Washington D.C. - Seven out of 10 Puerto Ricans chose Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 election, including Pennsylvania, where Puerto Rican voters were key to give the president-elect a winning edge over Donald Trump.
Results – mainly according to exit polls - satisfy some Democrats. But they also worry some others who, after the slow and inefficient federal response to the Hurricane María catastrophe and Trump’s negative rhetoric about the island, expected, especially in Florida, a stronger rejection of the current administration.
Although Florida usually concentrates the attention -- because it is the most important presidential swing state, with 29 electoral votes, and a Puerto Rican population of about 1.2 million -- Pennsylvania’s Puerto Ricans played a key role in the state that gave Biden the electoral votes to be declared president-elect.
As Biden is beating Trump with more than 63,000 votes in Pennsylvania - which gave him more than the 270 electoral votes required - Latino Decisions estimated that the president-elect is leading in that state by nearly 75,000 votes.
Based on a turnout of nearly 300,000 Hispanics in Pennsylvania, Latino Decisions estimates that 63 percent of those voters were Puerto Ricans who favored Biden by 70 percent to 24 percent. “They gave him the margin of victory,” said Matt Barreto, founder of Latino Decisions, a firm that worked on this campaign for Biden’s committee.
When the count of mail-in ballots from the Philadelphia area and Lehigh Valley -with a high concentration of Puerto Ricans- began, Biden had the lead in that state.
This time, in Pennsylvania - with 20 electoral votes -the campaign included activities similar to those for elections in Puerto Rico, such as caravans -used in Florida in recent years-. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, former Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, and Hispanic Federation activists were some of the sectors that helped mobilize Puerto Ricans.
“Puerto Rican voters showed a very natural and impressive energy” in these elections, according to Nilda Ruiz, of the Philadelphia-based Asociación Puertorriqueña en Marcha (APM) and president of the National Puerto Rican Agenda (NPRA).
According to the Latino Decisions poll indicated, 70 percent of Puerto Rican voters in the United States chose Biden over Trump, who got 26 percent. In 2016, Latino Decisions estimated that 79 percent of the Puerto Rican diaspora preferred Hillary Clinton.
Although he lost the election, Trump -after four years in the presidency- tripled his 2016 margin of victory in Florida and at least slightly improved or maintained the support of Puerto Rican voters.
According to a CBS News exit poll, 72 percent of Puerto Ricans living in the state sided with Biden, the same percentage that a 2016 Latino Decisions poll gave Clinton.
For the 2020 elections, Latino Decisions - which did two-thirds of its more than 5,000 interviews nationwide with early voters and one-third with people who were sure they would go to the polls on Nov. 3 - found that Biden had a lead among Florida’s Puerto Ricans of 71-26.
Biden won in Orange (61 percent to 37.9 percent) and Osceola (56.4 percent to 42.6 percent) counties that concentrate Central Florida’s Puerto Rican population. But compared to 2016, President Trump reached 2.2 percent more in Orange, which includes Orlando, and 6.7 percent in Osceola, with Kissimmee as its largest city.
For Marcos Vilar, a Puerto Rican who chairs the Alianza for Progress, no data show that progress in those counties was driven by Puerto Rican voters, as other experts in Florida have said. “It may have been that more white (non-Hispanic) voters favored Trump,” said Vilar, whose organization encouraged Hispanic participation in that state.
Vilar warned that Puerto Rican voters in Florida cannot be seen through the lens of the overwhelmingly African American support to Democrats, since Puerto Ricans have a conservative and religious base that identifies with Republicans and is strong in the state central area.
Republican Leo Valentín, a Puerto Rican doctor who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Florida’s 7th district, noted that his state’s voters are very independent and have a “strong and active” religious-based community. “No party can take them for granted,” he said, stressing that during the pandemic these communities felt “a double standard” about restrictions imposed on them, compared to big business.
Former Republican state representative Roberto “Bob” Cortés, who lost his bid to regain the 30th district seat he held until 2018, said estimates he received before the elections were that Biden would have two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in Florida. “I think (Biden) had more or less the support expected,” he noted. In his district, he added, Hispanic turnout was below that of the rest of the population.
More than 150 million people voted in the 2020 election, a record turnout. Biden won nearly 51 percent of the votes and 306 of the 538 electoral votes. In Florida, the turnout was 71 percent, with another record: over 11 million people going to the polls.
Based on the data on early voting or mail-in ballots calculated up to October 31st, the America Votes organization estimated a preliminary 30 percent increase in Puerto Rican turnout.
The Hispanic Vote
According to Latino Decisions, Biden won Florida’s Hispanic vote 59-38 and gives him a 70-27 national lead. For television networks exit polls on Nov. 3, Biden had a 65-32 margin nationally, a 4 percent increase for Trump over 2016.
Among Florida’s Latino community, Trump’s won among Cuban Americans, mainly in the Miami area, where the current President consistently repeated his message that Democrats and Biden, a centrist, were synonymous with socialism while he represented “law and order”.
Exit polls, according to CBS, gave Trump a 57 percent to 40 percent lead among Cuban Americans. In 2016, Latino Decisions determined that Clinton and Trump had equal support among Cuban Americans. In 2020, they estimated that Trump’s lead over Biden in that group was 55-42.
Biden´s campaign for Puerto Ricans in Florida and Pennsylvania focused on the Trump administration’s slow and inefficient response to Hurricane María, which caused 2,975 deaths and nearly $100 billion in damage. The image of Trump throwing rolls of paper towels was everywhere.
The campaign also included messages about the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences, an emergency that Trump minimized, and that took the lives of more than 245,000 people in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Trump´s campaign targeting Florida’s Puerto Ricans tried to overcome the negative image resulting from blocking emergency aid and its derogatory comments about the island and focused on the September agreement to finally fund the reconstruction of the power grid and education facilities damaged by Hurricane María.
President Trump also wanted to present himself as a promoter of the island’s manufacturing industry, even defending the old 936 section of the federal Internal Revenue Code.
Frances Colón, Puerto Rican director of Voto Latino of the “Florida para Todos” (Florida for All) coalition, said that until the summer, Hurricane María was the issue that appeared the most in focus groups conducted by different organizations encouraging the Puerto Rican vote.
But, as the coronavirus pandemic advances, voters stressed that although “Trump has done us a lot of harm,” they also wanted to know “what was going to happen” with COVID-19, jobs, cost of living, and access to health care, said Colón, who is now part of Biden’s transition committee in the State Department.
Although the socialism narrative may have convinced Cuban-American, Venezuelan, and other Latin American voters in Florida, did not resonate with the Puerto Ricans, she said.
“Even with the small change in support for Trump within Florida’s Puerto Rican community, Puerto Ricans gave more votes to Biden than to Clinton. That shows how big and growing our vote is,” Colón added.
According to Latino Decisions, 58 percent of Puerto Ricans went to the polls with the coronavirus as a major concern, followed by the economy and employment (41 percent) and health care (28 percent).
Twenty-five percent of the Puerto Ricans who voted on Nov. 3 were new voters.
Despite all the attention focused on Florida, Biden won the presidency without that state. Biden became the fifth candidate in a century to be elected without winning in Florida, which in this election represented 29 votes out of 538 in American electoral votes.
Biden´s ability to win back three states across the “industrial belt”: Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10), which represent 46 electoral college votes gave him the victory. In 2016, Trump won those states.
Biden also won Arizona, with a slight lead of about 11,000 votes, becoming the second Democratic presidential candidate to win that state since 1948. Bill Clinton also won Arizona in 1996, which brings 11 electoral votes.
Democrat Biden has also beaten Trump in Georgia, a state the Democrats had not won since 1992.
However, for Barreto, Democrats should continue to work with Florida Puerto Ricans, since it is a growing electorate, the second largest among the state’s Hispanic population, and allows to balance the Cuban American vote.
Barreto said that winning the vote of a significant segment of that population, almost “in a ratio of three to one, is an advantage that any politician will surely want.”