Why is Jeb Bush campaigning in Puerto Rico?

Republicans badly need to win Florida in the 2016 election if they want a return to the White House, but the demographics and politics of the Sunshine State have shifted significantly since George W. Bush carried it in 2004. The GOP has to adjust its approach to woo voters who now face the first open choice in eight years. One man had already made inroads in a fast-growing segment of the Latino population, and it just happens to be the other Bush who last won Florida:

When Jeb Bush campaigns Tuesday in Puerto Rico, he won’t be speaking just to people on the island.

Puerto Ricans could have an early say in the Republican presidential primaries. They also make up one of the fastest-growing voting blocs in Florida, and they might play a role in other tightly fought states in the primaries, such as new York, and in the general election, such as Pennsylvania.

“It’s smart politics to head to Puerto Rico this early on,” said Florida Republican state Rep. Robert Cortes, who was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Puerto Rico.

Traditionally staunchly Democratic voters, Puerto Ricans twice helped Barack Obama win Florida. But before that, they twice helped put the bilingual Bush in the governor’s mansion.

“There’s an assumption that Puerto Rican voters are automatically Democrats,” Cortes said. “But I think we’ve shown that’s not necessarily the case.”

Yahoo News’ Luisita Lopez Torregrosa noted the growing influence of Puerto Rican voters just before last year’s midterms, especially in a key part of the state:

The road to political victory in Florida is not just a metaphor, it’s a place: Interstate 4, the busy highway that cuts across the vote-heavy heart of the state from Tampa to Daytona Beach.

And the I-4 corridor, as it’s called, now runs through a swing-vote region undergoing significant demographic change.

Puerto Ricans have been migrating by the thousands to the area — part of the largest exodus from their island territory to the mainland since World War II. They currently make up about 10 percent of Central Florida’s population, and their numbers continue to grow.

A Pew Research Center report released in August shows that Orange County alone was home to nearly 150,000 Puerto Ricans in 2010, up from 86,583 a decade earlier, out of a total population of 1.4 million. The surge pushed it to No. 3 in a ranking of U.S. counties according to Puerto Rican population; only Brooklyn and the Bronx ranked higher.

The I-4 corridor comprises the counties of Hillsborough, Orange, Osceola, Polk, and links to Pinellas, Pasco, and Hernando. The concentration of voters of Puerto Rican heritage is highest in Hillsborough along the corridor, whose strategic value the Washington Post also noted in 2012. George Bush won Osceola, Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Orange in 2004, but Obama managed to flip them in 2008 and 2012.

It may seem strange at first blush to commit resources to Puerto Rico this early in the primary season, but Jeb Bush is playing a longer game. He wants to connect this constituency in Florida emotionally to the GOP, in case they can put it back in play. Republicans need the I-4 corridor to win the state, ad that means getting to know the people and their cares right off the bat. Even if Jeb doesn’t win the nomination, he’s doing the GOP a favor with this retail politicking.

An experienced Florida campaigner who wishes to remain anonymous puts this in perspective:

Jeb in PR is interesting on many levels. The local pro-statehood GOP establishment loves Jeb because of the historical element of their relationship, and has openly made that clear for quite some time.
Jeb has the best name ID among Puerto Ricans. Marco Rubio enjoys high name ID, but needs to get in front of his opposition to Sonia Sotomayor and his hold on the appointment of Mari Carmen Aponte to the ambassadorship of El Salvador. One imagines a grievance ad similar to the one that ran on a loop against Mitt Romney.
However, there is also an element of general election signaling going on here. One of the worst-kept secrets in our politics is that Florida’s Puerto Rican vote, situated largely within the Orlando media market is (arguably) the most important Hispanic vote to be courted in 2016. Barack Obama carried this vote by an 83-17 margin in 2012 (far exceeding the margin of victory), due largely to a monstrous ground game- and by Sonia Sotomayor-themed grievance ad that practically ran on a loop on local Hispanic TV.
Jeb’s visit to PR is intended to signal that he is uniquely qualified to engage this crucial constituency (more so than anyone else in the GOP field), which could be decisive if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee and Florida is in play.

Jeb is taking the demographics shift seriously. Other Republicans who hope to compete in Florida had better learn the lesson.