The Mystery of the Puerto Rican Voter
Why do Puerto Ricans turn out in such high numbers on the island but not in Florida? And who will win their all-important support in 2012?
Still, the two GOP candidates actively campaigning in Florida will each make a bid to mobilize them this weekend, aware that they will be prime targets for both parties in November. Romney seems to be working hardest to recreate an island vibe. He has planned a Friday night rally at an Orlando factory for Puerto Rico-based company Lanco Paints, likely with the island’s pro-statehood governor Luis Fortuño, who endorsed Romney today. Romney operatives are also eyeing the possibility of trying to mount a caravana on his behalf on Sunday or Monday. Gingrich’s campaign plans nothing so festive, working instead to mobilize support through evangelical churches with largely Puerto Rican congregations. (Spanish-language megachurches across the East Coast are stocked with Puerto Rican pastors because there’s no worry about immigration problems, according to those familiar with the terrain.) On Saturday, Gingrich will host a town-hall meeting at Centro de la Familia Cristiana, on Orlando’s east side, and is counting on a network of pastors to help deliver a crowd.
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In 1992, a presidential election was coming, yet Luis Raúl Cámara wondered why everything was so quiet. Cámara had been raised in Puerto Rico, and had left the island to do his graduate work in political science at the University of Michigan. But even though media coverage was fixated on Bill Clinton’s challenge to George H.W. Bush, there was little of the ambient noise in Ann Arbor that Cámara had come to expect as the inevitable soundtrack to a looming vote. “If you didn’t look at the news, you wouldn’t know there was an election,” says Cámara by phone from the Universidad de Puerto Rico in San Juan, where he now teaches. “Here you don’t need to read a newspaper, or turn on the TV, to know there’s an election. There’s a whole environment that’s saturated with politics.”
One of Cámara’s professors at Michigan, Steven A. Rosenstone, directed the National Election Studies project and had become a leading scholar on turnout with his 1980 book Who Votes? In 1989, Rosenstone co-authored (with Maria Antonia Calvo) a volume focusing specifically on a slice of the electorate that demographers and far-sighted political operatives knew would change the country’s electoral math over the following generation. “Hispanics are less likely to participate in politics than are other Americans,” Rosenstone and Calvi concluded in Hispanic Political Participation.
This conclusion startled Cámara, who had worked on campaigns since his childhood—painting murals, making phone calls to voters, taking his place in the inevitable caravanas, and eventually rising to be a party vice president in his hometown of Guaynabo. He had heard Puerto Rican authorities, particularly the State Electoral Commission, repeatedly flatter residents with the news that they participated in politics at a uniquely high rate.
This, Cámara quickly realized, was something of a myth: Plenty of countries had turnout rates above Puerto Rico’s. But they were not countries typically considered the island’s peers: Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands. (Puerto Ricans even voted at a higher rate than Finns.) The four countries in the Western Hemisphere with higher turnout rates than Puerto Rico all had compulsory voting—and one, Brazil, was still only a smidgen higher. Unlike in other countries, voting seemed to be evenly distributed across the Puerto Rican population; turnout did not seem to increase in lockstep with socioeconomic status. In fact, as Cámara knew from his days joining candidates on electioneering walks called caminatas through Guaynabo subdivisions, parties seemed to work harder to mobilize the poor.
The results of these party-driven efforts to mobilize voters put American efforts to shame. The structure of elections in the island territory—which sends a nonvoting member to Congress and holds presidential nominating primaries but has no electoral college vote—is almost indistinguishable from the mainland’s. Both elect chief executives to four-year terms (governor-general is the island’s top office), balancing power against a bicameral legislature in which the same two parties jostle perennially for control. But by every measure, Puerto Ricans take voting more seriously: From 1972 through 1984, island turnout exceeded 80 percent of the voting-age population, and at one point more than 95 percent were registered. Between 1972 and 2000, Cámara calculated, Puerto Rico averaged 79 percent turnout in its quadrennial elections; only eleven U.S. states cleared more than 60 percent during that time, while 14 were below 50 percent. “Why is it,” Cámara wrote in his book The Phenomenon of Puerto Rican Voting, “that voters in Puerto Rico, which has virtually the same formal political institutions as the United States, behave so differently from their mainland counterparts?”
Just about everyone who pays attention to voting agrees that it is a habitual action—campaigns looking for likely voters consider past turnout the strongest indicator of future action—but no one quite agrees why. In their 1982 paper “Pathways to Participation,” Paul Allen Beck and M. Kent Jennings argue that children are socialized into voting. Based on a panel study of more than one thousand youths who were eventually followed for more than a generation starting in 1965, Beck and Jennings found that your parents’ advanced socioeconomic status and heightened civic engagement made teenagers more likely to vote when they reached the legal age; their participation in extracurricular activities did, too.
Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.