Maybe Puerto Ricans will have the last laugh after President Donald Trump’s disastrous response to Hurricane Maria: More than 156,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida – a key swing state in U.S. elections – since the storm hit the island in September.
That little-known figure should make Republicans nervous. If Puerto Rican voters’ past behavior is any indication, most of the new arrivals will vote Democratic.
The number of Puerto Ricans who have moved to Florida was disclosed in a tweet from the state’s Division of Emergency Management on Nov. 14. It said the figure includes all Puerto Ricans who have moved to Florida since Oct. 3, when regular flights started to leave from the island after the storm.
It’s a much bigger exodus than had been expected, and thousands of Puerto Ricans are still moving off the island every day, most of them going to Florida, the New York area and Pennsylvania.
Many have little choice but to leave: Almost two months after the hurricane, more than 50 percent of Puerto Rico’s homes and businesses still are without power, and 20 percent lack water. The island’s economy is virtually paralyzed, and it will take many months, perhaps years, to bring it back to a semblance of normalcy.
“Politically, this is more than a big deal – it’s transformational,” said Fernand Amandi, head of the Miami-based Bendixen & Amandi polling firm. Under their current status, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who cannot vote in U.S. elections while they are on the island, but who can do so as soon as they move to the mainland.
In the past three presidential elections, more than 75 percent of Puerto Ricans in Florida have voted for the Democrat, Amandi told me. Even if many of the recent arrivals return to Puerto Rico once the island’s economy gets on its feet, a significant surge in Puerto Rican voters in Florida would make a huge difference in future elections, he said.
“Even 15,000 or 20,000 additional Puerto Rican voters in Florida could determine the next president of the United States,” Amandi said.
If Puerto Ricans already tended to vote Democratic before Trump’s slow and clumsy response to Hurricane Maria, they are much more likely to do so now.
Remember, Trump paid little attention to Hurricane Maria during the first days after the storm. While people were dying in Puerto Rico, Trump was sending out a barrage of tweets criticizing NFL athletes who knelt during the U.S. national anthem as a sign of protest. Then, Trump took almost two weeks to visit the island, while he had flown to Texas twice within a week after Hurricane Harvey and visited Florida five days after Hurricane Irma.
Trump’s failure to immediately send Army engineers to Puerto Rico was a major reason why 90 percent of the island remained without electricity for weeks after the hurricane, critics say.
It was only after an avalanche of press criticism, and after artists such as Pitbull, Ricky Martin and Luis Fonsi sent planeloads of relief supplies to the island, that Trump began to pay attention. And when he finally went to Puerto Rico, he made things worse by – instead of focusing on showing compassion for the victims – tweeting that Puerto Rico needed to pay its debts to Wall Street banks, and playfully tossing paper towels at hurricane victims.
“There is resentment against Trump in the Puerto Rican community,” Edwin Melendez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, told me this week. “There is a feeling that he insulted Puerto Ricans, that he neglected them, that his visit showed a lack of respect.”
The post-hurricane stampede of Puerto Ricans to the mainland would not have much political consequence if most islanders were moving to New York or other solidly Democratic states. But the bulk of them are moving to Florida, where elections are often decided by less than 1 percent of the vote – as if angry Puerto Ricans are waiting to mete out sweet revenge.
Perhaps it will not be special prosecutor Robert Mueller who throws Trump out of office, but Puerto Rican voters.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at email@example.com.