My late grandmother, Carmen Lopez de Cabranes, loved politics. She loved politics almost as much as she loved her native Puerto Rico – although in P.R., the two are virtually synonymous.
Like many Puerto Ricans of her generation, Abuela Carmen lived for years in New York — but returned to PR to retire. It was there, by the water “en mi Viejo San Juan” that she felt culturally at home. But while she relished her Puerto Rican identity, and her life on the island, Abuela Carmen always believed that Puerto Rico and its people were better off because of the United States.
For Abuela Carmen, Puerto Rican pride and a belief in American exceptionalism went hand-in-hand. Locally, Abuela was a member of the New Progressive Party (NPP), which favors statehood for Puerto Rico. Nationally, she was a typical swing voter – although she had a special place in her heart for President George H.W. Bush, whom she affectionately referred to as “Jorge Bush.”
Although she was a US citizen (all Puerto Ricans are citizens by birth), Abuela could not vote in presidential elections once she returned to PR.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College is comprised only of electors from states. (Territories, like Puerto Rico, do not count). Nevertheless, political parties have opened their nominating processes to citizens in the American territories.
So on Sunday [March 18], GOP candidates fight for the votes of less than 2.5 million registered voters — none of whom can vote for president in November.
Why, then, is the Puerto Rico primary important?
To begin with, there are 20 GOP delegates at stake – more than in New Hampshire, Vermont, or Hawaii. And this year, in this race, every delegate counts.
But it is more than that.
Currently, more than 4.5 million Puerto Ricans live on the U.S. mainland – close to a million more than live on the island. And these stateside PRs – many of whom maintain close social and economic ties with the island — are eligible to vote in November.
Unlike Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans who are more closely associated with particular parties, Puerto Ricans are the swing voters of the Latino community. And they are concentrated in key states – New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Florida.
The political significance of the Puerto Rican vote is obvious to President Obama who last spring made the first official presidential visit to PR in 50 years – and racked up close to $1 million in donations from island supporters.
Mitt Romney also has courted this constituency – deploying his Spanish-speaking son in radio ads and coming out strongly in favor of Puerto Rican statehood. (Island politics are complicated, but most of those who vote in the GOP primary favor statehood, as do the majority of Puerto Ricans on the mainland.)
Rick Santorum is reaching out to the island’s large Catholic and evangelical populations, although he recently caused a stir – and certainly would have alienated Abuela Carmen – by saying that Puerto Rico must adopt English as its official language. (Note to Santo: English and Spanish are already the official languages of PR).
Both parties understand that Puerto Ricans may be the tipping point in swing states like Florida. That’s one reason Republicans will hold their 2012 national convention in Tampa – located in central Florida’s I-4 corridor,home to a majority of Florida’s Puerto Ricans.
That GOP strategists recently floated Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuno’s name as a possible vice presidential candidate signals just how important mainland Puerto Ricans will be in November.
Abuela Carmen did not live to see her beloved island become America’s 51st state.
But today she is smiling down from Heaven, as she observes the political clout of her people in this American presidential election.