Bill Clinton’s recent trip to Puerto Rico wasn’t just an excuse to tempt the recalcitrant would-be First Husband away from the mainland cameras with the island’s famous combination of dancing, music and Caribbean cuisine — politicking there being a far more enjoyable pursuit than in the craggy frigidity of the Keystone State in April. There was a real point to the ex-president’s visit, and that point is: this time, Puerto Rico matters.
The outcome in Pennsylvania will determine how large a role the island will play. While recent polls have shown movement toward Barack Obama — bolstered by an ad campaign of historic proportions — the likelihood is still that Hillary Clinton will carry the state by a firm margin. Obama knows that a loss in the state would end the slim hopes for a Clinton comeback, which is why he’s currently spending $2.2 million a week. As Democrat media consultant Neil Oxman recently told the Boston Globe’s website “Nobody has ever spent 2.2 million in this state: not Rendell, not Specter, not Casey, not Santorum, not Bush, not Kerry.” But Obama’s dollars are still up against Ed Rendell’s impressive machine, endorsements from several key political figures, and the desperation that comes from the expectation game. In such a scenario, as hard as the past few weeks were for them, it’s hard to see the Clinton campaign doing poorly.
A win in Pennsylvania and an expected loss in North Carolina would make Puerto Rico the last remaining opportunity for Clinton to make up significant ground in the popular vote — which she can still theoretically win, and could significantly bolster her argument for nomination in Denver.
It is the first time in American history that Puerto Rico has experienced a serious presidential campaign. Their June 1 Primary has no history with the political media, sending beltway reporters scrambling in search of connections and good contacts on the island in case it becomes the location for the last great smackdown of the 2008 primary season.
In this situation, by a fortunate coincidence, my own family has a stake in the game: my cousin Francisco Domenech, the Director of the Office of Legislative Services for the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly and a leading member of the Democratic Party, happens to be a superdelegate for Hillary Clinton. He recently shared some of his insights into the political prognosis for the island’s role in this nomination cycle.
“It’s an amazing time for Puerto Rico,” Francisco told me. “We’ve participated, but we really haven’t mattered in the primary period — it’s been more symbolic than anything. It’s exciting, it’s historic — we’re witnessing history.”
“After Pennsylvania and North Carolina, we’re the biggest prize in terms of delegates. We have 4 million American citizens. That’s a big chunk of popular votes, and Puerto Rico can put Hillary Clinton over the top.” In Francisco’s Democratic view, Puerto Ricans will almost certainly decide who the next President will be, notwithstanding the fact that due to their territorial status, they will be unable to vote in November.
As a superdelegate and as a Puerto Rican, Francisco feels that it’s the whole resume that will matter for a candidate, not just their style. While Barack Obama may be a more moving figure on the campaign trail, that stylistic ability won’t be enough to win.
“Although Chicago has a huge population of Puerto Ricans, the third most of any mainland city, Senator Obama’s never cared or paid attention to our needs until he looked at the electoral calendar. The Clintons know us — they pay attention to us, they care about us, they know our issues,” Francisco says, particularly the divisive issues of determining Puerto Rico’s ultimate political status. “But when it comes to Puerto Rico, Obama is all talk. We know where Hillary has been, and where Obama has not.”
“We routinely have over 80% turnout for elections in Puerto Rico. We are a highly educated electorate – people understand politics down here. We understand that we pay 100% into Medicare and we get back 70%. We’re about getting things done. We understand who has paid attention to Puerto Rico, and we understand who has not. If Obama thinks he’s just going to get away with talk in Puerto Rico, it’s not going to happen.”
In terms of the issues that matter, just as on the mainland, the economy will be of great significance for Puerto Rican voters. The old maxim was that “when the mainland sneezes, we get a cold.” But now, Puerto Ricans are facing their first true island-born recession in a generation: tourism is underperforming, citizens are experiencing huge costs from the island’s government-owned utilities, and federal tax incentives have been very limited since the 936 phaseout in the 1990s. The recent passage of a 7% Sales Tax only hurt the Puerto Rican economy more, as the burden of a heavy income tax and the stacked sales taxes pushed more people into the thriving underground economy. To top it off, the Puerto Rican government is still running a $500 million deficit, without lowering income tax rates for anyone or any significant spending cuts.
Many of the problems the island faces are systemic in nature, and involve more fundamental changes than either Democratic candidate is likely to endorse. The Puerto Rican government accounts for nearly 1/3rd of all jobs — a gargantuan number for any economy. There are no short-term fixes for such things, and if any group of citizens needed leadership from a get-things-done business-minded technocrat who understands the power of the free market as an agent for change, Puerto Rico does. They are unlikely to find such perspective in the 2008 versions of Clinton or Obama, who respond to most economic questions by playing class warfare instead of advocating real solutions.
The Democratic Puerto Rican political base feels that Bill Clinton’s visit was a good start. They expect he’ll visit again, and anticipate Hillary Clinton will come down in the last two weeks of May. They are gearing up for a real battle as the campaigns navigate unfamiliar political territory and deal with the complex alliances and entanglements of a place where status is the defining issue. And ultimately, these voters expect to speak with a strong voice, aimed squarely at the decisions made by superdelegates in Denver. But what if Clinton underperforms, and her backers are forced to make difficult choices?
“Barack Obama may have a 100 delegate lead by the convention. But that’s nothing going into Denver when you haven’t proven you can win the important states in November,” Francisco says. “Kerry lost in 2004 in Ohio. Gore lost in 2000 in Florida. Hillary Clinton has won by such wide margins in so many critical states, and we have to gamble on the possibility of Obama winning in Ohio, in Florida, and in Pennsylvania – as a Democrat, I just don’t feel safe about that.”
“That’s why I tell my superdelegate colleagues and fellow citizens: when its’ time for us to cast our votes, we should be looking at a lot more than just a small pledged delegate lead. We should be looking to win in November.”
In a cycle where so many pieces of conventional wisdom have gone out the window, it’s only fitting that Puerto Rico should play a decisive role.