KISSIMMEE, Florida — Puerto Rico’s economic crisis meant Jeffrey Rondon, 25, struggled to find even part-time work, so he recently joined the growing exodus from his Caribbean island to Florida. Now he holds a full-time restaurant job and something that could upend the 2016 presidential election — the right to vote in Florida, the biggest of all swing states.
“It’s important to vote and be heard — it’s a privilege,” said Rondon, who is one of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have moved to Florida in the past year.
As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are relatively easy to register to vote, and they are attracting unprecedented attention because they could change the political calculus in a state that President Obama won by the thinnest of margins in 2012: 50 percent to 49.1 percent.
“It’s a potential game changer for the state,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center. “It’s the biggest movement of people out of Puerto Rico since the great migration of the 1950s.”
Puerto Rican voters tend to lean Democratic, but a great number of the newcomers do not identify with any party, making them appealing targets for politicians and recruiters on both sides. Like those living in other U.S. territories, people in Puerto Rico cannot vote for president in the U.S. general election.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is leading the large number of Republican presidential candidates in Florida polls, recently made a high-profile visit to Puerto Rico. On Monday, he will address three separate gatherings in Orlando, and among those with whom he is meeting are many Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, has visited the island in the past and polled very well with Puerto Ricans when she ran for president in 2008.
“I think you are going to see a hyper-focus in Florida, the likes of which we have never seen. I do think Puerto Ricans can change the political landscape,” said Cristóbal Alex, president of the Democratic-backed Latino Victory Project.
Jennifer Sevilla Korn, who works on Hispanic outreach as the Republican National Committee’s deputy political director of strategic initiatives, said that the GOP has been watching the shifting demographics of Florida and that the Puerto Rican vote “is definitely rising in importance.”
“It’s been growing for years,” she said, adding that in 2016, “you have to get a good portion of Puerto Rican votes to win Florida.”
She said Republicans are building community relationships, opening offices in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, going door to door and showing up at Latino events of every size, “from 30 to 30,000 people” and setting up GOP booths
“I see the vote as up for grabs,” she said.
Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, has been struggling with $72 billion in debt and soaring unemployment. The Pew Research Center calculates that the island’s population dropped by 11,000 people a year in the 1990s, but between 2010 and 2013, the loss accelerated to 48,000 a year.
This year, with economic problems growing, the number leaving for the mainland is even higher.
Florida — particularly the area around Orlando in central Florida — has become the hottest destination for Puerto Ricans. Disney World and the many jobs associated with the tourist industry around it offer entry-level jobs.
Puerto Rican professionals and entrepreneurs also are relocating to Florida, which they see as a welcoming place where it is ever easier to find a shop with a Puerto Rican flag, food and music.
In addition, a growing number of Puerto Ricans from New York, Chicago and elsewhere on the mainland are moving to central Florida, or, as many call it, “Little Puerto Rico.”
“The weather is better here than New York!” said Larry Rivera, the New York-born manager of Kissimmee’s Melao Bakery, which features Puerto Rican sweets and offerings such as mofongo, a fried plantain dish with garlic.
Rivera said everyone is talking about all the newcomers. He sees the influx in the lines of Puerto Ricans at Melao that sometimes stretch out the door. “I see all the new faces, and I see that when people are applying for jobs, their last address was the island,” he said.
Rondon, who moved to Florida in October to find work, was recently hired at Melao. Jobs were so hard to come by in Bayamon, on the north side of the island, that Rondon said he could earn only $150 a week with part-time work at Home Depot. So he, his brother and his mother relocated to Florida, and he now works 40 hours a week or more and earns three times what he did.
His dream, he said, is to own a home in Florida, and he is excited about voting in the U.S. presidential election for the first time. He says he has a “good feeling about Hillary Clinton,” but the candidate he has heard the most about is Donald Trump, so, he says, “I need to learn more.”
Puerto Rico’s party system is different from the U.S. system. Though there is no general-election presidential vote, there are Republican and Democratic presidential primaries on the island, and delegates are sent to the national conventions.
Some Puerto Ricans blame politicians for wrecking the island’s economy and say they are in no hurry to have anything to do with politics. But big efforts are underway to engage the newcomers.
“I’m telling them if you don’t vote, you don’t count — it’s like you don’t exist,” said Jeamy Ramirez, 37, who works for Mi Familia Vota, a national nonprofit group that registers Latinos. She said her group has signed up about 3,000 new voters in central Florida since March, a great number of whom were Puerto Rican and did not register with either party.
One of the newcomers Ramirez registered is Yarinneth Castro, 26, who arrived two months ago. The college student, who hopes to be a court psychologist, said she will be listening for a candidate who addresses her two big issues: better health-care coverage and help for Puerto Rico. “I am interested in the person, not the party,” she said.
In a state famous for razor-thin margins of electoral victory, the influx of thousands of people is mobilizing many activists.
“Everyone remembers that George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes in 2000. You are talking about 1,000 families coming here a month. It’s stunning,” said Anthony Suarez, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association in Florida. He has helped organize a bipartisan forum that he calls “Political Salsa” to engage newcomers on the issues.
Mark Oxner, chairman of the Osceola County Republican Party, said, “We’re telling them what the Republican Party stands for and that a lot of their values align with the Republican Party,” especially on social issues such as opposition to abortion. He added, “We need to reach out to the Puerto Rican base and tell them we believe in the same things.”
State Sen. Darren Soto, a Democrat, is running to be Florida’s first Puerto Rican in Congress. He is seeking the 9th District seat vacated by Alan Grayson, a Democrat who is running for the U.S. Senate. Many Democrats hope that Soto’s candidacy in central Florida will energize Puerto Rican turnout in the presidential year.
The Puerto Rican vote “helped Barack Obama win Florida twice,” Soto said, and now, “because of the higher influx, it will be a bigger factor.”
Puerto Rican elected officials from New York and Chicago plan to come down early next year to hold political rallies. In 2014, caravans of cars where organized to get the vote out — as many as 70 cars bearing Puerto Rican flags blaring through a neighborhood — and there will be bigger efforts in 2016.
Soto said those coming from Puerto Rico can register to vote fairly easily — they simply have to prove residency, as people do when they get a driver’s license, by showing utility bills or rental leases. “It’s no different than a person moving here from New York,” he said.
Soraya Marquez, the state coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, said her team goes to supermarkets, housing complexes and festivals — anywhere people gather — to ask people whether they want to register. After finding out whether a person is a U.S. citizens, they usually use a Florida driver’s license or identification card to get the person’s details and help them sign up.
The group hands the voter applications over to the state supervisor of elections. If that office approves the application, it mails the person a voting card, usually within two weeks. Marquez said Mi Familia Vota aims to register 10,000 people in central Florida this year and 20,000 more next year. Many other groups are helping people register, too.
Vivian Rodriguez, chairman of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida, said registering to vote is key, but that’s just the beginning. “Nobody anticipated this large migration, but it is changing politics,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity for us. But we have a lot of work to do.”
Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.