ORLANDO, Fla. — Ramon Troche Pacheco, 77, said that like his father before him, he favors Democratic candidates. So, on November 8, he will vote for Hillary Clinton. But for the U.S. Senate race, he will vote for Republican incumbent Marco Rubio.
“Rubio is my boy. He is mi gente (my people). He is Latino - mi raza,” Troche Pacheco said in Spanish, while looking over the food displayed at Melao Bakery, a popular restaurant that serves a wide array of traditional Puerto Rican dishes and sweets.
Puerto Ricans like Troche Pacheco are part of a mass exodus of islanders moving to the U.S. mainland, spurred by the effects of the island’s massive debt crisis.
For the past five years he and his wife have been frequently going between Orlando and Puerto Rico. But he said that on his next trip he will sell what is left of his island properties and live permanently in the U.S.
Boricuas, as they are also known, are the fastest growing group in Florida and are transforming the state’s electoral map.
An appealing electorate that could be key vote
It’s estimated that each month around 900 Puerto Rican families move from the island to the mainland, according to the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.
There are over 1 million Puerto Ricans in Florida, according to census data analyzed by the CUNY Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Not all are from the island; there are also transplants from the Northeast looking for warm weather and a more affordable lifestyle.
Many of the newcomers are settling into the area known as the Interstate 4 or I-4 corridor, which covers several densely populated counties from Tampa to Daytona Beach. Around 400,000 have settled in the Orlando area.
Overall, Orlando feels like a suburb of Puerto Rico. There are Puerto Rican restaurants and businesses throughout the main thoroughfares, and there is constant travel back and forth between here and the island.
A flight from Orlando to San Juan is only two and a half hours and can cost as little as $250 round trip. And when you exchange phone numbers with people, you see many that begin with 787 –– the area code of Puerto Rico. It’s evident from talking to people they have very strong ties to the island.
“I have never seen the extent of solidarity between Puerto Ricans on the island and Puerto Ricans in the U.S. as I have seen in the past couple of years - those ties are very intimate,” said University of Central Florida history professor, Luis Martinez Fernandez.
The latest polls show a very close race in the state, and during the past few election cycles, presidential races in Florida have been won by a small margin.
The closest were the 2000 contested election when George W. Bush won by just 537 votes and the 2012 victory by Obama where he won Florida by 74,309 votes.
The influx of Puerto Ricans since the last election cycle could be what closes the gap in this year’s race.
Puerto Ricans born in the island are U.S. citizens so they are eligible to vote in presidential elections once they reside in the mainland.
Puerto Rican newcomers are less aligned with political parties than previous waves who settled in New York or Chicago and tended to vote Democrat. According to Edwin Meléndez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York, party affiliation means less to more recent arrivals who are more apt to vote for the candidate who appeals to them most.
One poll from early October shows Florida Puerto Ricans overwhelmingly support Hillary Clinton by 74 percent. Seventeen percent said they would vote for Trump. But the poll also indicated they are split on the Senate race between Marco Rubio and his Democratric rival, Patrick Murphy.
Ensuring registration, turnout and early voting
The influx of boricuas has sent organizations scrambling to make sure potential new voters were registered by the deadline and casting ballots early.
Christina Maria Hernández of Organize Now, a non-profit community group, has been working to rally people to vote through a coalition of progressive Latino groups called “Que Vote Mí Gente” which translates to “Vote, My People.”
The group recently joined forces with Latin salsa singer Frankie Negrón, who is Puerto Rican, in a video, “Que Vote Mí Gente.” The song is a remake of the hit song “Mí Gente” from the late iconic Puerto Rican salsa musician Hector Lavoe.
The Hispanic Federation has produced several Spanish-language ads that are running in major networks as well as Puerto Rico's WAPA TV urging Puerto Ricans- especially young people - to vote.
The coalition has spent a great deal of time explaining the voting process to newly arrived Puerto Ricans. Many are unfamiliar with the political parties and the electoral process. Puerto Rico requires a voting registration card; in Florida, other identification cards can be used under Florida's voter ID law.
But what the coalition has focused on most is encouraging early voting.
“A hurricane can happen. The car can break down. Your kids can get sick,” Hernández said. “This is the I-4 corridor, so this is where elections are decided.”
Outside a supermarket last week, volunteers Wilma Carrero and Maria Merced stopped every shopper on their way out to ask if they had registered; if they had, did they wish to vote by mail? Some said they had already voted, others had questions about the process.
Nancy Gómez, who moved from Puerto Rico 14 years ago, said she had already filled out her absentee ballot - she voted Democrat - but was unsure about mailing it.
“I’m afraid of it getting lost in the mail, so I’m going to take it personally,” she said.
Puerto Ricans are expected to turn out in high numbers. As many as 84 percent of Puerto Ricans polled at the beginning of October said they would likely vote. This is a huge margin compared to Latinos overall, who have a lower turnout rate. Only 48 percent of Hispanic eligible voters cast ballots in 2012.
For Vilma Pérez, who moved to Orlando two years ago, Puerto Rico’s debt is a key issue. On the island, where she worked in finance, she always followed the U.S. elections. She feels they used to be more “pacific” and not as “aggressive” as this year.
She isn’t enthusiastic about the choices this year. “For me, this is not what you expect from the presidential candidates for the most powerful nation in the world,” Perez said.
But for her, the best option is Clinton because of her experience in government.
Campaigns make final push
Both candidates and their surrogates have campaigned heavily in Florida, coming more frequently as Election Day nears. Barack Obama was in Orlando Friday urging millennials to carry out his legacy by voting for Clinton; he will return to South Florida on Thursday. JLo, Marc Anthony and other stars held a concert for Hillary on Friday.
Bertica Cabrera Morris, an Orlando area business and government consultant and Trump surrogate, dismisses the polls that indicate Trump is lagging among Florida's Puerto Ricans. She says many of the islanders who have been migrating to Florida are from the New Progressive Party, which advocates for statehood. People who favor this party tend to be more conservative, said Cabrera Morris, an observation that Meléndez also shared.
“I think we [Hispanics] are being taken for granted by the Democratic Party. They think we’re going to vote Democratic,” she said from her 15th-floor office in downtown Orlando. The office's walls are lined with framed pictures of her with Republican leaders like former president George H. W. Bush, Rubio, and Mitt Romney.
“There is a silent majority of Hispanics that vote their conscience - and that Hillary Clinton needs to be worried about," Cabrera Morris said.
Several miles away at the Republican National Committee's (RNC) Winter Park field office, a team of volunteers were working the phones with the “absentee ballot push,” – reminding voters to send their vote by mail ballots.
“I’m not lacking on my volunteers. As we get closer to the elections, they are coming by and filling up the office,” said office manager Melissa McGee. She said they have 15 phones that are manned 12 hours a day.
Democrats have been busy mobilizing borícuas in Florida - and the island.
Federico de Jesús, a principal at FDJ Solutions and a Clinton surrogate, said her campaign has been mobilizing people in Puerto Rico to contact their relatives in Florida and ask them to register and vote early for Clinton. There is phone banking on the island and there are surrogates doing television and radio interviews.
The campaign has also focused on an another important group: “This campaign has done a lot to reach out to millennials,” said de Jesús. They make up almost half of Hispanic eligible voters and Clinton needs them to turn out in large numbers to win Florida – something young voters are not known to do. De Jesús thinks the outreach will make a difference.
The Clinton and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) have an extensive network of campaign offices and volunteers. According to a Clinton campaign aide, about 1-in-4 state volunteers speak Spanish and can communicate easily with recent arrivals from the island.
As far as campaign ads, voters in Florida have not seen much of Trump.
He has lagged behind Clinton in the amount of money spent on TV ads. As of the week of Oct. 2-8, Clinton and pro-Clinton groups had outspent Trump and pro-Trump groups on TV ads in Florida, $46.6 million to $14.1 million. But spending is ongoing and those sums are changing.
How much support will Trump get?
Even though polls indicate Puerto Ricans favor Clinton, there is no denying there is support for Trump.
Zoriemy Rivera moved to Florida three years ago. She, her husband and their 19 year-old son are Republican and are voting for Trump. Rivera and her husband, both engineers, decided to leave Puerto Rico because the quality of life had declined. “We were paying a lot of money for a private school so our son could be bilingual,” she said.
National security and health care are top issues for Rivera. “I think national security is very important and the border needs to be secured,” she said. She also thinks “Obamacare is going to bring problems, which we are already beginning to see and they will get worse.”
Her son, Jesús Gabriel Sanchez, a University of Central Florida student studying engineering, also said he supports Trump "because I was raised with moral values that resemble the Republican Party the most."
One group of Puerto Ricans in Florida that have the potential to lean Republican is evangelicals.
“One thing that people might not realize is that in the last 30 years, evangelicals have grown dramatically and are now half the church-going population. The percentage of Puerto Rican evangelicals here is higher than in Puerto Rico,” said Martínez Fernandez, the University of Central Florida history professor.
But it’s difficult to predict who they will vote for because they support different issues across the spectrum. Puerto Rican evangelicals may support immigration reform and an increase to the minimum wage, but they generally oppose abortion and same sex marriage.
Meléndez, the CUNY Puerto Rican studies center director, thinks one of the reasons Clinton is doing so well among Puerto Ricans is because she is running against Trump. The controversies he has been involved in and his statements about Mexicans and undocumented immigrants have alienated many Puerto Ricans.
Even though immigration policy does not affect Puerto Ricans, “it’s the perception that he is anti-us,” said Meléndez. “I think any other [Republican] candidate would have split the vote a different way.”