Today’s Puerto Rico primary may provide an interesting test for the Republican Party as much as for its rival presidential candidates. In a race that has turned out to be far closer than anyone might have thought, Puerto Rico’s 23 delegates are well worth the fight and both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have shown up and competed for them. Though there has been no polling done, it’s assumed that Romney has the edge because of the endorsement of Governor Luis Fortuno whose pro-statehood New Progressive Party is affiliated with the GOP. That assumption was reinforced by the controversy engendered by Santorum’s comment this week that Puerto Rico would have to adopt English if it wanted statehood. However, given Romney’s decision to take a very harsh stance on immigration, the possibility that Santorum will outperform those low expectations can’t be ignored.
But as much as political observers will be looking to see if Romney can exceed the 50 percent mark and thus win all of the 20 delegates up for grabs in Puerto Rico (the other three are at-large super delegates, two of whom have already endorsed Romney), the turnout numbers will also be interesting to watch. Four years ago turnout for a Puerto Rican GOP caucus was virtually nonexistent but some are holding out the possibility that today’s ballot will result in a large turnout of hundreds of thousands. If so, that may constitute a surprising riposte to all the talk about the low turnout for the Republican contests. It will also be a boost, albeit a minor one, for the statehood movement.
Many pundits have taken it for granted that Puerto Rico will be the same sort of contest as Guam, the Northern Marianas, the Virgin Islands and Samoa, each of whom will send nine delegates to the Republican National Convention via non-binding caucuses. Romney will take almost all of these but not as a result of any massive turnout. Turnout for those caucuses was minimal which makes their representation at the convention disproportionate as well as something of a rotten borough in the fashion of 19th century English parliamentary constituencies.
However, if the Romney-Santorum race generates enough heat to create a decent turnout, it will not only make the results more meaningful but also might represent a symbolic boost for the GOP’s hopes for Hispanic votes. Heretofore, it has been assumed that only the presence of a Hispanic such as Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio on the national ticket would avert an Obama sweep of Hispanics much in the same manner that Democrats expect to carry the African-American vote. But the spectacle of a large outpouring of Puerto Ricans trooping to the polls to choose a GOP nominee may paint a somewhat different picture that is a bit more encouraging for Republicans.