The Puerto Rican migration could shape Florida politics for years to come

In the wish lists of Democratic strategists, one imagines the arrival of tens of thousands of Democratic-leaning voters to Florida, seemingly overnight, ranks pretty high.

Two months after Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island, new data suggests that’s exactly what’s happened.

Figures on school enrollment provided to CNN from the Florida Department of Education suggest that well over 50,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida and made it their residence heading into the midterm election next year.

These voters are likely to be strong Democrat supporters, as an analysis by Dan Smith, a University of Florida professor, found that heavily-Puerto Rican districts only gave 15 to 35% support to Trump.

Counting the number of school children arriving from Puerto Rico is a good way to understand how Florida’s electorate will change due to Hurricane Maria. “School enrollment is the best indicator for long-term settlement,” said Edwin Melendez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.

More than 6,500 Puerto Rican children have enrolled in Florida schools as of November 14. The data shows a strong continuing trend: A week earlier, the figure stood at 5,600. A week before that, it was 4,300. The evidence suggests that substantially more children are enrolled at this point as this kind of data can have a lag and has reporting gaps, Melendez said.

With a colleague, Melendez found that if 9,600 Puerto Rican children enroll in schools, that means a total of about 41,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to Florida. On the high end, if 15,400 students enroll, an estimated 83,000 Puerto Ricans migrated. There is a very high probability based on the current trend that the lower estimate will be surpassed by next November.

Migration at this level will mean Republicans face an even harsher demographic shift in a state already trending away from them. Hispanics constituted an estimated 12% of the eligible voter population in Florida in 2000. Before the Hurricane, that number was expected to double by 2030.

“It’s a little more headwind for Republicans who were already grappling with an increasingly Democratic population,” said Rob Griffin, director of quantitative analysis at the Center for American Progress and contributor to the States of Change project.

President Trump won Florida by just more than 100,000 votes. President George W. Bush, of course, won Florida in a contest with the margin of the vote so slim the result went to the Supreme Court.

Of course, not everyone who moves to Florida from Puerto Rico will vote, or is even of age to register to vote. But the effects go beyond just vote turnout.

“The demographic change to Florida has the potential to affect Federal and state elections,” said Michael McDonald, professor of political science at the University of Florida, who maintains the United States Election Project. When the 2020 Census is released, continued population growth in the areas where Puerto Ricans live will likely mean more districts at the state and Congressional levels are drawn favorably for Democrats, he added.

Several news articles show that already more than 150,000 people have moved to Florida from Puerto Rico. But those figures are likely too high, say experts following the migration. Numbers in that range are often provided by the Florida Division of Emergency Management but only count travel through Florida airports from Puerto Rico. They do not show the number of people who have moved to Florida and settled there, which is more important to understanding who will vote there.

Melendez’s analysis looks at past exoduses to make its estimates. Just look at Hurricane Katrina for an illustrative example. A year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the city’s population declined by over 50%. In the 10 months following Katrina, New Orleans lost over 90,000 jobs or one-third of employment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.