Prior to yesterday’s primary in Puerto Rico, which Hillary Clinton won handily by a margin of 36 points, some commentators predicted that Barack Obama would score well amongst the island’s Latino voters. Puerto Rico, it was argued, was a mulatto society and as such would rush to vote for one of its own on June 1. Some argued that Puerto Ricans were less prone to vote on the basis of race than Mexican Americans, a voting bloc which consistently turned out for Hillary Clinton in previous primaries.
The CNN exit poll results are now in and it appears that the ugly racial fissures which have so dogged the Democratic Party in recent primary contests are set to continue. Matching the previous high (in Mississippi), 31 percent of voters said race was a factor in their vote. Of those, 63 percent voted for Clinton and 37 percent for Obama.
How do we explain the prominence of race in the Puerto Rico primary? According to scholars, many Puerto Ricans deny their cultural heritage and physical characteristics and buy into an ideology of “whitening” through intermarriage with light skinned groups. As I pointed out in a recent article on this site (www.counterpunch.org/kozloff05292008.html), 81 per cent of Puerto Ricans called themselves “white” on the 2000 U.S. census.
All of which is not to say that the Puerto Rico result was a foregone conclusion. Perhaps, if the island had voted in February and not in June then the outcome would have been different. What I suspect happened was that the media, by hyping the recent Jeremiah Wright story, turned voters against Obama and brought some latent racism to the surface. In a sense it’s not so different from what occurred during the West Virginia primary when the media and the Clinton campaign exploited the Wright controversy to win over white voters.
The Clinton camp now seems intent on exacerbating Latino-Black tensions yet further by arguing that Obama has a Latino problem. It’s a replay of Clinton’s earlier statements in which the Junior Senator from New York gloated about her success amongst white voters. “It [Puerto Rico] was a 100 percent Hispanic primary and it shows that he [Obama] has a problem with the Latino community,” Terry McAuliffe, campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton, told reporters. McAuliffe’s assertion that Obama has a Hispanic “problem” was more direct than any the campaign has made publicly so far.
Clinton may seek to bolster her argument about her own electability against John McCain by pointing to her success amongst Latinos. Indeed, in a conference call with campaign donors last month, Harold Ickes remarked that “if Obama is against McCain in states where Hispanics are important, I’ll just tell you: he’s not going to be able to cut the mustard on that, and Hillary will. And she’s shown that in Texas and other states.” Hillary’s strength amongst Latinos will be important, Ickes added, “If we need to bring in some of the Southwestern states or even Florida, where there is a growing population of Puerto Ricans in addition to the Cubans in South Florida as well as older people.”
Puerto Rico is not a state and can’t vote in November. However, the Latino vote in such close states as Nevada could prove critical and Obama has done poorly amongst this constituency (during the Nevada caucus, Clinton nailed the Latino vote two to one). In the surveys, Obama still does better amongst Latinos than John McCain. However, by exploiting race, the Clinton camp and the mainstream media have done John McCain a big favor. In the long term, both may have made it more difficult for Obama to succeed in the American west, a region he desperately needs to carry in November.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)