SAN JUAN, P.R. – New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is counting on a big win in today’s Democratic presidential primary, one day after a party ruling left her presidential campaign on the ropes.
A landslide victory would bolster Clinton’s argument to superdelegates that she has received more votes than Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and is better equipped to win important Latino votes in a general election matchup with presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
Puerto Rico hasn’t seemed particularly excited by all presidential campaign attention it has received in recent weeks but the island, a semi-autonomous territory of the United States, takes its politics seriously. Local elections draw upwards of 80 percent of its 2.3 million registered voters. But the debates – and even the parties – are largely based on disagreements about whether the island should continue as a commonwealth, become a state or an independent nation.
That political engagement has seldom extended to mainland-based campaigns because, while Puerto Rico will send 63 delegates to the Democratic convention, it has no electoral votes in the general election. Democrats have traditionally held presidential caucuses here and were intending to do the same this year until it began to appear the Clinton-Obama race would still be unsettled by the time Puerto Rico’s turn came.
Though many observers are predicting a modest turnout around 500,000 voters today, there’s not a lot of precedent for a contest like this—and that leaves plenty of unknowns.
Here are five things insiders will be watching Sunday:
The second wave of voters Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Puerto Rico is in the Atlantic Time Zone, but since it does not observe Daylight Savings Time, it’s clocks match East Coast time right now.)
Puerto Rico’s high-frequency voters typically cast their ballots early in the morning during Sunday primaries, including seniors on their way to church or to visit friends.
But many Puerto Ricans sleep in on Sundays. And the level of turnout likely will be determined by less-reliable voters who might begin showing up at polling places around noon, on their way to the beach or other recreational activities.
By 1 p.m., it should be clear whether there’s going to be a big turnout. If that’s the case, polls stay open to accommodate voters in line at 3 p.m.
By 6 p.m., Puerto Rico Democratic Party officials expect to have a final count, even though the island’s paper ballots are counted by hand.
The battle for metro San Juan The San Juan area is home to about half of Puerto Rico’s 4 million residents and it represents Obama’s best hope for keeping Clinton from running up the score.
His campaign presence on the island hasn’t been intense, and it has focused on the ten municipalities, or "municipios,” that make up the San Juan metropolitan area.
Among them, Guaynabo and San Juan have affluent areas where Obama might be expected to find pockets of support.
Either Hillary, Bill or Chelsea Clinton have visited 48 of the commonwealth’s 78 municipios.
Clinton tried to lock down the vote in the San Juan suburbs Saturday with a traditional Puerto Rican campaign caravan. For more than seven hours, her campaign’s 40-vehicle group snaked its way through the streets of most of the suburban municipios with Clinton waving and pointing from the bed of a pickup while a sound truck with 32 three-foot-high speakers blared a salsa tune written and recorded for the campaign by Bronx-born Puerto Rican superstar Willie Colon.
“Hillary Clinton pa presidenta,” went the chorus of the tune, over which a leather-lunged announcer occasionally intoned “La presidenta para todos los Puertorriquenos,” while an advance team drove ahead to distribute white plastic “Hillary Clinton Para Presidenta.”
“I was the most fun I think I’ve ever had campaigning anywhere,” she said Saturday night at a mega church here.
The income factor Obama led Clinton by five percentage points among those who earn at least $18,000 a year (the threshold for the wealthiest 30 percent of Puerto Ricans), according to a poll released May 24 by Univisión-Puerto Rico and El Vocero.
Overall, the poll of 800 Puerto Ricans, conducted from May 8 to May 20 by the D.C.-based firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, had Clinton beating Obama 55 to 42 percent. And he trailed Clinton by 21 points among those who earn less than $18,000 a year.
Though Obama’s campaign dismisses income-based predictors, it concedes Clinton’s margins are likely to grow with distance from San Juan.
Does turnout break 700,000? Publicly, both campaigns are downplaying turnout expectations.
Privately, though, Bill Clinton admits his wife’s campaign needs a turnout of more than 700,000 voters to claim a substantial victory here. The campaign would rather win a lower percentage-point victory with very high turnout—because it boosts her popular vote argument with superdelegates—than a landslide percentage with low turnout.
“The closer we get beyond 700, towards 1 million, the better we’ll do,” he said during a May 23 conference call with donors to his wife’s campaign.
By way of comparison, more than 870,000 voters turned out to vote in the 1980 primary between President Jimmy Carter and Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy – one of only two Democratic presidential primaries held in Puerto Rico. Kennedy’s showing – he lost to Carter 52 percent to 48 percent – was his best outside of his home state.
Though the voter rolls have grown in nearly three decades since then, don’t expect 1980-level turnout, warned Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy.
“People are not all that excited by this election,” said Falcón, who has written two books on Puerto Ricans living stateside. “It’s really not something that interests them. They can’t vote in November.”
The racial calculus Clinton has fared better than Obama with Hispanic voters. And her campaign will argue that a big win in Puerto Rico bolsters its case to superdelegates that Obama has a problem with Hispanics that could make it difficult for him to beat McCain in key states.
McCain has “very favorable standing with Hispanics because of his position on the immigration bill,” said Clinton’s chief superdelegate wrangler Harold Ickes in a conference call with donors in early May. “So 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,” said Ickes.
That will be key, Ickes said, “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.”
But Obama’s bi-racial background could be an asset in Puerto Rico, where 12 percent of residents describing themselves as mulatto and 8 percent as black.
Obama is the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, and he has run ads in Puerto Rico highlighting his formative years in Hawaii in an effort to forge common cause with the islanders.
Speaking Spanish, he says “Nací en una isla y entiendo que la comida, la gasolina y todo cuesta mas,” meaning "I was born on an island, and I understand that food, gas, and everything costs more.”
Jesse Jackson won the state’s other Democratic presidential primary, in 1988, over the eventual nominee, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, then-Illinois Sen. Paul Simon nd then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore.
It’s hard to tell how – or if – Puerto Rico’s unique racial dynamic will impact the vote, said Falcon of the National Institute for Latino Policy.
“A lot of people say that would help him because he kind of looks Puerto Rican – his color,” said Falcon. But he said if Clinton wins big, it wouldn’t be because Puerto Ricans were rejecting Obama on racial grounds, but rather because they’re more familiar with Clinton, who represents 1 million Puerto Ricans in New York.
“In the Latino community, not only are people not familiar with Obama, but also he hasn’t really developed a campaign that’s been effective in reaching out to the Latino community,” said Falcon. “The guy’s hardly campaigned in Puerto Rico.”