Weekend Edition: Five Questions About the Puerto Rico Democratic Presidential Primary ~ Post No. 053008-1


  By Greg Giroux

1. So what exactly is Puerto Rico’s relationship with the rest of the United States and its role in the presidential elections?

Puerto Rico has for decades fielded delegations to the national conventions of both major political parties – the Democrats give the island relatively more delegate voting strength than the Republicans. But Puerto Rico is not a state, and it doesn’t cast votes in presidential elections and it is not allocated any votes in the electoral college.

Ceded by Spain to the United States in 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico is a semi-independent U.S. commonwealth that is associated with the U.S. but governs its own internal affairs. Puerto Rico residents were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, and three decades later Congress allowed the island to elect its own governor. A 1952 law established Puerto Rico as a commonwealth. For years, the biggest political issue on the island has been whether it should become a state, become completely independent or maintain its current commonwealth status.

Puerto Rico is represented in Congress by a resident commissioner, Luis Fortuño , who aligns with the Republican Party. He sits on the GOP side in congressional committees but – like his delegate colleagues from the District of Columbia, Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa – lacks full voting power on the House floor.

2. June 1 is a Sunday. A Sunday primary? What’s up with that?

Tuesday elections are the norm in the 50 states. But Puerto Rico law says that the Democratic presidential primary must be held on the first Sunday in June. Polling stations will be open from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Puerto Rico is in the Atlantic time zone but does not observe daylight savings time, so right now the time in Puerto Rico matches the time on the East Coast.

Puerto Rican Democrats originally planned to hold caucuses, which are less expensive to hold and which generally have lower vote turnouts than primary elections. But Democratic officials switched to a primary format in March after it became clear that Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were engaged in a highly competitive race that would spawn a large turnout.

3. How many delegates are at stake in the June 1 primary – and how will they be allocated?

According to its delegate selection plan, Puerto Rico has 63 delegates, of which 55 are “pledged” to back a candidate and eight are unpledged “superdelegates.” Since its population is about 4 million, Puerto Rico actually will field a larger delegation to the Democratic convention in Denver this August than about half the states. There are actually more pledged delegates at stake in Puerto Rico (55) than in Kentucky (51), where Clinton trounced Obama on May 20.

Of the 55 pledged delegates, 36 are district-level delegates that are distributed among eight senatorial districts based on population. In the 50 states, district-level delegates are allocated based on the Democratic turnout in recent elections, including the 2004 presidential race. But allocating delegates by political performance is not possible in Puerto Rico, which doesn’t vote in the presidential general election and where the political parties are not the Democratic and Republican organizations on the U.S. mainland. That is why most of the pledged delegates instead are allocated to districts on the basis of population.

Each of the eight senatorial districts in Puerto Rico is assigned four to six delegates. As is the case in any other U.S. state or territory, delegates will be awarded proportionally to Clinton and Obama based on the primary vote; a candidate needs 15 percent of the vote to qualify for delegates. A six-delegate senatorial district, for example, would produce a 3-3 tie between Clinton and Obama if the winner takes less than 58.3 percent of the vote. A 4-2 delegate split would ensue if the winner takes between 58.3 percent of the vote and 75 percent of the vote.

The other 19 pledged delegates at stake include 12 “at large” delegates and seven party leaders and elected officials (known in the Democratic vernacular as PLEOs.) They will be distributed to Obama and Clinton based on how they do in the island-wide vote.

4. So who is favored to win?

Polling data is scarce, but Clinton is said to have the edge: an early April survey had Clinton ahead of Obama by 13 percentage points, 50 percent to 37 percent. Clinton has been doing better than Obama among Hispanic voters, though Fortu??o told CQ Politics this spring that there is no correlation in voting patterns between Puerto Rico residents and Hispanics elsewhere in the United States. Clinton’s home state of New York includes a plurality of the 3.4 million Hispanics of Puerto Rican descent who live on the U.S. mainland, and she wants to run up a big margin in the popular vote total in Puerto Rico to bolster her case to undeclared superdelegates that she would be a stronger candidate than Obama in a general election against McCain. Obama’s Puerto Rico backers include Gov. Anibal Acevedo-Vila.

5. When did Puerto Rico Democrats first hold a presidential primary?

In 1980, when President Jimmy Carter was challenged for renomination by Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy . There was affection on the island for the late President John F. Kennedy, and Edward M. Kennedy actually made a campaign visit to the island in February, one month ahead of the March 16 primary.

Carter defeated Kennedy by 52 percent to 48 percent in a contest that drew more than 870,000 Democratic votes. Though Kennedy lost to Carter, his showing at that time was his best performance in a presidential primary election outside of his home state of Massachusetts.

Puerto Rico also hosted a competitive Democratic presidential primary in 1988, when the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson defeated Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the eventual nominee, by 29 percent to 22 percent in a mid-March race in which the other major candidates were Illinois Sen. Paul Simon (18 percent) and Tennessee Sen. Al Gore (14 percent).


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