News Column

Puerto Rico Trip Key to Strategy

June 8, 2011

Mimi Hall

puerto rico

The island's residents may not be able to vote for him on election day, but President Obama has good reason to head to Puerto Rico next week and not just for the Caribbean music and the Creole cooking.

When he sets down in San Juan on Tuesday, Obama will be the first president to make an official visit to Puerto Rico since John F. Kennedy went there a half-century ago. But he may be focused more on the 4.1 million Puerto Ricans now living in the continental United States than on the 3.9 million who live on the island.

Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states and the District of Columbia can vote in the 2012 presidential election unlike their island friends and family, who also are U.S. citizens but cannot cast Election Day ballots because of the rules governing U.S. territories. Islanders may vote in presidential primaries.

In competitive states their votes will matter. "The Puerto Rican vote is really the swing vote of the Hispanic vote right now," says Susan MacManus, a government professor at the University of South Florida. "The symbolism of going to Puerto Rico will not be lost on that vital community."

The president's official agenda, which has not been made public, likely will include talks about Puerto Rico's status as a territory and government efforts to foster economic development.

Obama's island visit also is part of his re-election campaign's "larger Latino strategy," says Felix Matos Rodriguez, former director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at New York's Hunter College. Winning over the nation's Latinos, whose overall ranks have swelled to 50 million, was key to Obama's victory in 2008. Keeping their support, which analysts say has flagged since he took office amid concerns that he has not kept his promise to push for immigration changes, will be crucial next year.

"In 2012, the Latino voter is poised to have a bigger impact than ever on the political landscape of America," says Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political science professor and founder of Latino Decisions, a political blog that tracks the role of the Latino vote.

The impact will be pronounced in key states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia, which are likely to be competitive and have "large and growing Latino electorates," he says.

The impact may be most profound, though, in Florida, a critical swing state both when its electoral votes went to George W. Bush in 2000 and when they went to Obama in 2008. Florida is now home to 725,000 people of Puerto Rican descent, more than any other state besides New York, and the hundreds of thousands who who have settled in the Orlando-Kissimmee area have established a community than rivals the state's long-established Cuban-American enclave, centered farther south in Miami.

That's good news for Obama: While Cuban Americans traditionally vote Republican, Puerto Ricans lean Democratic.

In 2000, 60 percent of Puerto Rican voters in Florida supported Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore but it wasn't quite enough. Just 600 more Puerto Rican votes would have put Gore in the White House, says Luis Martinez-Fernandez, a history professor at the University of Central Florida.

In 2008, Puerto Rico went for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary, despite a campaign stop on the island by Obama. It was then that he promised he'd come back if he won the presidency.

Obama's team "is very well aware that without a large showing from Hispanic voters, he may or may not get the necessary votes (for a second term) and in a state like Florida, that could mean the election," Martinez-Fernandez says.

Already, Organizing for America, a precursor to the Obama campaign, has set up Hispanics for Obama groups in central Florida. They have begun recruiting and training Spanish-speaking volunteers to work phone banks and registering Puerto Ricans to vote.

Obama scored big points with Puerto Ricans when he nominated Bronx-born Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, to the bench in 2009. But Puerto Rican voters also will want to hear directly from the president, MacManus says. "It's a constituency that likes personal appeals. That's one of the ways (former Republican governor) Jeb Bush and (former Republican senator) Mel Martinez carried the Orlando area."

How the visit will resonate across the Latino community is unclear.

In states such as New Mexico, Obama's campaign also is getting going with registration drives and other events with Latino voters. But the huge numbers of Mexican Americans who populate the Southwest care more about immigration policy and are concerned about Obama's failure to get the Dream Act legislation that would provide a path to legal status for the children of some illegal immigrants through Congress.

"Outside of Florida, it's harder to tell the largely Mexican-American Latino electorate that Republicans are worse than Democrats," Texas A&M political science professor Sylvia Manzano says. "It's not just that the president has dragged his feet on some promises he famously made but the administration has deported over 800,000 undocumented immigrants. When you're deporting somebody's parents, you're not going to get that kid's vote."



Source: Copyright USA Today 2011