Obama’s attention to this subset of the country’s burgeoning Latino population is part of a broader strategy to boost historically low Hispanic registration and turnout in at least a half-dozen crucial swing states, including Florida and North Carolina — two states the president will visit Monday before arriving in Puerto Rico on Tuesday.
No president since John F. Kennedy has made an official visit to the island territory. Obama’s trip ends a drought that could win him some goodwill with mainland Puerto Ricans, whose numbers just happen to be expanding in the swing areas of battleground states. Think of the Philadelphia region and the Interstate 4 corridor towns of Orlando and Tampa in Central Florida.The microtargeting underscores the Obama campaign team’s effort to build some security into the president’s reelection bid at a time when the economy remains wildly unpredictable. In addition to boosting Hispanic turnout in quadrennial battlegrounds such as Pennsylvania and Florida, the campaign wants to expand Obama’s reach into areas with much smaller, yet fast-growing Hispanic populations, like North Carolina and Virginia, both critical components of the president’s 2012 map.
“Hispanics could very well decide this election,” said one Obama adviser involved in his reelection effort.
The president’s itinerary this week appears to be a natural extension of this strategy.
He will first host a meeting of his jobs council in North Carolina, where the Hispanic population grew by 111 percent since 2000. Obama stops in Miami for three fundraisers before traveling Tuesday to Puerto Rico, where he will commemorate Kennedy’s visit in 1961, meet with Republican Gov. Luis Fortuño and hold a fundraiser.
The island sees the visit as a sign of growing political clout for Puerto Ricans on the mainland, where their numbers increased by 36 percent over the past 10 years. There are now more Puerto Ricans living on the mainland than the island, a migration fueled by a recession that first hit the territory in 2006.
The surge into key metropolitan areas could make the island a stop for politicians from beyond Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx — long the epicenter of America’s Puerto Rican population.
“We don’t see it as something that will have a cotton candy effect, that feels good for a while,” said Andres Lopez, a lawyer in Puerto Rico and a Democratic National Committee member. “The trip evinces a larger trend that will sustain itself over the short and long run, and that is a recognition of the growing importance of Puerto Ricans on the mainland.”
The population jump has been most pronounced in Florida, where the Puerto Rican community grew by 76 percent over the past decade, reaching nearly 848,000 residents and helping tilt the Hispanic electorate toward the Democratic Party in the state. In 2008, for the first time, more Florida Hispanics registered as Democrats than as Republicans. It’s a shift that demographers and political experts say is due in part to the faster increase of Puerto Ricans, who tend to vote Democratic, vs. Cubans, who lean to the GOP.
Some of the largest gains occurred in Orange and Osceola counties, located along the I-4 corridor — the highway that runs through Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach, towns where Puerto Ricans are the largest Hispanic group.
Those two counties saw an increase of more than 200,000 Hispanic residents over the course of the decade — an 83 percent jump in Orange County and a 141 percent rise in Osceola. By contrast, the Hispanic population of Miami-Dade County, where Cubans are dominant, grew 26 percent.
The growth of mainland Puerto Ricans is politically significant because, unlike foreign-born Hispanics, they are U.S. citizens who can vote as soon as they put down roots and register. Puerto Ricans who live on the island can participate in the presidential primaries but not the general election.“Since we are American citizens, the second we move to anywhere in the States, we can vote for the president,” Fortuño said in an interview. “They tend to live in a concentrated area in the Central Florida area — the I-4 corridor has decided last two presidential races in Florida, so that carries a lot of meaning politically as well.”
Since they are U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are motivated less by immigration reform than economic issues. That could work against the president, who has sought to use the GOP’s hard line on illegal immigration as a wedge to woo Hispanics. And while they trend Democratic, Puerto Ricans’ votes are no sure thing for the party. Former President George W. Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush performed well among Puerto Ricans.
Additionally, Republicans won big in Florida in 2010, including the governor’s office and a Senate seat, although in terms of the Hispanic vote, it was largely on the strength of Republican-leaning Cuban voters. There are 1.2 million Cubans and almost 848,000 Puerto Ricans in Florida, according to the latest census figures.
“It’s not necessarily going to [be] the trip to Puerto Rico that stands out in the minds of Puerto Ricans when they go to the polls in November 2012 — they’re going to be looking at pocketbook issues,” said Christopher Maloney, a spokesman for the Republican Party in Ohio, another critical swing state. If the economy doesn’t get better, “they will not vote to reelect Barack Obama. They will vote to elect an alternative candidate who can move the economy forward.”
Maloney said he expects Republicans to challenge Obama for the Hispanic vote by focusing on economic issues.
“If you look at Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty — these are governors who have good strong economic records in serving as chief executives of larger industrialized states with large Hispanic communities,” Maloney said.
Massachusetts and Minnesota rank 15th and 25th, respectively, in Hispanic population, according to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of 2009 census data.
But in a presidential race that may well come down to turnout in a few key counties in a few top-line states, a one-day trip to Puerto Rico could pay off on the margins, particularly among the newer Florida transplants with strong ties to the island, experts said.
“It is apt to have a stronger impact in Florida rather than other Puerto Rican communities,” said Jorge Mursuli, president and CEO of Democracia USA, a nonpartisan Hispanic advocacy group. “People always feel good when you dignify them as a community. I don’t think it’s a substitute for some of the substantive things that Puerto Ricans and other Latinos want, but it still has its positive impact on the community.”