Warning: This is an unabashedly political column about the uncertain future of Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes from a Republican perspective (but to the delight of Democrats).
Hurricane Maria not only devastated Puerto Rico but could result in a tsunami-like ripple effect impacting Electoral College math in 2020 and beyond.
Let’s begin with some indisputable facts:
Fact No. 1: Donald Trump is president because he won 306 Electoral College votes, while Hillary Clinton won 232.
Fact No. 2: Trump won four battleground states by the slimmest of margins that provided him with 36 extra Electoral College votes over the required 270 to win. Those states in order of importance were:
Florida: 29 electoral votes won by 1.2 percent. (48.6 to 47.4)
Pennsylvania: 20 electoral votes won by 0.7 percent (48.2 to 47.5)
Michigan: 16 electoral votes won by 0.3 percent (47.3 to 47.0)
Wisconsin: 10 electoral votes won by 0.7 percent (47.2 to 46.5)
Fact No. 3: Prior to the 2016 presidential election, the Republican nominee had not won Pennsylvania and Michigan since 1992 or Wisconsin since 1988.
More on the importance of “Rust Belt” electoral math later. All that matters now is Florida, Florida, Florida and how an expected “mass exodus” of Puerto Rican residents seeking permanent refuge in Florida will affect the state’s decisive 29 electoral votes. Remember that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who can quickly register to vote.
Here are some additional facts that make Republican leaders uncomfortable.
Hispanic/Latino citizens continue to be loyal Democrats. For example, in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won the Hispanic vote by a whopping 65 to 29 percent over Trump.
Nationally in 2016, Hispanic voters grew to 11 percent of the electorate – up from 10 percent in 2012, an increase from 9 percent in 2008 and 8 percent in 2004.
In 2016, Florida’s Hispanics made up 18 percent of the state’s voters, up from 17 percent in 2012.
Clinton won Florida’s Hispanic voters by a decisive 62 to 35 percent over Trump, 3 points less than her 65 percent national Hispanic margin of victory. The difference was that the Cuban vote went to Trump by 54 percent to 41 percent. But Clinton won the non-Cuban Hispanic vote by 71 to 26 percent, 6 points higher than her national Hispanic vote margin. That is significant and does not bode well for Florida’s future as a Republican presidential stronghold especially since the Cuban population is declining.
Although Trump won Florida’s non-Hispanic vote by 51 to 45 percent, Trump only defeated Clinton by 112,911 votes. The raw vote totals were 4,617,886 for Trump and 4,504,975 for Clinton – accounting for Trump’s tiny 1.2 percent margin of victory.
All this data points to why an influx of hundreds of thousands of new loyal Democratic Puerto Rican voters could dramatically change Florida from a “purple” to blue state virtually overnight.
However, over the last several years, well before Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on the island, financial devastation has been propelling Puerto Rican residents to relocate to Florida in record numbers. In fact, during the 2016 election, there were numerous reports about how Puerto Rican voters were going to deliver Florida to Hillary Clinton.
Obviously, white and Cuban Florida voters blocked Clinton’s victory by a very small percentage. But, in 2020, if the prevailing message is that Trump “did not do enough to rebuild Puerto Rico” (which of course Democrats will promote whether true or false) – Trump’s 1.2 percent margin of victory could quickly evaporate as hundreds of thousands of new Puerto Rican Florida voters cast their ballots.
The importance of Florida’s Electoral College votes cannot be overstated.
In the aftermath of the contested 2000 presidential election when the U.S. Supreme Court awarded Republican nominee Texas Gov. George W. Bush with Florida’s then 25 electoral votes, Florida was elevated to the “Mother of All Presidential Battleground States.”
Consequently, Republican strategists’ conventional wisdom was that every Republican presidential nominee needed Florida’s electoral votes to reach 270. Much of that “wisdom” stemmed from those pesky, solid “blue wall” states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Together, the three states, with their 46 combined electoral votes, were for decades considered almost impenetrable by Republican presidential tickets after consecutive loses.
Then along came Donald Trump who penetrated all three and did not even need Florida’s 29 votes to reach 270!
Yes, Trump achieved an Electoral College miracle, and like all miracles, they rarely happen twice. Looking forward to 2020, Florida’s 29 votes are back to being a “must-win” for Republicans whereas Democrats traditionally can reach 270 without Florida.
The “new math” that frightens Republicans is the potential for this vast yet-unknown increase in Puerto Rican voters making it easier for any Democratic presidential candidate to win Florida.
The equation looks like this: Trump’s 306 Electoral College votes minus Florida’s 29 equals 277. That math means Trump must again win Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – a repeat performance made more challenging by Trump’s less than one percent margin of victory in those three states.
It goes without saying that this “traditional” red state-blue state Electoral College formula is subject to change. But, with the growth of Hispanic voters nationally and the GOP’s inability to attract this important voting bloc, Florida, along with traditional red states with growing Hispanic populations like Arizona and Georgia, for example, could easily turn blue in 2020.
Yes, we are light-years away from the next presidential election, but in Florida, Puerto Rico’s impact on state politics will go from speculation to hard data in 2018 where a hotly contested governor and Senate race are seen as demographic bellwethers for 2020.
Finally, watch President Trump’s continued actions toward Puerto Rico with a lens on Florida politics and its 29 Electoral College votes. Not only is Trump’s re-election at stake but the red-blue balance of the Electoral College on presidential elections for decades to come.