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?
Other researchers have searched for evidence that voters were born, not made. Social scientists James Fowler and Christopher T. Dawes, of U.C.-San Diego, along with University of Southern California behavioral geneticist Laura A. Baker, gathered Los Angeles County voter records for eight elections held between 2000 and 2005 and matched them against a registry of twins living in Southern California. They found records for 396 twins, and divided the monozygotic pairs (often called identical twins) from dizygotic ones, who share only one-half their DNA. If the inclination to vote was heritable, monozygotic twins would have more behaviors in common than dizygotic ones. Indeed, they found 53 percent of the variance in individual turnout patterns could be attributed to genetics. Later Fowler and Dawes claimed that they had isolated two specific genes that could play a role in neurochemically conditioning certain people toward voting.
The Puerto Rican diaspora, where voting habits shift abruptly with changes in scenery, seems to illustrate the limits of such genetic explanations for why some people vote and others don’t. “If it was genetic, one would assume they’d vote at almost the same rate,” Cámara says of Puerto Rican populations on the island and mainland. “In politics, the environment is important.”
Americans looking for environments that inspire preternaturally high voting rates often look back into the 19th century. Before the introduction of the secret ballot in states starting in the late 1880s, Americans often voted in rowdy taverns on a day devoted to little else. In 2005, Yale political scientist Don Green designed an experiment to test whether reviving that festival atmosphere could have an impact on turnout. (Green, now at Columbia, is one the four eggheads who worked with Rick Perry’s 2006 campaign.) Green went to Hooksett, N.H., just before its municipal elections, and erected a tent on a middle-school lawn for an alcohol-free, family-friendly “Election Day Poll Party,” which he promoted with ads in the Union Leader. A similar town, Hanover, was used as a control. Afterward, Green tallied up the total votes cast in each town and found that the festival was responsible for a 6.5-point increase in Hooksett’s turnout compared to Hanover.
Indeed, as Cámara read accounts of 19th-century American elections, he thought the descriptions of a festive atmosphere—rife with parades and festivals put on by parties that also used pork and patronage to earn deep loyalty from voters—sounded a lot like modern Puerto Rican politics. The “culture of the vote,” as many Puerto Rican analysts call it, is so expansive that on the island election day is a national holiday, when everyone takes off from work. “It’s like a big holiday, and voting is just the culmination of that, just like the 25th is the culmination of Christmas,” says Cámara. “There’s a lot of social incentive to vote.”
Even if they can’t get their caravans to fire properly, Central Florida political organizers are developing ad-hoc methods for targeting Puerto Rican residents with social pressure that befits their status as experienced voters requiring only reactivation. In 2008, Angel de la Portilla worked for Julius Melendez, a Puerto Rican running to be the first Hispanic school-board member in Osceola County. The campaign’s small budget could afford only one mail piece, so de la Portilla drew one up emphasizing Melendez’s record as a military veteran and targeted it at white Republicans. But de la Portilla took a different tack with Hispanic voters. He organized a small phone bank of Puerto Rican women, who were instructed to make conversation with voters long enough to discern an accent. If the voice on the other end of the line sounded Colombian or Cuban, de la Portilla’s script told his callers to tell the voter he or she had “the opportunity to elect the first Hispanic to the school board.” But if they heard a Puerto Rican on the line, callers were instructed to summon a sense of island kinship and say Melendez could be “the first Puerto Rican” in the office. “They would know we knew they were Puerto Rican,” says de la Portilla. (Melendez, now the vice chair of the county school board, announced earlier this month that he would run for Congress as a Republican to represent a newly created district.)
When speaking before Puerto Rican crowds on behalf of the Democratic ticket, Franceschini often plays more directly to a sense of national vanity. She recounts the story of American academics who traveled to Puerto Rico in the 1990s to decode the island’s impressive record of civic participation. “They came to see what we did to make the same thing happen here,” Franceschini explains to her audiences. “In Puerto Rico, we’ve been classified as a model for voter participation. We are a role model, and we need to demonstrate it here because it’s part of our culture.” The campaign that’s able to tap into that culture—even if they can’t promise a day off to vote—might have a leg up come Nov. 6.
Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.