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With the nation’s first caucuses only a few months away, the issue of Puerto Rican statehood has become one of the latest topics of controversy among Republican candidates. In late October, the “Make America Great Again Inc.” SuperPAC endorsing Donald Trump shifted its campaign strategy to target fellow Republican candidate Ron DeSantis once again. The PAC’s most recent strategy is the release of a TV ad that criticizes DeSantis for sponsoring bill H.R. 6246 in 2018, which they claim outlined the path to make Puerto Rico a state. The topic of statehood has been a long-standing concern for many Republicans due to the belief that Puerto Rico hosts a more liberal electorate that would sway the voting balance in favor of the Democrats.

As Governor of Florida, DeSantis has an estimated 860,000 eligible Puerto Rican voters, which represent 27 percent of the entire Hispanic voting bloc in the state (Pew Research Center 1, 2020). The decision to co-sponsor H.R. 6246, or the “Puerto Rico Admission Act of 2018,” likely represents an attempt to connect with these constituents and boost support. Despite the fact that 22 other Republicans also sponsored the bill (FactCheck.org, 2023), support for pro-statehood legislation has historically been more of a policy move adopted by Democrats. As a result, MAGA Inc. claims DeSantis is not conservative enough. The DeSantis campaign has fired back by pointing to instances where Trump expressed pro-statehood sentiments and by being more adamant about its opposition to congressional representation if it poses a threat to the Republican party (NY Times, 2023). There is a widely held assumption in U.S. politics that the constituency in Puerto Rico is more liberal, but this common belief is becoming increasingly challenged, and the issue proves to be more nuanced than simply assuming Puerto Ricans vote blue.

To gain a deeper understanding of voting behavior in Puerto Rico, it is crucial to acknowledge significant distinctions in the island’s political terrain. One notable difference is that, as Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and not a state, citizens have the privilege to vote in the presidential primaries but not in the general election (CBS, 2023). Another notable distinction is that political parties and discourse in Puerto Rico typically center around the singular topic of statehood. Indeed, the primary parties of the island include the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), advocating for statehood; the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), supporting the maintenance of territorial status; and the comparatively smaller Partido Independentista de Puerto Rico (PIP), advocating for independence. Consequently, ordinary Puerto Ricans residing on the island do not align themselves with Democrats or Republicans. Additionally, party affiliations in Puerto Rico are dictated by status preference, mitigating the ideological divisions observed in the U.S.
According to Pew Research, 77 percent of Puerto Rico’s residents are anti-abortion, and 55 percent oppose the legalization of gay marriage (Pew Research Center 2, 2017). These findings indicate that Puerto Ricans living on the island are more socially conservative and better aligned with Republican ideals. This notion is reinforced by the fact that the current resident commissioner to the U.S. Congress, Jennifer González Colón, is affiliated with the Republican party at the national level. The latest polls in Puerto Rico also provide evidence to suggest the island holds a strong conservative constituency, seeing as Republican commissioner, González, has significantly higher approval ratings than all other candidates for the gubernatorial race (El Nuevo Día, 2023). Importantly, in the last election cycle, the island’s voters seemed to be breaking away from the bipartisan establishment centered around statehood and shifting their attention to third-party options that offer more diverse party platforms. These other parties exhibit traditional left-right policy differences. Despite the trend observed in the last election, this poll suggests that as of right now, a conservative candidate from the bipartisan establishment is most popular.

The resurgence of the statehood controversy in Republican attacks demonstrates how the Puerto Rican electorate is often generalized and poorly understood by American politicians. The MAGA Inc. SuperPAC effectively leveraged the belief that Puerto Rico represents a liberal voting bloc to aid in securing the candidacy for Donald Trump. The results from the Iowa caucus in January will reveal whether this strategy, and the overall campaign, will pay off in the voting booths.

References:

CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/puerto-rico-and-the-2024-republican-presidential-primaries/.

El Nuevo Día. https://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/politica/notas/a-un-ano-de-las-elecciones-que-opinion-hay-sobre-el-liderato-politico-y-los-partidos/.

FactCheck.Org. https://www.factcheck.org/2023/11/pro-trump-pac-spars-with-desantis-over-puerto-rican-statehood/.

NY Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/27/us/politics/trump-desantis-iowa-ads.html.

Pew Research Center 1. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2020/10/19/latinos-make-up-record-17-of-florida-registered-voters-in-2020/.

Pew Research Center 2. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2020/10/19/latinos-make-up-record-17-of-florida-registered-voters-in-2020/.

Posted November 27, 2023