Democrats have a Puerto Rican problem

Getty Images

When President Trump went to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico weeks after Hurricane Maria, Democrats were as appalled as they were relieved. As the president threw paper towels at the survivors of the worst natural disaster in modern U.S. history, liberals were sure that this searing image – as well as the victim-blaming and insults that came with it – would ensure victory for the midterms in the crucial state of Florida. As the Sunshine State is home to more than 1.2 million Puerto Ricans who are all-natural born citizens of the Commonwealth, the Democratic Party correctly focused on reminding voters of the botched federal response to Hurricane Maria that was responsible in part for the deaths of 3,000 Puerto Ricans.

What went wrong? Simply put, the lessons of 2016 were not learned and therefore the necessary course-corrections did not take place.

{mosads}When will Democrats learn that “being right” and winning elections are two completely different propositions? When will Democratic Party insiders realize that things don’t just happen? If the party wanted to harness the outrage Puerto Ricans felt at the hands – and Twitter feed – of Trump, they needed to invest the necessary resources to perform effective outreach, instead of outsourcing it to outside liberal community groups.

This was the same ill-fated thesis of 2016, which went as follows: labor, community and other groups would take care of the culturally-competent campaigning (door knocking, phone banking, canvassing, caravanas with music and flags, etc.) while the party could spend their money on over-paid, mostly non-Latino consultants, and just concentrate on Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts. The result was that the community groups did their jobs, but the cavalry from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), and candidates’ campaigns did not come through.

In fact, the DNC made a big to do when it announced a paltry $100,000 grant for the Florida State Democratic Party for Puerto Rican outreach. Compared to the millions spent by GOP Gov. Rick Scott and conservative Super PACs, the modest DNC grant demonstrated a lack of serious commitment by the party towards what they said was a critical segment of the electorate.

In Florida, Osceola and Orange counties are home to the largest concentrations of Central Florida Puerto Ricans. Turnout in these two counties was higher in 2018 than in the 2014 midterms. In fact, the results tended in Democrats’ favor by average margins of approximately 60-40 percent. Barack Obama on the other hand received 85 percent or more of the Puerto Rican vote in Florida in 2012. Hillary Clinton received more than 75 percent in 2016. Groups like Alianza for Progress, Hispanic Federation, Boricua Vota and others did a great job in registering and engaging voters. In fact, 4 out of the 5 local candidates their coalition supported for School Board, county commission and others were elected. That level of turnout, though good, was not enough to win statewide.

Democrats need to do a better job of letting Puerto Ricans know of all the legislation and genuine efforts made by liberal members of Congress on their behalf on issues ranging from health care and education to the hurricane response in Puerto Rico. But if they want to avoid the traps of 2016 and now 2018, outreach to Puerto Ricans in Florida – as well as Texas, North Carolina and other states with booming boricua populations, needs to start now and in a way that inspires and connects with a group that is used to 70+ percent voter turnout rates in the Island of Puerto Rico, and where politics is more like a festival as opposed to the stale nature associated with political campaigns in the U.S.

In the final analysis, national Democrats on Capitol Hill did their jobs in terms of presenting the correct policy responses to the crisis in Puerto Rico by introducing the right legislation, holding Trump accountable for his mistakes and insults, and standing with us when it counted. The basic problem is that if a tree falls in the forest, and Democrats don’t dedicate the necessary resources for Puerto Ricans to be there to listen, the ghosts of 2016 will continue to haunt our party and 2020 might not bring the results most of us would hope for on election night.

The author was the national Communications Director for Hispanic Media in the 2008 Obama-Biden presidential campaign and served in similar positions for Democratic Leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi before then. He has also served as Deputy Director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) and now runs the consulting company FDJ Solutions.

Tags Barack Obama Democrats Donald Trump Harry Reid Hillary Clinton Nancy Pelosi Puerto Rican migration to Florida Puerto Ricans

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video