Victory Lab

The Mystery of the Puerto Rican Voter

Why do Puerto Ricans turn out in such high numbers on the island but not in Florida? And who will win their all-important support in 2012?

Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder holds a Puerto Rican flag as she directs a question to Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich after he was endorsed by the National Hispanic Leadership Network at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa on January 27, 2012 in Miami, Florida. Gingrich is campaigning ahead of Florida's January 31, primary.

Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder holds a Puerto Rican flag as she directs a question Newt Gingrich in Miami, Fla., ahead of that state’s Republican primary

Joe Raedle

ORLANDO, Fla.—Starting a caravana in Orlando is no easy business. A few cars bedecked with flags bearing the name of a local candidate may gather in a shopping-center parking lot, but when they turn out onto the public streets other cars are slow to join the procession, as they do across Puerto Rico in the days before an election. There, caravans are part of a broad political pageant in which party colors—blue for the pro-statehood party, red for pro-commonwealth—seem to wash over every inch of available surface area on the island, from murals to neckties. That flair travels to the polls: Puerto Ricans vote at some of the highest rates in the Western Hemisphere.

Over the last decade, candidates in Central Florida running for offices at all levels have tried to mobilize the rapidly growing Puerto Rican community by adopting the caravana tradition. But unlike in Puerto Rico, where caravans can go on for hours in a stream of joyful noise, a Floridian homage can be halting and unsettlingly quiet. Sometimes this is by design: Local campaign organizers warn their caravan drivers not to make too much of a racket while traveling through Anglo neighborhoods, for fear of triggering a backlash.

Puerto Rico’s culture of engagement is all the more stark when juxtaposed against voter apathy in the United States. Throughout the late 20th century, turnout for Puerto Rico’s quadrennial elections was 50 percent higher than it was for presidential contests in the 50 states. Even in 2008, when participation increased in the states and dropped in Puerto Rico, the island still turned out at a rate 10 points ahead of the mainland. But as soon as Puerto Ricans come to the mainland, they seem to abandon their enthusiasm for voting. There is no reliable method to precisely measure turnout by country of origin, but results from precincts in Orlando’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods—and interviews with pollsters, academics, and political operatives and officials—suggests that in 2008 Puerto Ricans living on the mainland voted at or below the 57 percent rate for eligible voting-age Hispanics countywide.

What drives Puerto Ricans to vote at such a greater clip than their fellow citizens on the mainland has been a subject of study for election scholars and civic activists for decades. And now that Puerto Ricans are emerging as a crucial bloc in Florida, campaigns are starting to ask a corollary question: Why do Puerto Ricans stop being such prolific voters when they move to the mainland? And what would it take to reactivate them?

“That’s the riddle everybody’s trying to solve,” says Luis Hernandez, an Orlando talk radio host and Republican political consultant backing Mitt Romney. “People like me, that’s our job.”

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It’s a riddle with high stakes. Despite the relentless focus on the state’s Cuban politics, the Puerto Rican population is growing more quickly and could soon become the largest subgroup of the 1,473,920 Latinos registered to vote in Florida. They are already an outsize presence on the electoral rolls. Because Puerto Ricans are American citizens, they are immediately eligible to vote, which is why even though Puerto Ricans comprise barely 20 percent of the state’s Hispanic population they represent 29 percent of its Hispanic electorate. (Thirty-two percent of Hispanic voters are Cuban, according to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis.) “If you look at the celebrated I-4 corridor, with a lot of Puerto Rican voters, and how they’ve voted in the last five or six elections, they’ve proven to be a swing electorate,” says Fernand Amandi, a managing partner of Bendixen & Amandi, the Miami firm that handled Obama’s Hispanic polling in 2008 and is doing so again this year.

Puerto Ricans lean farther to the left than Cuban-Americans—two-thirds would vote to re-elect Obama, according to a new Univision survey, while only one-third of Cubans back him. One of the big challenges for Democratic data mavens in 2012 is in breaking Central Florida’s Puerto Rican communities into two distinct tribes. There are those who have relocated from northern states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois, where Puerto Ricans have become enmeshed in one-party urban machines and often reflexively register as Democrats when they settle in Florida. Those who come directly from the island are believed to be less likely to associate with either American party. Or, they register as Republicans, but only because of a lexicographical quirk: The island’s pro-statehood party was until the late 1960s known as the Partido Estadista Republicano. “A lot of them just register as Republicans thinking that if they were a Republican in Puerto Rico they need to be a Republican here,” says Betsy Franceschini, who came to the United States from Puerto Rico as a teenager and is now the Central Florida director for the state Democratic party.

Some Democratic operatives see the potential to increase their ranks through a targeted re-registration program. But they have their work cut out for them. Because presidential candidates boycotted Florida’s 2008 Democratic primary because of a calendar spat, neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton mounted a concerted effort in the state to encourage voters to change parties. And the groups now running registration drives targeting Latinos—Mi Familia Vota and Democracia—are prohibited by their tax status from working on party-switching.

Because Puerto Ricans tend to lean toward Democrats, they won’t be a major factor in Tuesday’s Republican primary. The primary will be the first of the year restricted to only those voters registered with the party. Some 452,619 Latino Republicans statewide are eligible to vote on Tuesday— just over 11 percent of the total electorate—but only a small minority of those who turn out are likely to be Puerto Rican.

Still, the two GOP candidates actively campaigning in Florida will each make a bid to mobilize them this weekend, aware that they will be prime targets for both parties in November. Romney seems to be working hardest to recreate an island vibe. He has planned a Friday night rally at an Orlando factory for Puerto Rico-based company Lanco Paints, likely with the island’s pro-statehood governor Luis Fortuño, who endorsed Romney today. Romney operatives are also eyeing the possibility of trying to mount a caravana on his behalf on Sunday or Monday. Gingrich’s campaign plans nothing so festive, working instead to mobilize support through evangelical churches with largely Puerto Rican congregations. (Spanish-language megachurches across the East Coast are stocked with Puerto Rican pastors because there’s no worry about immigration problems, according to those familiar with the terrain.) On Saturday, Gingrich will host a town-hall meeting at Centro de la Familia Cristiana, on Orlando’s east side, and is counting on a network of pastors to help deliver a crowd.

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In 1992, a presidential election was coming, yet Luis Raúl Cámara wondered why everything was so quiet. Cámara had been raised in Puerto Rico, and had left the island to do his graduate work in political science at the University of Michigan. But even though media coverage was fixated on Bill Clinton’s challenge to George H.W. Bush, there was little of the ambient noise in Ann Arbor that Cámara had come to expect as the inevitable soundtrack to a looming vote. “If you didn’t look at the news, you wouldn’t know there was an election,” says Cámara by phone from the Universidad de Puerto Rico in San Juan, where he now teaches. “Here you don’t need to read a newspaper, or turn on the TV, to know there’s an election. There’s a whole environment that’s saturated with politics.”

One of Cámara’s professors at Michigan, Steven A. Rosenstone, directed the National Election Studies project and had become a leading scholar on turnout with his 1980 book Who Votes? In 1989, Rosenstone co-authored (with Maria Antonia Calvo) a volume focusing specifically on a slice of the electorate that demographers and far-sighted political operatives knew would change the country’s electoral math over the following generation. “Hispanics are less likely to participate in politics than are other Americans,” Rosenstone and Calvi concluded in Hispanic Political Participation.

This conclusion startled Cámara, who had worked on campaigns since his childhood—painting murals, making phone calls to voters, taking his place in the inevitable caravanas, and eventually rising to be a party vice president in his hometown of Guaynabo. He had heard Puerto Rican authorities, particularly the State Electoral Commission, repeatedly flatter residents with the news that they participated in politics at a uniquely high rate.

This, Cámara quickly realized, was something of a myth: Plenty of countries had turnout rates above Puerto Rico’s. But they were not countries typically considered the island’s peers: Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands. (Puerto Ricans even voted at a higher rate than Finns.) The four countries in the Western Hemisphere with higher turnout rates than Puerto Rico all had compulsory voting—and one, Brazil, was still only a smidgen higher. Unlike in other countries, voting seemed to be evenly distributed across the Puerto Rican population; turnout did not seem to increase in lockstep with socioeconomic status. In fact, as Cámara knew from his days joining candidates on electioneering walks called caminatas through Guaynabo subdivisions, parties seemed to work harder to mobilize the poor.

The results of these party-driven efforts to mobilize voters put American efforts to shame. The structure of elections in the island territory—which sends a nonvoting member to Congress and holds presidential nominating primaries but has no electoral college vote—is almost indistinguishable from the mainland’s. Both elect chief executives to four-year terms (governor-general is the island’s top office), balancing power against a bicameral legislature in which the same two parties jostle perennially for control. But by every measure, Puerto Ricans take voting more seriously: From 1972 through 1984, island turnout exceeded 80 percent of the voting-age population, and at one point more than 95 percent were registered. Between 1972 and 2000, Cámara calculated, Puerto Rico averaged 79 percent turnout in its quadrennial elections; only eleven U.S. states cleared more than 60 percent during that time, while 14 were below 50 percent. “Why is it,” Cámara wrote in his book The Phenomenon of Puerto Rican Voting, “that voters in Puerto Rico, which has virtually the same formal political institutions as the United States, behave so differently from their mainland counterparts?”

Just about everyone who pays attention to voting agrees that it is a habitual action—campaigns looking for likely voters consider past turnout the strongest indicator of future action—but no one quite agrees why. In their 1982 paper “Pathways to Participation,” Paul Allen Beck and M. Kent Jennings argue that children are socialized into voting. Based on a panel study of more than one thousand youths who were eventually followed for more than a generation starting in 1965, Beck and Jennings found that your parents’ advanced socioeconomic status and heightened civic engagement made teenagers more likely to vote when they reached the legal age; their participation in extracurricular activities did, too.

Other researchers have searched for evidence that voters were born, not made. Social scientists James Fowler and Christopher T. Dawes, of U.C.-San Diego, along with University of Southern California behavioral geneticist Laura A. Baker, gathered Los Angeles County voter records for eight elections held between 2000 and 2005 and matched them against a registry of twins living in Southern California. They found records for 396 twins, and divided the monozygotic pairs (often called identical twins) from dizygotic ones, who share only one-half their DNA. If the inclination to vote was heritable, monozygotic twins would have more behaviors in common than dizygotic ones. Indeed, they found 53 percent of the variance in individual turnout patterns could be attributed to genetics. Later Fowler and Dawes claimed that they had isolated two specific genes that could play a role in neurochemically conditioning certain people toward voting.

The Puerto Rican diaspora, where voting habits shift abruptly with changes in scenery, seems to illustrate the limits of such genetic explanations for why some people vote and others don’t. “If it was genetic, one would assume they’d vote at almost the same rate,” Cámara says of Puerto Rican populations on the island and mainland. “In politics, the environment is important.”

Americans looking for environments that inspire preternaturally high voting rates often look back into the 19th century. Before the introduction of the secret ballot in states starting in the late 1880s, Americans often voted in rowdy taverns on a day devoted to little else. In 2005, Yale political scientist Don Green designed an experiment to test whether reviving that festival atmosphere could have an impact on turnout. (Green, now at Columbia, is one the four eggheads who worked with Rick Perry’s 2006 campaign.) Green went to Hooksett, N.H., just before its municipal elections, and erected a tent on a middle-school lawn for an alcohol-free, family-friendly “Election Day Poll Party,” which he promoted with ads in the Union Leader. A similar town, Hanover, was used as a control. Afterward, Green tallied up the total votes cast in each town and found that the festival was responsible for a 6.5-point increase in Hooksett’s turnout compared to Hanover.

Indeed, as Cámara read accounts of 19th-century American elections, he thought the descriptions of a festive atmosphere—rife with parades and festivals put on by parties that also used pork and patronage to earn deep loyalty from voters—sounded a lot like modern Puerto Rican politics. The “culture of the vote,” as many Puerto Rican analysts call it, is so expansive that on the island election day is a national holiday, when everyone takes off from work. “It’s like a big holiday, and voting is just the culmination of that, just like the 25th is the culmination of Christmas,” says Cámara. “There’s a lot of social incentive to vote.”

Even if they can’t get their caravans to fire properly, Central Florida political organizers are developing ad-hoc methods for targeting Puerto Rican residents with social pressure that befits their status as experienced voters requiring only reactivation. In 2008, Angel de la Portilla worked for Julius Melendez, a Puerto Rican running to be the first Hispanic school-board member in Osceola County. The campaign’s small budget could afford only one mail piece, so de la Portilla drew one up emphasizing Melendez’s record as a military veteran and targeted it at white Republicans. But de la Portilla took a different tack with Hispanic voters. He organized a small phone bank of Puerto Rican women, who were instructed to make conversation with voters long enough to discern an accent. If the voice on the other end of the line sounded Colombian or Cuban, de la Portilla’s script told his callers to tell the voter he or she had “the opportunity to elect the first Hispanic to the school board.” But if they heard a Puerto Rican on the line, callers were instructed to summon a sense of island kinship and say Melendez could be “the first Puerto Rican” in the office. “They would know we knew they were Puerto Rican,” says de la Portilla. (Melendez, now the vice chair of the county school board, announced earlier this month that he would run for Congress as a Republican to represent a newly created district.)

When speaking before Puerto Rican crowds on behalf of the Democratic ticket, Franceschini often plays more directly to a sense of national vanity. She recounts the story of American academics who traveled to Puerto Rico in the 1990s to decode the island’s impressive record of civic participation. “They came to see what we did to make the same thing happen here,” Franceschini explains to her audiences. “In Puerto Rico, we’ve been classified as a model for voter participation. We are a role model, and we need to demonstrate it here because it’s part of our culture.” The campaign that’s able to tap into that culture—even if they can’t promise a day off to vote—might have a leg up come Nov. 6.