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How Pennsylvania’s Puerto Rican Migrant Population Could Affect The Election

Brad Larrison


Pennsylvania has voted Democratic in the last six presidential elections. But this election season, analysts say it's possible that the state will swing Republican. 

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton currently leads Republican nominee Donald Trump in most polls of the state

But the western part of Pennsylvania, which excludes Philadelphia and its suburbs, has been growing more Republican with each election cycle, according to the political analysis blog FiveThirtyEight. The state also has large populations of manufacturing workers and older, white residents without college degrees — groups that tend to support Trump.

But some say there's another group to consider in this year's race for the state's 20 electoral votes: Puerto Ricans.

A growing migration

Puerto Rico is a United States territory, and its residents are American citizens. But while they live on the island, they can't fully participate in presidential elections; they can vote in primaries, but not in the general election. 

If they move to the U.S. mainland, though, they can immediately cast a general election vote. 

That scenario is coming into play this election as Puerto Rico's economy crumbles.

Puerto Rico has been in a recession since 2006, the same year that the last of a package of federal corporate tax breaks to Puerto Rico expired. As those companies shut down and workers lost their jobs, tax revenue dropped, and the Puerto Rican government took on a lot of debt. Puerto Rico is now more than $70 billion in debt, and in July 2016, unemployment on the island was 11.4 percent — more than twice the national rate

The economic turmoil is compelling Puerto Ricans to leave the island. In 2014 alone, 84,000 people left for the U.S. mainland, a 38 percent increase since 2010, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Many are settling in Florida, a swing state where their vote could change theoutcomeof the general election. And a lot of migrants are coming to Pennsylvania, which saw an increase of nearly 95,000 Puerto Ricans from 2008 to 2014, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.* Some of those people moved to Pennsylvania from the island, and some relocated from other states, like New York, where housing costs are prohibitively expensive for many people.

The Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro area saw an increase of nearly 40,000 Puerto Ricans from 2008 to 2014, according to U.S. Census data. And the Puerto Rican population in other Pennsylvania cities is growing, too; Reading saw a jump of 10,000 Puerto Ricans in the same time period, Lancaster, an increase of 9,100, and the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, area, 8,500.*

Will they vote?

By 2014, Puerto Ricans made up 2.86 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate, compared to 1.53 percent in 2000, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.*

But what percentage of the state's growing Puerto Rican population will vote?

It might be helpful to look at some numbers from the 2012 presidential election.

Among eligible voters (U.S. citizens 18+):


Source: November Voter Supplement of the Current Population Survey.

We can see that Puerto Ricans register — and vote — at a lower rate than non-hispanic whites and blacks. 

The reasons Puerto Ricans aren't registering or voting are not that different from other groups, though. In a voter survey, the most common reasons people gave across the board were that they weren't interested in the election, thought their votes wouldn't count, or had conflicting work/school schedules.

It is interesting to note that Puerto Rican voter registration and voter percentages have grown steadily since the 1996 presidential election.


Source: November Voter Supplement of the Current Population Survey

Clinton or Trump?

Hillary Clinton holds a lead of more than 40 percentage points over Donald TrumpamongLatino registered voters, according to a July 7 poll by the Pew Research Center. (President Barack Obama led former Republican nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain by a similar percentage.)

Some of Trump's statements this election may have alienated Latinos who were considering voting for him. Among other things, he asserted that a U.S. district judge's Mexican heritage would prevent him from being impartial in a civil fraud lawsuit against Trump University — a statement that's been criticized by Democrats andRepublicans. Trump has also promised to build a wall between the United States and Mexico (and make our southern neighbors pay for it).

Big caveat here: Latinos are not a monolith. Puerto Ricans won't necessarily care about the same issues as Mexicans, Cubans or any other group. And as with any group of people, there's considerable variation within; there are plenty of Puerto Ricans who identify as Republican.

Indeed, some Latinos say Trump is their best option. This week, Trump met with prominent Latino Republicans in an effort to reach out to Latino voters. And his promises of economic prosperity might appeal to people who've recently lost their jobs because of a failing economy in Puerto Rico. 

*Data source: IPUMS (Steven Ruggles, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 6.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015). Estimates prepared by Jennifer Van Hook, The Pennsylvania State Unviersity, on August 16, 2016. 

Read more of this and other reports at the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroads.



Marielle Segarra was WHYY's Keystone Crossroads reporter. She reported for the multi-station partnership on urban policy, crumbling infrastructure and how distressed Pennsylvania cities are bouncing back. As a freelance radio reporter, her stories have also aired on Latino USA, WNYC, WBUR and other NPR member stations.