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Puerto Rico Goes to the Polls

New America Media, News Report, Marcelo Ballv Posted: Jun 01, 2008

Editors Note: Todays Democratic primary in Puerto Rico could provide a window into how to woo Latino voters. But the primary also holds a deeper relevance, writes NAM contributing editor Marcelo Ballv.

The conventional wisdom says todays Democratic primary in Puerto Rico matters mainly as a litmus test of Sen. Barack Obama's traction among Latino voters. But the island has deeper relevance, and the reasons transcend ethnic voting patterns. One of Puerto Rico's peculiarities is its tendency to suffer similar socio-economic strains as the U.S. mainland, only more so.

Recession, war, high oil prices all of these hit Puerto Rico hard, and early.

As the gender and race distractions of the Democratic primary wind down, the U.S. election will almost certainly begin to focus laser-like on these intertwined issues.

In Puerto Rico, that already has happened.

"A trained workforce is leaving the island because of factory closings," read an editorial on the Democratic primary published May 15 by a New York daily newspaper El Diario/La Prensa. "Many Puerto Ricans have recognized the economic chokehold on the island. Loosening that grip needs to be the focus."

Puerto Rico's unemployment doubles the mainland rate of 10 percent, and the recession has lasted roughly two years, making it the second-longest in island history, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Because the U.S. island territory must import nearly all of its oil and natural gas, the fuel pinch is felt even more acutely than on the mainland.

In other words: it's the economy, estpido. Puerto Rico with its 63 Democratic delegates may be the testing ground that proves it's not pandering or identity politicking that wins Latino votes, but a pragmatic approach focused on problems and solutions.

Forget notions of which candidate might be the best for Latinos, or which candidate polls say U.S. Latinos prefer, writes widely read right-leaning blogger and online talk radio host Fausta, who is Puerto Rico-born but lives in New Jersey. What matters is what's happening on the island.

And right now, other than the perennial question of how to adjust Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. commonwealth, the biggest issue is the economy. In campaigning, Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton have both emphasized pragmatic solutions to the economic malaise. In a TV ad broadcast in Puerto Rico over Memorial Day weekend, when both candidates were campaigning simultaneously on the island, Obama zeroed in on his background growing up in Hawaii.

"I was born on an island," says Obama in competent-sounding Spanish. "I understand that food, gasoline and everything costs more. I think Puerto Rico deserves a better future."

The Spanish-language ad caused pro-Obama Latino punditry site Our Hispanic Voices to muse, "This type of ad will go a long way" in heavily Latino U.S. states like Nevada, Colorado, Texas, California and New Jersey. "Bush earned points by attempting to speak the language. Obama will earn those points, too."

For her part, on the same weekend, Clinton issued what El Nuevo Da, the island's largest newspaper, called "an avalanche of promises," including incentives and tax breaks to keep business on the island, credits for families, and promises of subsidies for affordable health care. Clinton played up her ties to the Puerto Rican community in New York, and even promised to secure funding for an enormous radio telescope on the island that graces postcards and was used in filming the James Bond "Goldeneye" and the sci-fi movie "Contact."

Clinton also picked up the endorsement of island pop star Ricky Martin, who cited her attention to the Hispanic community's needs. This endorsement, won only a few days before the primary, made headlines across the island and in Puerto Rican communities on the mainland.

But blog American Tano, written by Gerry Vzquez in Long Island, argues that Obama may surprise Clinton with a strong showing, despite polls showing him to be more than ten percentage points behind.

Vzquez argues that Clinton has one major Achilles Heel: the war. "Hillary's pro-Iraq War vote, combined with her recent and irresponsible rhetoric about obliterating Iran, is like the stench of napalm to a people quite aware that their sons and daughters are dying at a disproportionate rate for a bad war."

Vzquez has a point here. Though Puerto Ricans, who have been U.S. citizens since 1917, can't vote for president in general elections, and don't pay federal income tax, they do serve in the U.S. military.

The island, chock-full of U.S. military bases, has contributed disproportionately to the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. On a per-capita basis Puerto Rico gave more soldiers to these campaigns than any of the 50 U.S. states, except for Nevada, according to U.S. Department of Defense figures. Given Puerto Rico's population of 4 million, that's a lot of military families.

The war issue certainly could become a sticking point among Latinos including Puerto Ricans in the United States. A poll earlier this year by Synovate found that 85 percent of Latinos disapprove of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, compared to 59 percent of whites. That may mean Sen. John McCain's current reliance on a war-linked patriotism theme for his Latino-targeted ads could backfire, says the Our Hispanic Voices blog.

In the end, the island primary may lack immediate political ramifications. Clinton's decline seems inevitable. Unless Obama pulls off a surprise win or makes it a close call, Puerto Rico won't even be among the factors that sinks Clinton's candidacy definitively.

But Puerto Rico does reveal a view of the U.S. elections that is all the more instructive for its slight distortion. Both McCain and Obama should look to Puerto Rico and take a hint, not just on how to woo Latino voters, but on quickly shifting rhetoric away from race and wedge issues. The campaign will inevitably have to veer toward the heart of the matter: a country in crisis, engulfed in economic troubles and war.

Related Articles:

Puerto Rico Primary Splits Islands Independentistas

Where Do Latinos Go Now?

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