Rick Scott and Bill Nelson Compete for the Puerto Rican Vote

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is smart to make “Puerto Rico the centerpiece of his campaign” for U.S. Senate. The Sunshine State is known for its photo-finish political campaigns, and it presents a real problem for the governor that approximately 40,000 Puerto Ricans resettled there in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. More than that, there are now more Puerto Ricans living in Florida (1.3 million) than there are Cuban-Americans, and they’re mostly Democratic-leaning voters who are extremely pissed off about how the Trump administration has handled the natural catastrophe on their home island. If Scott doesn’t show he’s different from the president, he could doom his prospects for victory.

He could be screwed anyway. Puerto Ricans are full American citizens who can immediately register to vote once they establish residency in any of the fifty states. Al Gore, who “lost” the state and the presidency by 537 votes could have benefited from 40,000 angry and displaced voters bent on punishing his opponent’s political party.  Gov. Scott knows he cannot afford to let those votes go unchallenged.

When [Scott] announced his bid in April, he spoke alongside top Puerto Rican official Luis Rivera Marín and touted efforts to help the island after the hurricane. The governor has visited the island six times since September and announced he backs the island’s bid for statehood.

“This state showed up and we helped Puerto Ricans that came here because the problems that happened after Maria and we showed up in Puerto Rico,” Scott said in April. “We’re going to continue to be the best friend in the world for Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico and in the United States.”

Shortly after his announcement, Scott went up with a $1 million Spanish-language TV spot. His efforts appear to have helped his standing with Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida before and after Maria, according to a recent Florida International University (FIU) poll.

Incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson cannot take these votes for granted. He very well may need to run up his margins with this voting group in order to prevail.

Unfortunately, there’s another thing Senator Nelson cannot ignore. As I wrote about recently, there is new research from Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos, whose recent book “The Space Between Us” looks at how white communities react to an influx of non-white immigrants. His work shows that white liberal tolerance for racial integration diminishes very quickly when faced with actual integration. Tolerance is highest where integration is already high or where it hardly exists at all.

The relationship between the proportion of an out-group in an area and group-based bias is curvilinear: it becomes greater as the out-group proportion increases until reaching a tipping point and then starting to decrease. This means that when a group makes up a large portion of a place — for concreteness, say 40 percent — each additional person above 40 percent actually decreases group-based bias.

That gobbledygook means that if there are suddenly a lot of Puerto Ricans living in areas that were previously all-white, even the liberals will get disconcerted for a time. This is the precise kind of phenomenon that Trump is willing and able to expertly exploit. It’s unlikely that Rick Scott won’t try to exploit it for his own benefit, although he’ll have to do a careful dance to make sure it all doesn’t cancel out or actually work to his disadvantage.

If Scott panders to nativists, then Nelson has to make sure that the Puerto Rican community is aware of it. Aside from that, he needs to tie Scott to Trump and point out that if he is elected, he will go to Washington, DC and vote with the president 90 percent or more of the time. He may even prevent the Democrats from winning a majority and forcing Trump to address the needs of Puerto Rico.

I suspect this election will be one of the tightest in the country and there’s a good chance it will determine control of the Senate. For these reasons, I think people really ought to give it more prominence.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.