National Security & Defense

Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis Could Be Bad News for the GOP in 2016

“For Sale” sign on a balcony in San Juan. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

After years of economic mismanagement and stagnation, Puerto Rico faces a stark, scary reality: The island commonwealth is stuck with $72 billion in debt that’s simply “not payable.” Ironically, while liberal policies played a big part in precipitating the current crisis, it’s liberals who are primed to benefit: Puerto Ricans are fleeing to the U.S. mainland in droves, as they have been for years, giving Democrats a fresh influx of voters who could swing the 2016 presidential election.

Big government policies in Puerto Rico have created generations of dependent families stuck in poverty. The situation there is bleak: nearly 40 percent of households rely on food stamps. The workforce participation rate is a pathetic 40 percent, thanks to over-regulation, an impossibly high U.S. minimum wage, and welfare programs that often pay better than jobs. The island can’t even afford to pay its teachers, cops, or firefighters without issuing bonds.

These problems are not new. More than ten years ago, the commonwealth’s economy took a hit when environmentalists and anti-war activists persuaded the U.S. military to leave the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. Training had been conducted there at Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, one of the world’s largest U.S. Navy facilities, since 1941. With the Navy’s departure, nearly 4,000 civilian jobs, 3,000 active-duty sailors, and $250 million that the facility had pumped into the local economy each year vanished.

Worse, when longstanding special tax breaks for the island were phased out in 2005, the commonwealth entered a recession the next year. It hasn’t recovered since.

The grim economic situation, coupled with a high crime rate, has prompted an exodus from Puerto Rico. In 2011 and 2012, the most recent years for which data is available, 55,000 residents migrated to the mainland annually — more than 150 per day. The evacuation has been so significant that at least 1 million more Puerto Ricans currently live on the mainland than in Puerto Rico itself.

Puerto Ricans are fleeing to the U.S. mainland in droves, as they have been for years, giving Democrats a fresh influx of voters who could swing the 2016 presidential election.

The publicity surrounding the island’s $72 billion debt could easily spike the migration rate even further. As residents realize how bad their situation has become, Puerto Ricans seeking a better life will buy one-way tickets to mainland-American cities. This, in turn, could have a profound effect on the upcoming presidential election. Although the island’s 3.5 million inhabitants can’t vote for president, they are American citizens. Every one of them enjoys full voting rights as soon as they move to the U.S. mainland.

The exodus could be particularly good news for national Democrats’ hopes of taking Florida — and, perhaps, the White House — in 2016. Thirty-one percent of Puerto Ricans who moved to U.S. mainland between 2005 and 2012 settled in the Sunshine State, making it the migrants’ top destination.

Florida’s Hispanic vote had long been dominated by Cuban-Americans, who tend to be more conservative than Hispanic voters in the rest of the country. Yet the influx of Puerto Ricans to Florida was thought to be one of the biggest reasons the Democrats carried the state in 2012: Cuban-American Floridians split their votes almost evenly between Romney and Obama, while non-Cuban Hispanics — who now make up a sizable majority of Florida’s Hispanic electorate — broke for Obama by a whopping 32 percentage points.

The president won Florida by fewer than 100,000 votes, out of more than 4 million cast.

Presidential candidates from both parties are already pandering to Puerto Rico in an effort to win over mainland immigrants. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who plans to visit the island this year, said last week that it’s time to give Puerto Rico a “fair shot” by allowing them to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which would enable them to shed more of their debt than would normally be possible. Her liberal rivals Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders have made comparable statements.

GOP candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush drew criticism from the right when he said Puerto Rico “ought to have the right to determine whether they want to be a state.”

Republican candidates must, of course, reach out to these new voters. But instead of pushing for Puerto Rican statehood, GOP presidential contenders would be smart to show all Hispanic voters how conservative policies will provide pathways to prosperity. Tax-and-spend liberal policies and bloated welfare programs are what got Puerto Rico in this economic mess to begin with. It’ll be up to the GOP to show its inhabitants — especially those planning to come to the mainland — an alternative that offers them a brighter future.

If the GOP fails, the flood of Puerto Rican migrants could turn Florida blue permanently and fortify Democrats’ recent dominance in presidential elections.

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