Being Puerto Rican
Thursday, January 26
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Bilingual campaign workers fanned out across the event hall, clutching clipboards as they sought prospective voters to register. Handmade signs shot up from the crowd: “Latinos for Hillary” and “Estoy con ella!”
And from the stage at her rally here on Monday night, Hillary Clinton set aside time for “a special word about Puerto Rico.”
“If you live in Puerto Rico, you can’t vote for your president and commander in chief, right?” she reminded thousands of supporters, noting that she had worked closely with Puerto Ricans as a senator from New York. “But as an American citizen, if you move to Florida or New York, you can vote for the president and commander in chief.”
Amid the commonwealth’s devastating debt crisis, Puerto Ricans have moved in droves to the American mainland, with as many as 1,000 families a month relocating to Florida, according to the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.
In that exodus, Clinton campaign organizers have recognized an opportunity, setting off a furious scramble to register a coveted class of new voters: those who arrive as full-fledged citizens.
Many are settling in Central Florida, a swing region in a swing state with a peerless record of razor-thin electoral margins.
Campaign officials and outside groups have responded accordingly.
In the Orlando area — which for years has been a de facto San Juan suburb, with an estimated 400,000 Puerto Ricans calling it home — the Clinton campaign has assigned organizers to neighborhoods, churches and even bus stops. “Caravanas” of cars blasting reggaeton music and reminders to vote call to mind similar processions through San Juan’s cobblestone streets during elections on the island. When neighbors come outside to investigate the fuss, they are offered brochures about the candidate, known to many Latinos simply as “La Hillary,” and about her plans for education and health care.
Democrats are not operating unchallenged. While Donald J. Trump’s campaign has left little organizational footprint, other Republican-aligned operatives have stepped in.
Though they are sitting out the presidential campaign, Charles G. and David H. Koch, billionaire Republican donors, are financing the Libre Initiative, which works to educate Latinos about conservative positions. Libre has nearly 30 employees in Florida and has begun appearing regularly with booths at expos held in Florida and in Puerto Rico for new arrivals and those leaving the island — offering would-be migrants help finding jobs or registering their children for school, and hoping to establish them, in the long term, as conservatives.
Mr. Trump’s dismal standing with Latino voters has complicated the task. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in mid-June found that 89 percent of Hispanics held negative views of him. And this week, the chief spokesman for the Florida Republican Party, Wadi Gaitan — the son of Honduran immigrants — left his post to join Libre, citing Mr. Trump as his reason.
“Moving on gives me a great, new opportunity to continue promoting free-market solutions while avoiding efforts that support Donald Trump,” Mr. Gaitan said in a statement.
Republicans could once rely on solidly conservative Cuban-American political refugees in Miami as a crucial source of support. But it is not so simple anymore: Young Cuban arrivals are less reliably Republican; South Americans now make up a growing segment of the Latino population in the state; and Puerto Ricans, who at more than a million statewide now rival the Cuban-American population, are flocking to Orange, Osceola and Polk Counties in Central Florida — once the heart of the state’s white working-class vote.
Those demographic changes have already had consequences: George W. Bush lost to John Kerry in Orange County by fewer than 1,000 votes in 2004, but in 2008 and again in 2012, President Obama won there by about 85,000.
Still, while Puerto Ricans generally favor Democrats, they have tended to be less party-conscious than some other groups, bolstering Mr. Obama in his two Florida victories but also helping to elect Charlie Crist as governor when he was a Republican.
And in contrast to Cuban-Americans, who have long wielded power in Florida, newly arrived Puerto Rican voters often need to be reminded they can even vote.
“Their political participation on the island is so high,” said Lorella Praeli, the Peruvian-born Latino vote director for the Clinton campaign. “Now that they’re in Florida, it’s about voter education, reminding them they can participate.”
Some have not required prodding.
Fernando Ruiz, 39, said that registering to vote was among his first priorities after fleeing Toa Alta, P.R., last year amid the island’s debt crisis.
“There’s no excuse,” he said through an interpreter when asked why it was important to vote. “I came to the United States to progress.”
After finding work at a pizza restaurant, Mr. Ruiz said, he was quickly promoted to food preparer from dishwasher.
Esteban Garces, the Florida state director for Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit that registers Hispanic voters, said the group expected to enroll 30,000 Latinos across five counties of Central Florida before Election Day. More than half, he said, were likely to be Puerto Rican.
“It’s driving a migration to this area that’s not been seen before,” Mr. Garces said of the island’s financial strain.
Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic pollster in Miami, was more blunt: The crisis-related influx, he said, has been “very good news for the Democrats.”
Mrs. Clinton’s team is intent on pressing its advantage. Her campaign has more than a dozen offices in Florida, with some aides focusing on non-Cuban Hispanics.
Mrs. Clinton herself has ample experience: During the 2008 Democratic primary, she wore a tropical-print shirt to campaign and participated in her own “caravana” in Puerto Rico, where she handily defeated Mr. Obama. She returned to the island last year to discuss health care and, again, won the June 5 primary there by double digits.
Bill Clinton and the campaign’s political director, Amanda Renteria, have also visited Puerto Rico. And the campaign has issued bilingual messages of support for an increase in funding to fight the Zika virus and for a bipartisan bill to address the debt crisis.
More recently, the Clinton campaign has invested in shoe-leather outreach.
On Wednesday, a campaign team held court at the entrance of a Walmart in Kissimmee, contending with humidity and flies while asking just about every passer-by about his or her registration status.
A day earlier, after meeting outside a laundromat near Miami’s Little Havana, in a neighborhood that includes a high concentration of both Cuban and non-Cuban Hispanics, three organizers canvassed the surrounding blocks.
“Hola!” said Cari Casas, 20, the field organizer for the area, as she approached a woman who was spraying a white blouse inside the laundromat.
“Sí,” the woman replied pre-emptively, assuring Ms. Casas that she was ready for November.
Over the course of an hour, the group registered about eight voters — outside a Starbucks, in a minimall and at a bus stop, where Ms. Casas persuaded a woman to scribble the requisite information on a form just as her ride was arriving. Most people they engaged said they were already accounted for.
A few recognized Ms. Casas from past visits, offering waves and well wishes. In an interview, she suggested that Mr. Trump’s candidacy had assigned a particular urgency to her work, decades after her grandparents emigrated from Mexico.
“They’re not rapists or criminals,” Ms. Casas said. “They’re janitors.”