Puerto Rican Poll Power

The commonwealth’s winner-take-all status in the Democratic race could play a pivotal role.

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Updated on 2/13/08: Puerto Rico's Governor Anibal Acevedo-Vila has endorsed Barack Obama for president. This obviously reduces toward zero the chance that Puerto Rico will produce a unanimous delegation for Hillary Clinton. Other Puerto Rico politicians of Acevedo-Vila's Popular Democratic Party and the opposition New Progressive Party have been seen as leaning to Clinton; it will be interesting to see where they end up.

The following thought occurred to me while preparing for my stint on Fox News on Super Tuesday evening. The Democratic nomination may be determined by the delegation from Puerto Rico.

The delegates will be chosen, technically at least, in a caucus in early June. Puerto Rico has 63 delegates to the Democratic convention, more than similarly sized South Carolina (54), Oklahoma (45), or Connecticut (60). The Democrats, in line with their traditions of welcoming and celebrating minorities, have long given Puerto Rico about as many delegates as it would get if it were a state, while the Republicans long gave it only a few delegates and today give it somewhat fewer delegates proportionately.

But one group of 63 delegates is more equal than another. Democratic delegates are supposed to be allocated by proportional representation. But that notion is alien to highly competitive Puerto Rican politics. In practice, the dominant figure in Puerto Rico identifying with the Democratic Party has seen to it that his faction gets all the territory’s delegates. This was true of Govs. Carlos Romero Barcelo and Pedro Rosello of the New Progressive Party (PNP) as well as Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD). PPD politicians almost always identify with mainland Democrats (an exception was Sila Calderón, governor from 2000 to 2004, who identified with neither party and concentrated, successfully, on persuading Congress and the Bush administration to close the artillery range on Vieques Island). It’s not clear to me at this distance whether the current governor, Aníbal Acevedo of the PPD, will have similar clout. He’s at odds with Rosello, and the legislature is in the hands of the PNP. But if Acevedo doesn’t determine who gets Puerto Rico’s 63 votes, someone else will. And they aren’t likely to be proportionately distributed. 

This means that Puerto Rico is likely to have more leverage in Democratic National Convention votes than any single state, no matter how large. Its leader will be able to deliver a 63-vote margin for the leading candidate. Compare the delegate margins deliverable by the winning candidates in the largest states that have had contests, using realclearpolitics.com delegate counts:

  winner loser difference
Puerto Rico 63 0 63
California 101 59 42
New York 127 87 40
Florida 0 0 0
Illinois 79 27 52
Michigan 0 0 0
Georgia 45 22 23
New Jersey 51 37 14

I can imagine the following scenario. Hillary Clinton’s delegate margin over Barack Obama rises and falls a bit from week to week, depending on primary results. Her margin among superdelegates, around 100, fails to increase much because party and public officeholders are wary of offending Obama’s youth and black constituencies. Then, presto! In early June, Puerto Rico’s 63 delegates put her over the top. She has her majority and goes about the business of choosing a vice presidential candidate.

My guess is that most American voters, no matter how many times they are reminded that Puerto Ricans are our fellow citizens and that Puerto Rican volunteers in disproportionate numbers have shed their blood for their and our country, would consider it absurd for Puerto Rico to determine the presidential nominee of a major party. And that Hillary Clinton’s managers (or Barack Obama’s, if you alter the scenario) would not want to have this appear to be the case.

To avoid it, I would expect a mad scramble for superdelegate commitments in late May and early June, before the national media decamp to San Juan to watch, with translators if necessary, to see who the Democratic candidate for president is going to be.