely presidential candidate could possibly elevate the issue because of his support of statehood for the island and long history with Puerto Ricans: Jeb Bush.

"He did a really good job including and attracting the Puerto Rican vote in his last election," said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and Bush supporter. "He has a close connection with mayors in Puerto Rico, he has a relationship with Puerto Rican pastors — he appointed Puerto Ricans and spent a lot of time there."

That time was during 1980 when he ran his father's campaign on the island. Bush made connections and friendships during the nine months he spent in Puerto Rico and displayed a cultural fluency that would be on display during his years as governor in Florida as well.

Alfonso Aguilar, who served in the U.S. Department of Energy during the George W. Bush administration, recalls an event in a poor Miami neighborhood where he watched Jeb Bush go to work.

The event was at the home of a Puerto Rican mother, with two children with autism, to highlight a program that provided funding for poor families to weatherize their homes and reduce their utility bills. No one from the advance team was speaking to her because no one spoke Spanish, but when Bush showed up he walked right up to her, speaking Spanish and diving into a conversation on the intricacies of Puerto Rican politics. A bit later, former energy secretary Spencer Abraham rumbled up to the home, driving a gas-guzzling car.

"The energy secretary doesn't drive a very energy-efficient car," Bush cracked, producing a laugh from the woman.

Aguilar, who has met with Republicans considering a White House run, believes they should lean into the issue. "What Republicans should do in Central Florida is say, 'I am for statehood, if I am elected president we will push the process through Congress.'"

But Barreto noted a reason some Republicans would want to stay away from statehood for Puerto Rico.

"3.5 million people? That's probably four congressional districts, six electoral votes and two U.S. Senators, all Democrats," he said.

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