The Puerto Rican primary matters. Here’s why

A win in Puerto Rico suggests good things for Clinton in Florida during the general election. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

On Sunday, voters across Puerto Rico headed to the polls and cast their votes for their preferred Democratic nominee. Early results show Hillary Clinton came out about 20 points ahead of Bernie Sanders, leaving her just a few delegates shy of the Democratic nomination heading into Tuesday’s voting in California and five other states.

Puerto Rico’s primary did not receive the media attention of many of those that preceded it. None of the major public polling firms conducted polls in Puerto Rico. Little attention was given to Puerto Rican primaries in the most popular national news outlets. And with only 60 pledged delegates, a primary late in the election season, and a population that is ineligible to vote in the elections in November, why should it?

Apart from respecting basic democratic ideals, there are at least two strategic reasons the Puerto Rican primaries should be the focus of broad public interest. To their credit, both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns seemed to understand this.

The new route to Washington

First, campaigning on the island is campaigning on the mainland. There is a long history of back and forth migration between the island and the mainland. This has accelerated in recent years with the sliding economy and a poverty rate approaching 50 percent. Today, about one-third of Puerto Ricans born on the island live stateside. This means many Puerto Ricans living in the continental U.S. have been deeply affected by the woes facing the island. Many others have family who have.

The significance of this pattern is heightened by the fact that Puerto Ricans are no longer concentrated in solidly Democratic states in the Northeast like they once were. Today, their growing numbers are felt in more regions of the U.S. and are becoming an especially powerful force in the critical swing state of Florida. With the third most electoral votes in the nation and a history of voting for the winning presidential candidate in nine out of 10 of the last presidential elections, candidates can not underestimate the significance of this demographic shift.

In turn, the unique political attention that Cuban-Americans once received may shift as Puerto Ricans take over Cubans as the largest Latino ethnic subgroup in this critical state.

An important litmus test

In addition to the effect that campaigning on the island has on stateside Puerto Ricans, the primaries in Puerto Rico are widely viewed as a litmus test for Latino support.

Low turnout in political primaries combined with limited (and often deeply flawed) polling of Latinos makes it difficult to gauge which candidates have the greatest capacity to engage and mobilize Latino voters. Puerto Rico, however, averts these challenges in many ways, and offers an initial sense of the degree to which Latino voters will support the candidates.

Of course, Latinos are not a monolith. There is vast political, as well as economic and cultural, heterogeneity among Latinos. But a poor performance in Puerto Rico impedes a candidate’s ability to claim they can engage the increasingly fundamental Latino vote in November.

So with the significance of Puerto Rico’s primaries in mind, what mattered to voters there?

‘Hispandering’ doesn’t work

A supporter of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stands behind a Puerto Rican flag in San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 16, 2016. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Voters and politicians in Puerto Rico tend to organize themselves around how they see the future of the territory’s political status.

Political parties on the island are largely centered around the most common positions – statehood, independence or maintaining some form of the status quo. But while this issue is arguably the most salient political cue, it is not necessarily driving voter’s choice of a presidential candidate.

And although the island’s inability to make payments on its massive debt is currently the center of attention, it is not clear that candidates’ position on the territory’s right to declare bankruptcy motivated voters, either.

Broad positions on these issues alone often come across as philosophical abstractions or even symbolic pandering, as opposed to positions on issues deeply implicated in the daily experiences and opportunities of the island’s 3.5 million residents.

These issues include a poverty rate twice that of the poorest U.S. state; tuition rates at public universities that have increased over 1,000 percent in recent years; primary schools with an unpredictable supply of electricity and infrastructure that is literally crumbling; and an inability to obtain basic health services, among others.

For many voters, it is less important that a candidate favors or opposes the debt deal or another plebiscite on the island’s status, than it is that he or she illustrates a recognition of the gravity of what is occurring in Puerto Rico, and can explain a thoughtful plan to address it.

That is arguably why Marco Rubio swept the Republican primary in March, picking up over 70 percent of the vote and all 23 of the island’s Republican delegates. In his two campaign visits to Puerto Rico, and in an article he penned for El Nuevo Día, the island’s largest daily newspaper, he highlighted his opposition to granting Puerto Rico the same bankruptcy protections afforded to municipalities in the 50 U.S. states. But he also outlined his own plan to address the challenges facing Puerto Rico. And whether one agreed with his ideas or not, he conveyed an awareness of what was going on in Puerto Rico that went beyond a blanket endorsement or rejection of someone else’s proposal.

The Clintons in San Juan in 2008. REUTERS/Ana Martinez

This same approach served both of the Democratic candidates well, and was a key factor in Sunday’s results.

Clinton started off with a huge advantage in Puerto Rico. As a former senator from New York, a state with a large concentration of Puerto Ricans, she had an established history of involvement with Puerto Ricans on both the island and mainland. She won over voters in the territory’s 2008 Democratic primary by a 2-1 margin over Barack Obama. More recently she won the support of more than 70 percent of non-Cuban Latinos in Florida. And while Bill is not Hillary, it would be negligent to discount the significance of her husband’s popularity. In 1992, he won support from 95 percent of voters in the territory’s Democratic primary. Well aware of this, he was sent to Puerto Rico on her behalf while Sanders was campaigning there earlier in May. Her strong performance was therefore widely anticipated.

What was not anticipated was how much Sanders would cut into her margin of victory. The Vermont senator had a limited history with Puerto Rican politics prior to his presidential campaign. But he campaigned aggressively on the island.

People watch Sanders at University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, May 16, 2016. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Sanders spoke at the University of Puerto Rico – Rio Piedras a few weeks ago, and aired television ads on the island. He spoke out forcefully about the inadequacy of the debt deal proposed by Congress, and came out with his own detailed plan to address not just the island’s debt, but the “humanitarian crisis” it was producing. While Sanders still ultimately trailed Clinton by about 20 percentage points, he did better than Obama did in 2008 – who also campaigned aggressively in Puerto Rico and was more widely recognized – and far better than most anticipated.

Puerto Ricans on the island have a long history of high levels of political engagement. And as they move in droves to the U.S. mainland and obtain the right to formally express their political preferences in both primaries as well as in the general election, their presence will unquestionably be felt. The effectiveness of Rubio, Clinton and Sanders’ thoughtful positions on island politics – beyond simply speaking Spanish and making generic endorsements of the island’s right to self determination – offer a sense of what will attract and engage this growing political force.

Party nominees would be wise to take note.