President Donald Trump may soon learn just how broad a Hispanic coalition he can hope to build in his home state as he runs for reelection.
Next week, Vice President Mike Pence is heading to Central Florida to hold a Latinos for Trump campaign event in Osceola County, home to Florida’s largest concentration of Puerto Ricans. The campaign stop at a non-denominational, Spanish-language church could give Pence an opportunity to woo voters who comprise one of Florida’s most-coveted voting blocs — and also may be one of Trump’s biggest stumbling blocks.
Pence is also holding a “Keep America Great” event in Hillsborough County at 1:30 p.m. next Thursday as part of the tour along the Interstate 4 corridor. Scheduled to be held at the Valencia Lakes retirement community in Wimauma, the event was later moved after the property owners association objected. The event will now be held in New Tampa.
While Puerto Ricans have emerged as a crucial swing demographic in a state known for narrow election margins, Trump enters his reelection campaign with the support of barely one in five island transplants. And Central Florida’s politics are different from Miami, where conservative Cubans greeted Pence warmly for a Latinos for Trump campaign roll-out last June.
Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, who serves as co-chairwoman of Latinos for Trump alongside Pence, said Monday that Pence will address not just Puerto Ricans during his visit to Kissimmee’s Nación de Fe, but the broader Latino community.
She said Pence will speak about the “great strides the Latino community” is making under Trump. She also mentioned record-breaking median household income for Hispanic families and Trump’s “great courage in standing up to tyrants” in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.
“We stand ready to not only defend the 2016 map, but expand it,” Nuñez said.
But the precise location of the event presents Trump a chance to lift his numbers with Puerto Ricans. Fernando Rivera, director of University of Central Florida’s Puerto Rico Research Hub, said undecided Puerto Rican voters in Central Florida may react well to a message focused less on Puerto Rican statehood — a frequent campaign topic in Florida — and more on the economy or religion.
“I’m not saying there will be overwhelming support, but I think there’s a window of opportunity of at least getting a little support out here with the Puerto Rican population in Central Florida,” Rivera said.
Over the last decade, Puerto Ricans have created one of the fastest growing transplant communities in Florida, crossing the million-person threshold several years ago and increasing again by about 50,000 following 2017’s Hurricane Maria. The bulk of the transplants have settled in Central Florida, particularly in Orange and Osceola counties — located along the vaunted Interstate-4 battleground that crosses the state from Daytona Beach to St. Petersburg.
Heading into the 2020 election, about 350,000 Puerto Ricans are registered to vote in Florida, according to Miami political consultant and pollster Fernand Amandi. About 180,000 of them are registered Democrats and more than 70,000 of them are registered Republicans, leaving some 100,000 without party affiliation.
Polls suggest that’s mostly — but not entirely — bad news for Trump.
While Trump won 28 percent of the overall Hispanic vote in 2016, a Florida International University poll in May of 2018 found that fewer than 17% of Puerto Ricans supported the president.
The numbers remain relatively flat a year-and-a-half later. An Equis Labs survey of Florida Puerto Ricans published in October found that just 21% of those polled said they would vote to reelect Trump, while 63% said they would vote for the Democratic presidential candidate.
Those feelings were forged from repeated slights by Trump, who showed up on the island after Hurricane Maria in 2017 tossing paper towels to people displaced by the storm. Since then, he has publicly denied the death toll wrought by the storm and repeatedly made inaccurate statements about the amount of storm relief delivered to the island. Last year, he tweeted taunts at the territory’s scandal-plagued government even as another storm bore down on the island, though it turned at the last minute.
“Mike Pence is coming to Kissimmee next week to distract from Trump’s broken promises to the Puerto Rican community,” Juan Penalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said in a statement to the Miami Herald.
But even if Trump remains unpopular among Puerto Ricans, some 16% told Equis Labs in October that they were still undecided, leaving Trump some hope of building support among a demographic seen as a key constituency for the Democratic nominee.
Whether Pence moves the needle during his visit enough to make a difference won’t be apparent until months after he’s gone, said Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy’s Brad Coker, whose latest poll showed Trump ahead of all his potential Democratic opponents save former Vice President Joe Biden.
“There are 21%, I guess, of Puerto Rican voters that like Trump, so if you go to Kissimmee or Osceola, you might get a couple hundred to show up,” said Coker, who occasionally polls Florida’s Hispanic voters on behalf of Telemundo. “But that doesn’t mean the thousands that lean Democratic or non-political are going to be moved or have their opinions change. It takes a little more than that.”