With Florida critical to winning White House, Puerto Ricans become the big prize

The Trump and Clinton campaigns are eyeing Florida as a must-win state, and key to that goal is getting the most Latino votes.

The state has seen a rapid and continuous influx of Puerto Ricans, who have been settling in Florida – in particular Central Florida – by the thousands because of the economic crisis in Puerto Rico.

Not only do Puerto Ricans now comprise at least 30 percent of the state’s Latino registered voters, they include mainly Democrat-leaning people but also some conservatives.

So both parties are courting them, with Republicans casting themselves as the party that reflects their family values, as well the freedom to select a K-12 school and that pushes for lower taxes, and Democrats telling Puerto Rican and other Latino voters that they are the party that welcomes diversity, is more compassionate, and supports social programs that enable people to get back on their feet.

As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans, who number more than 1 million in Florida alone, are eligible to register to vote from the day they’re here. How many will have arrived in the nation’s largest battleground state and registered to vote by early October – Florida’s registration deadline for the Nov. 8 general election – is anybody’s guess.

“Hispanics, especially Puerto Ricans, in Florida are very important in any presidential or statewide election in the United States,” said state representative Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

A recent Suffolk University poll showed Trump trailing Clinton by 6 percentage points in Florida.

The Florida GOP has a bilingual website, something that is, quite simply, a necessity given the growth and importance of Latinos, Ingoglia said.

“We need to be able to get our message out in English as well as in Spanish,” Ingoglia said. “The message doesn’t change; it’s a message of opportunity, lower taxes and freedom.”

The GOP is stepping up its efforts to court Latinos – whose biggest component is Puerto Rican – in central Florida for this election, said Ingoglia, who describes it as a priority of his since he started helming the state GOP in January of 2015.

“We have a much better data operation than we had in the past,” Ingoglia said. “We are identifying voters that self-identify as Republicans and we’re able to market specific messages to them. We have much better vehicles for communicating with people who are bilingual.”

“And one of the bigger things we have in 2016 that weren’t present in 2012 is we have elected officials in the I-4 corridor who are Hispanic, bilingual,” he said, “who are running for re-election and are reaching out the Hispanic community.”

Democrats say that the growth of the Latino electorate, and particularly the Puerto Rican community, will benefit Hillary Clinton.

They say that while they are assertively courting Latinos and leaving nothing to chance, GOP nominee Donald Trump has single-handedly alienated many Latino voters with his hard line on immigration and tone that polls show is offensive to many in the community.

“The Latino community does not appreciate his anti-Latino rhetoric,” said Vivian Rodriguez, who is Puerto Rican, lives in Orlando and is president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida. “And he keeps talking against the Latino community, the man does not learn. He spoke badly about the judge of Mexican descent, he talks about building a wall along the southern border, he says Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers.”

Clinton will campaign Monday in Florida and will again visit the I-4 corridor, the crucial swing section of this swing state that led President Barack Obama to victories in the last two presidential election cycles. A top Clinton aide involved in Latino outreach told Fox News Latino that the campaign has initiated an all-out grassroots effort to register Hispanics, especially new Puerto Rican arrivals, along the I-4 corridor, and mobilize them to the polls.

“In order to win a presidential election, Florida is important, and in order to win Florida, the I-4 corridor is going to be important,” Rodriguez said. “The majority are Democrat.”

Her organization is holding mock elections in central Florida to teach first-time voters how the mainland U.S. electoral process works.

“These mock elections have voting booths, people get a ballot and we how them how they work, what they need to do,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of people are new to this, they’re afraid because they don’t know it works. This makes them more comfortable.”

The organization is also doing door-to-door canvassing, phone banks, and holding “caravanas,” a festive event that includes a caravan from which music is played and the message is to register to vote and to cast a ballot in November.

A major “caravana” is planned in cities all over the state in September, to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month.

Puerto Ricans tend to lean Democrat, but they have proven in the Sunshine State that they are not blindly beholden to any single party.

They overwhelmingly supported Obama when he ran for re-election in 2012, but more than half voted for former Gov. Jeb Bush, who won some Central Florida counties with large Puerto Rican communities. And his brother, former President George W. Bush, lost Orange County by a small margin, and won Osceola County, home to many Puerto Ricans, in 2004.

“The Puerto Rican population was very much a swing vote in 2012,” said Ariel Armony, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert in Latino politics. “Both parties had to find a way to attract those voters.”

Trump’s hardline immigration positions may not register as strongly among Puerto Ricans, who do not face the immigration system and its hardship that many other Latinos do, Armony said.

But the perception of Trump as anti-Latino may turn off Republican Puerto Ricans, Armony said, who may stay home on Election Day if they refuse to vote for Clinton.

Ingoglia feels differently.

“We’re adopting the whole-ticket approach,” said the GOP chairman. “People at the bottom of the ticket can help people at the top of the ticket, and people at the top of the ticket can help people on the bottom.”

“One of the things we did in the past, to our detriment, is that we concentrated on the top of the ticket too much,” he said.

Latino Republicans around the state running for office, Ingoglia said, will bring Latinos out to the polls on Nov. 8. He rejects the suggestion by many Latino Republican leaders that Latinos will leave the top of the ticket – the presidential and vice presidential slot – blank or cross over and vote for Clinton and her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.

“People of Hispanic descent, the Latino voter, who come out to vote for Bob Cortes [a Republican state representative who is running for re-election and represents parts of Seminole and Orange counties] are going to vote for Donald Trump," Ingoglia said. "He's got a fighting chance."

Includes reporting by Serafin Gomez, who covers Special Events and Politics for FOX News Channel.