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Why Puerto Rico Won’t Matter


There are a number of reasons why the Puerto Rican Democratic primary election set for this coming Sunday won’t matter, in terms of Hillary Clinton’s failed bid for the party’s nomination.

The main one is that she’s not going to get the big vote that she has been predicting.

Clinton, trailing Obama by about 400,000 votes nationwide with only three primaries to go, is fantasizing that she will win the lion’s share of one million Puerto Rican votes, which would put her in the lead for the nomination in terms of the popular vote, though not in the delegate count.

The problem with this fantasy is that Puerto Rico, a colonial possession of the US since the 1898 Spanish-American War, while famous for its passionate electorate when it comes to island elections, is not going to have that kind of turnout for a Democratic presidential primary. Indeed, local politicos in Puerto Rico are saying they will be surprised if even 600,000 people turn out to vote.

Clinton may well win the majority of those votes that are cast, but her margin is shrinking as Obama campaigns and runs ads on the island. She’s already down to a 13% lead, with 11% still undecided, and that lead is liable to shrink further, not grow. Even if Clinton kept that lead in the voting, however, if the turnout were just 600,000, she’d only pick up a net 88,000 votes. And Obama is likely to win Montana and South Dakota two days later, by large margins, erasing much of that gain again.

The other thing is, why would Democratic leaders and the all-important remaining undecided so-called superdelegates care what Puerto Rican voters do? Thanks to the continuing colonial status of the island, although its residents are all American citizens, free to travel to and from the US and to carry US passports, they are not allowed to vote in national elections, have no representation in Washington, and don’t even pay federal taxes (only Social Security and Medicare taxes). Puerto Rico has no Electoral College votes.

That in a nutshell is why Puerto Rican voters are so uninterested in this primary—so uninterested that the Democratic Party of Puerto Rico earlier this week requested that the island’s election authorities close 1000 polling stations. It wasn’t that they thought nobody would want to vote in them—they couldn’t find volunteers to staff them!

The other thing is it would not surprise me if the vote this Sunday comes out a lot closer than the polls have been predicting.  For the most part, the early advantage held by Clinton has been a matter of name recognition. Clinton’s husband was president for eight years, and moreover, with half of the eight million Puerto Ricans living in the mainland US, most of them in New York, Clinton is familiar as “their” Senator. By rights, she ought to be considered Puerto Rico’s home state senator, as sure to win this primary as she was of winning New York, or as Obama was of winning Illinois.

But in fact, there are reasons for Puerto Ricans, particularly those on the island, to view Clinton negatively. Her husband, after all, helped get rid of corporate tax breaks for American companies doing business on the island—tax breaks that kept a lot of US manufacturing jobs on the island. Doubling the felony, the Clintons, both Bill and Hillary, pushed through the NAFTA treaty that made it easy for those same companies, when their tax breaks were lost, to pack up and move to Mexico, since Puerto Rico also lost its advantage of being inside the US customs zone. Now US companies can make things in Mexico, where labor costs are a fraction of what they are in Puerto Rico, and ship them tariff-free to US consumers.

Puerto Ricans also do not have the same latent hostility towards blacks that some Mexican-Americans may harbor, and which the Clinton campaign so shamelessly tried to stir up in her Texas and California campaigns.

Unlike Mexican-Americans, who are ethnically a mix of white and Indigenous American, Puerto Ricans are much more a mix of white and African—a legacy of the slaves that Spain brought over to the island to replace the native Indians who were slaughtered, worked to death or who died of disease and starvation. Many Puerto Ricans are indistinguishable from African-Americans in appearance, and when they come to America to visit or live are likely to experience the same racism from whites that African Americans experience. They are not going to be easy marks for a campaign that tries to stir up racial fears or animosity.

Obama’s skin color will not be a liability in Puerto Rico. It will more likely be an asset.

Although predicting this kind of thing is always risky, I’m going to bet that Clinton will win a narrow victory in Sunday’s Puerto Rican primary—somewhere between 5-9 percent, with turnout of perhaps 550,000.

If I’m right, she will pick up a net 55,000 votes and 5-6 delegates. There are also 11 Puerto Rican superdelegates, but they will also probably split fairly evenly, at best, for her.

So no big deal—especially since Puerto Rican voters, in the end, simply don’t count.

Until the island is either made a 51st State—an unlikely occurrence since it would be a reliably Democratic state virtually ensuring Democrats of Senate and House majorities for years to come, and thus would never be admitted by Republican members of Congress, and since almost half the island is passionately opposed to such a submerging of their unique culture—or set free as an independent nation, the citizens of Puerto Rico will mean next to nothing to the powerbrokers in Washington.

The Democratic Primary is over, whatever Hillary Clinton may say or do between now and the Democratic Convention in August.

Obama has won it.

DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press and now available in paperback edition). His work is available at


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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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