ORLANDO — It’s no secret that when it comes to presidential elections in Florida, the Sunshine State is typically decided by the slimmest of margins -- and heading into 2020, the numbers show that the margins are “oh-so-close” once again.
A new poll this week from ABC News and The Washington Post shows both President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are neck and neck with registered voters: 47% for Trump and 48% for Biden. The results using “likely” voters give Trump a 51%-47% advantage over Biden.
One group that both sides have been eyeing intently: Hispanic voters, particularly Puerto Ricans. A swiftly growing demographic, the University of Central Florida's Puerto Rico Research Hub estimates that there are now over 1 million living in Florida heading into Election Day.
“This is a particular sector of the population that you really need to get the state of Florida,” said Fernando Rivera, a professor of sociology at the university who also serves as director of the center.
The aforementioned poll gave Biden a 52-39 advantage among registered Hispanic voters in Florida, with a margin of error of +/- 4.0%. For the sake of maintaining sample sizes, a "likely voter" statistic was not tabulated.
When it comes to how Florida’s Puerto Rican voters specifically will swing, traditional thought suggests a significant tilt toward the Democrats. But Rivera contends it’s not that simple. For many who’ve moved from the island to the mainland, it’s taken a few election cycles to get acclimated and to determine which party fits best.
“In Puerto Rico, politics are not necessarily the Democrat-Republican divide as a lot of us are accustomed to here in the United States,” explained Rivera, adding that Puerto Rican politics typically would come down to what one believes the “status” of Puerto Rico should be -- including statehood, commonwealth status and independence.
So, when moving from the island to Florida, many opt to register as “No Party Affiliation.” Rivera is working on gathering data specific to Puerto Rican voters but estimates that those who register as "NPA" are a significant lot -- if not a plurality.
“When elections are going to be decided by a few votes, that grab of the non-partisan is really important,” said Rivera, who suspects that Biden will more than likely carry the group at large but also anticipates Trump will pick up a sizable number of voters.
One voter who says he’ll be casting his vote for Trump this year is Josue Sanchez of Jacksonville. He moved to Florida from Puerto Rico in 2016 to pursue a new engineering job and was told from the beginning he effectively “had” to be a Democrat because he’s a Hispanic man.
In September of 2016, he registered as one.
“For that time, I was in the learning curve, so I decided, ‘yeah, I am a Democrat,’” Sanchez explained. “So, my wife and I, we decided to do that.”
Quickly, his thoughts changed as he started to conduct more research on his own. When it came to issues like abortion and capitalism, he felt his home was with the Republican Party. So he voted for Trump in 2016, which he said led to a number of incredulous reactions from his friends.
“People were like ‘Are you crazy? Are you crazy?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not crazy.’ I’ve been reading and watching [the news] and I understand it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”
As far as Sanchez is concerned, the now-registered Republican believes the president has done enough to earn his vote a second time, and he believes Trump is best fit to get the economy going again -- without the use of socialism he fears may come from the left.
“If the economy starts getting better, the people start getting better as well,” Sanchez said. “More work, more projects…it’s not free money, it’s not about getting free money. We want to work!”
For Ivan Nieves, his journey to Miami came under devastating circumstances. He used to own a small business in Puerto Rico, which he loved. But after Hurricane Maria hit, he was forced to relocate to Miami, where he now owns the restaurant La Social.
At this point, he’s had enough of the president’s rhetoric, so he’s voting for Biden.
“Immigrants are not important to [the Trump] administration. They have shown that small businesses are not important for this administration,” said Nieves, pointing to the president’s response to coronavirus, which he perceived as insufficient.
Like Sanchez, Nieves said getting the economy up and running has been crucial. But he added that he believed Biden and his VP pick, Kamala Harris, will be better fit to help everyday people like him.
“I’m going to vote for someone who at this point has demonstrated to myself that they’re going to listen, they’re going to work for us, and they’re going to move forward thinking about the country we have in 2020 and the people who belong to that country,” Nieves said. “I think Biden and Kamala Harris have demonstrated that they’re looking to unite the country, that they’re looking to rebuild ourselves, to work together -- doesn’t matter if you’re a minority or not.”
With the election less than two months away, neither Sanchez nor Nieves have seen any situation in which they would change their votes.
Nevertheless, both Trump and Biden have been taking continued steps to court Puerto Rican voters.
Last week, Trump announced that he would send nearly $13 billion to Puerto Rico in order to assist with Hurricane Maria recovery efforts. The move came mere days after Biden spoke at a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration in Kissimmee, Fla. — known for its vibrant Puerto Rican community — where he announced his own recovery plan.
Boots on the ground in Florida have said they intend to pursue Puerto Rican voters, as well as Hispanics at large, all the way up to Election Day.
“These are demographics that the Democratic Party has gone out and said, ‘You must vote for us if you want benefits, if you want big government, if you want to be taken care of — you must vote for the Democratic party.’ And that is the biggest falsehood out there,” said Christian Ziegler, the vice chairman of the Florida GOP.
Ziegler said their strategy will be to take their party’s message right to voters in person.
“When we just go out there and get our message out, and really that’s the only challenge for us because our record is clearly the Hispanic record,” said Ziegler, pointing to capitalism and family values as a core of their messaging. “I feel bullish in terms of being able to secure the Hispanic vote. All we need to do is showcase our record and showcase our principles, and I think overwhelmingly the Hispanics will come over to the Republican Party.”
Luisana Perez Fernandez, the deputy communications director in Florida for the Biden campaign, had a different outlook. She said she believed voters will hold Trump accountable for their struggles during the pandemic.
“One very important topic that goes across communities is how the pandemic has impacted these communities. Do they have the resources they need to overcome the pandemic? Do they have unemployment benefits? Have they lost a person [in their life],” Fernandez said. “So specifically for the Biden campaign, having plans for the communities to show what’s the strategy to help the Hispanic community, in general, overcome this crisis.”
Despite the president’s recent announcement of aid heading to the island, Fernandez said she believed many Puerto Ricans will have a tough time supporting him over his alleged poor response to the 2017 storm.
“We’re still seeing Puerto Ricans who are struggling after Hurricane Maria. So many came here and are in Central Florida area,” Fernandez explained. “So talking to them, and making sure they see there is a contrast between Trump and Joe Biden in that Joe Biden is a leader that is ready to treat them as American citizens, because they are our fellow Americans and they deserve to be treated with respect.”
Fernandez said they have been rallying the Puerto Rican vote through social media, and intend to continue to do so, as well as host virtual events.
Still, Rivera said it will all come down to turnout. With the margins expected to be so tight once again, he thought Puerto Ricans could be one of those deciding factors in whether Florida stays red or flips.
“Biden might need to accelerate the outreach of the Puerto Rican vote and make sure they go out and actually vote because that's something he may need to swing the state,” Rivera said.