In the 2024 race for the Republican presidential nomination, Puerto Rico will weigh in with its 23 delegates — more than any of the U.S. territories — and more than the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, Delaware and Maine.
The island, a U.S. territory, doesn't usually attract much attention early in the race, likely because it tends to hold its presidential primary after Super Tuesday, when the largest number of states will be voting. So far, only one GOP 2024 presidential candidate has visited the island, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, and he has sincehis presidential bid.
But Republican presidential candidates have campaigned here, and perhaps because of its late date, it can play a role in helping a GOP candidate reach the 1,234 delegates needed to secure the nomination. George H.W. Bush, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama also visited during their presidential campaigns.
Each of them ended up winning Puerto Rico during their primary campaigns — and all supported statehood for the U.S. territory, the top issue in island politics. In 2012, when former Sen. Rick Santorum was running for president and visiting the island, he was heavily criticized afterthat he supported statehood but "to be a state of the United States, English has to be the principal language."
Puerto Rico, with its population of 3.2 million, is the only U.S. jurisdiction that is fully Hispanic and whose main language is Spanish.
Puerto Rico participates in presidential primaries but not presidential elections
States determine the winner of the presidential election with the electors they select. Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and not a state, its citizens may not vote in presidential elections. However, as U.S. citizens, Puerto Rico residents may participate in the primaries.
But in general, Puerto Ricans are somewhat disconnected from U.S. party politics, largely because political affiliations on the island revolve around Puerto Rico's status — that is, whether or not to back statehood or independence.
"The vast majority doesn't know what being a Democrat or being a Republican is…political parties in Puerto Rico deal with local issues, and they don't usually interfere in national politics, and if they comment it's minimal, and the main topic is the political status," says Luis Cámara, a political science professor at the University of Puerto Rico.
The island's three main political parties represent each choice about its status: The New Progressive Party supports statehood, while the Popular Democratic Party favors territorial ties with the mainland U.S., and the Puerto Rican Independence Party wants independence.
A non-binding referendum in 2020 showed the island was divided on this question: 52% of the residents voted in favor of statehood, while 47% voted against it, according to the local state commission. While all local GOP members are required to support statehood, not all members of the New Progressive Party are Republicans.
In the U.S., allowing a vote on statehood for the island has had some bipartisan support. Last year, the House passed ain a binding referendum on statehood versus some type of independent status, but the Senate did not consider it. The House vote on the bill received some support from GOP lawmakers, but in the Senate, most Republicans oppose Puerto Rico statehood, so there was not enough support to bring the legislation to the floor.
Historically, primary turnout in Puerto Rico is very low. According to the local state commission, about 126,000 people participated in the 2012 GOP primary, the year Romney won the primary and the Republican nomination. But in 2016, the last time the island held a Republican primary, voter turnout dropped off substantially, with under 40,000 voters participating when Rubio prevailed. That year, however, the presidential primary was held on a different date than the local elections, which was likely a contributing factor.
Any registered voter may cast a ballot, since Puerto Rico has an open primary. As is the case in many of the Republican primary states, Puerto Rico's Republican primary is winner take all.
Unless Republicans make a bigger effort to connect with Puerto Rican voters and their issues, like statehood and the island's economy, which has been devastated by hurricanes and by the pandemic, that low voter engagement is likely to continue.
One factor that could come into play, though, is the, who make up about 13% of the electorate. Puerto Rican Republican Party Chairman Ángel Cintrón argues that winning Puerto Rico would send a strong signal to other Hispanic voters across the country.
"It's like a letter of recommendation because this is a jurisdiction 100% Hispanic…you won't find any other jurisdiction like this one," Cintrón said.
"To the extent that candidates start visiting Puerto Rico or start talking about it, and get involved in our issues there will be more people participating in the polls," he added.
"We are not a barometer, but we do have electoral weight," Cintrón said of the island's role in the primaries. He believes Puerto Ricans "are conservatives by nature." According to the World Values Survey for Puerto Rico published in 2019, about 94% of residents consider family to be the most important thing in their lives, followed by their jobs with 70% and religion with 65%.
When is Puerto Rico's Republican presidential primary?
The island usually holds its primaries after Super Tuesday, when the largest number of states will be holding primary contests. In 2024, that date will be March 5. Puerto Rico Republicans have not yet set a date for their primary, but a source told CBS News April is a possibility. If the GOP presidential nomination fight is close, Puerto Rico's late primary could be a deciding factor for a candidate trying to lock up the 1,234 needed to win.
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