SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The campaigns of US President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are rallying people in a place where US citizens cannot cast ballots but have the ear of hundreds of thousands of potential voters in the battleground state of Florida.
The candidates are targeting Puerto Rico in a way never before seen, with the US territory suddenly finding itself in the crosshairs of a high-stakes race even though Puerto Ricans on the island cannot vote in presidential elections despite being US citizens since 1917.
Campaigners know this, but they hope those on the island will push relatives and friends on the US mainland to vote for them in a strategy that capitalises on the close ties they share.
It’s a novel role that plays off the sentiment that Puerto Ricans in Florida feel they are voting by proxy for those back home left out of US democracy. And a growing number find this role appealing, especially since many on the island are struggling to recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria, a string of strong earthquakes, a deep economic crisis and the pandemic.
“I’m voting for three million Puerto Ricans on the island, including my entire family,” said Jerick Mediavilla, who is from the mountain town of Corozal and is voting in a US presidential election for the first time after moving to Orlando four years ago. “Puerto Rico doesn’t have a voice. Our voice is via the United States.”
It’s people like Mediavilla that Democrats and Republicans are trying to target as they court Latinos in Florida, which has the largest population of Puerto Ricans in the US, with nearly 1.2 million. Trump won Florida in 2016 and has virtually no path to the White House if he doesn’t do so again. Polls are tight, and as the Trump campaign worries of support slipping among suburban and older voters, Latinos in Florida have become crucial.
Puerto Ricans represent 27 per cent of Hispanics of voting age in Florida, trailing only Cuban-Americans. While it’s unclear how many are Democrats or Republicans, Democrats have widened the gap of Hispanic voters registered for this election over the GOP compared with 2016. The gains were in counties with a high number of Puerto Ricans including Orange County, home to Orlando, and Hillsborough, home to Tampa. Polk County, where the Puerto Rican population has more than doubled since 2013, saw the fastest growth of Latino registered voters, with Democrats registering 21,000 more voters than Republicans. The gap in 2016 was 15,000. But those same counties also have a very high number of voters registered without party affiliation.
“Puerto Ricans will play a very crucial role in this election,” said Yadira Sánchez, co-executive director of Poder Latinx, a US-based non-profit group that aims to mobilise Latino voters.Election observers, however, note Puerto Ricans have weaker voter turnout rates than other Hispanic groups that favour Republican candidates.
Trump recently secured an endorsement from Puerto Rico’s governor and promised nearly US$13 billion in additional aid last month to help the island rebuild from Hurricane Maria. During a recent rally in Florida, Trump declared: “I’m not gonna say the best, but I’m just about the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico. You better vote for me, Puerto Rico.” Many were quick to note that those living on the island don’t have that right.
Meanwhile, Biden granted an exclusive interview to Puerto Rico’s main newspaper that for the first time in its 50 years endorsed a US presidential candidate and asked those in the US mainland to support Biden: “We ask that you, with the great power of your vote, especially in key electoral states, help open the way to the transformation effort that will honour the dignity and promote the progress of every person.”
Biden recently launched digital and print ads on the island with the hashtag “HazloXMi,” or DoItForMe, urging Puerto Ricans to tell their friends and family on the US mainland to participate: “With your vote over there, you help us here.”
“Both campaigns are doing it thinking this will bounce back to Florida,” said Carlos Suárez, a political science professor at the University of Florida.