As President Donald Trump and his pack of would-be 2020 Democratic opponents trade fire over disaster relief for Puerto Rico, another issue — statehood — is looming large for the island’s diaspora.
More than 80 percent of Puerto Rican likely voters in Florida said the island should be granted statehood and said the issue would be important to them as they weigh presidential candidates, according to a new poll.
In the survey, conducted by ALG Research and funded partly by pro-statehood backers, nearly half of respondents said they would “resent” Democrats who push statehood for Washington, D.C., and oppose it for Puerto Rico.
Boricua voters are set to play a crucial role in Florida, the nation’s biggest swing state and a must-win for Trump if he hopes to be reelected in 2020. The president has meager favorability among Puerto Ricans in the state, and Democrats so far haven’t taken advantage.
“Presidential candidates should pay close attention if they are interested in Florida,” said Harold Ickes, a former White House deputy chief of staff under President Bill Clinton who helped fund the poll. “How the island is treated, especially on the statehood issue, can be very influential with Puerto Ricans.”
Puerto Rico’s status has taken on added political importance this election cycle as its pro-statehood governor, Ricardo Rosselló, is trying to schedule the island’s presidential primary earlier in March 2020. He has demanded that Democrats support statehood or at least give their opinion about it, a call that so far has been ignored by the major candidates except former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who endorsed making Puerto Rico the 51st state.
ALG Research questioned 600 Puerto Rican likely voters in Florida between March 12 and March 20 by both landline and cellphone. The survey, commissioned by the Democratic firm Ickes & Enright, had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4 points.
In the poll, 53 percent of respondents said they took a candidate’s position on statehood personally, agreeing with this sentence: “The inferior treatment by Republicans and Democrats in Congress to Puerto Ricans in the Island is a reflection of what they think of me as a Puerto Rican in Florida.”
Only 39 percent surveyed disagreed with the sentiment.
Puerto Ricans in Florida now number nearly 1.13 million, a population that exceeds New York’s boricua community. Puerto Ricans are estimated to account for as many as a third of Florida’s registered Hispanic voters, who account for nearly 17 percent of overall voter rolls in the state, according to the Division of Elections.
And they turn out in high numbers. In 2018, 43 percent of an estimated 225,000 Florida voters born in Puerto Rico turned out, according to Daniel Smith, a political science professor at University of Florida. He cautioned that not all voters report where they’re born, and his data doesn’t include voters who are second- or third-generation Puerto Ricans.
The survey showed that Trump, who has been widely vilified in the Puerto Rican community for his response to Hurricane Maria, is deeply unpopular. Only 21 percent of voters polled held a favorable opinion of him; 69 percent viewed him unfavorably.
Sen. Rick Scott, who has visited the island nine times in the last two years, had a 48 percent favorable rating even though a majority of respondents said they voted for Bill Nelson in the 2018 election.
A Rosselló advisor said the survey reaffirms Florida data he’s seen from 2016 and 2017.
“Puerto Ricans living in Florida value their American citizenship and favor statehood,” Rosselló aide Manny Ortiz said. “And the second point is just as important: what happens on the island matters to them in Florida.”
Not everyone buys the poll. Phillip Arroyo, an Orlando commentator who favors Puerto Rican independence, said he’s lost faith in public opinion surveys and questioned the sincerity of pro-statehood forces.
“It’s another mechanism by the statehood supporters in Puerto Rico to create the illusion of doing something about statehood when many don’t really care about statehood,” Arroyo said. “They just care about firing up their base.”
Florida politicians of both parties have reached out to the growing bloc, with Republicans such Scott and Gov. Ron DeSantis sparring with Trump on disaster recovery and the island’s death toll after Hurricane Michael.
Voters surveyed were split on Sen. Marco Rubio, who was viewed unfavorably by 41 percent and favorably by 40 percent.
Yet even as Puerto Rico’s statehood is at the center of an fight between Congress and Trump over disaster relief, few Democrats have staked out a position on it.
O’Rourke, in a March video posted on Twitter by a CNN correspondent, said the only way to permanently resolve the “second-class status” of Puerto Ricans was to elevate the territory to statehood. That would give the island representation in Congress and allow its residents to vote for president.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has endorsed the idea, saying “it sounds good to me.”
Other Democratic candidates, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former U.S. housing Secretary Julian Castro have ducked the issue, saying they would respect the will of island voters.
One of the Democratic primary’s newest entrants, Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam, told POLITICO that the people of Puerto Rico have voted overwhelmingly for statehood.
“There is no good reason for them to continue to be treated as second-class citizens,” Messam said.
Two years ago, 97 percent of Puerto Rican voters supported statehood, but opposition groups boycotted the vote and called the results into question. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who opposes statehood, co-chairs the Sanders campaign.
Arroyo said he once favored statehood, but came to favor independence as Congress mistreated the island. Entrenched corporate interests will never allow Puerto Rico to be treated fairly, he said.
“Regardless of how controversial those plebiscites were in the past,” he said, “in the end, the people voted and the United States just ignored the results.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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