Tanzina Vega: One group of American citizens who can't cast a ballot for president of the United States are the residents of Puerto Rico. Instead, after years of political and economic turmoil, including the devastation from Hurricane Maria, earthquakes, and now, the Coronavirus pandemic, residents of Puerto Rico voted yesterday for their next governor. We're going to talk about all this, and then, tackle some of the bigger questions around the Latino vote, in yesterday's presidential contests, with two folks that we've had on the show quite a bit, Frances Negron-Muntaner is a Puerto Rican scholar and professor at Columbia University Center for the study of ethnicity and race and Nicole Acevedo is a digital reporter for NBC News. Frances, Nicole, welcome to you both.
Nicole Acevedo: Thank you.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner: Thank you so much for having us.
Tanzina: Frances, where does the race for governor stand right now in Puerto Rico? Did Pedro Pierluisi win?
Frances: It looks like that. He's ahead by about one percentage point, so, yes.
Tanzina: Remind us the party dynamic in Puerto Rico, Frances. Who is Pierluisi? He was governor of Puerto Rico for about two minutes about a year ago when there was a lot of political turmoil on the island, but what party does he represent?
Frances: He represents the Partido Nuevo Progresista, which is a pro-statehood party, which is also the incumbent's party, and also, the party of Ricky Rosselló, which was the governor that was ejected, if you will, by mass protests in 2019.
Tanzina: What about his opponent, Carlos Delgado, of the Popular Democratic Party, and remind us, Frances, who they are?
Frances: The Popular Democratic Party is a party that was founded a few decades ago. It was in power for a very long time. After '68, started being sharing power with the pro-statehood party. They're sometimes called the Commonwealth Party or the Status-Quo Party. They support, basically, that Puerto Rico remains a territory of the US, although there are some sectors of the party that support the sovereigntists' agenda, that is expanding sovereign powers, or an enhanced commonwealth arrangement, which would take Puerto Rico out of the Territorial Clause.
Tanzina: I want to also talk about the emergence of a third-party in just a minute, but before we get there, Puerto Ricans, as we mentioned at the top, have been through a lot in recent years. Nicole, you've been covering a lot of this from the devastation of Hurricane Maria to the economic and political turmoil, what were some of the top issues for Puerto Ricans on the island this election?
Nicole: It was basically the first election in which they could really think back to all these compounding crisis, really, from the fiscal debt to Hurricane Marianne and its recovery to the coronavirus, and the earthquakes that happened earlier this year. A main issue was the economic stances, of how is Puerto Rico going to get out of this mess whether it is getting the federal funds needed for the recovery, whether it is restructuring that debt that is over $70 billion.
Those were the main issues that people were keeping in mind when they're casting their ballots. Some people feel more comfortable with candidates that have been part of the establishment and other voters told me that they felt like they needed new faces, they needed new leaders to be able to solve their compounding crisis Puerto Rico's living through right now.
Tanzina: Nicole, if Pierluisi does end up becoming the governor of Puerto Rico, is that an indication that Puerto Ricans want to see statehood? I know there was also a referendum on that that has happened, but would that indicate that there's more support for statehood in terms of solving some of the problems that Puerto Rico has confronted over the past couple of years?
Nicole: Not necessarily because with the emergence of this new parties, what has happened sort of the opposition to the incumbent party, which is a pro-statehood party. It's actually bigger. You have more people that may be more wary about Puerto Rico becoming a state than people that are all the way in through to statehood, but it is true that, in terms of voting power, pro-statehood people have been able to harness that way better, and to their benefit, and be able to make the argument in Congress, who is the one that has the final word whether Puerto Rico becomes a state or not.
Tanzina, you mentioned the plebiscite. The plebiscite was not boycotted at this time like we saw it happen last time around and statehood won by 52%. That also continues to add to the fact that it's still pretty 50-50 on the Island.
Tanzina: It's been that way for as long as I can remember, Frances, in terms of the breakdown, and there's always been extraordinarily marginal but existing independent movement in Puerto Rico, what does that look like today? I mean, is that a real force to be reckoned with, or is it still something that's considered largely marginal and not really a force in politics?
Frances: Well, I like to say a few things about the extraordinary things that happened in the election because, on the one hand, we saw that Pierluisi is likely to win, which is a very establishment choice. At the same time, we have to point out that there were some things that shifted in this election. For instance, the pro-independence candidate, Juan Dalmau, obtained 13.4% so far of the vote, whereas, in the past, pro-independence candidates would have had received less than 5%. The combined independence party and independent candidates, together, obtained more than 30% of the vote, actually, more than Pierluisi received.
On the question of the plebiscite, I agree with Nicole that part of it is that the statehood party base, it seems very solid, and it is the only party preference that actually has grown over the last few decades since 1968. It seems to have hit a plateau. It doesn't quite make it over the bump of 50%. On the other hand, the anti-statehood, or people who don't support statehood, vote is probably larger than the statehood vote, but they also have multiple ways that they might want to go about it. It's not a solid bloc.
I have the feeling that we will not really know what people think about status until there's a process, whether it's a plebiscite or a constituent assembly, where people feel that they will be heard. It's just not an exercise in supporting the party in Puerto Rico or expressing discontent about a range of issues. It's going to be the moment where people really are going to say what they feel because they believe it's going to have an impact.
Tanzina: Nicole, curious, we know that Puerto Rican residents on the island cannot vote in the presidential election even though they are American citizens, but Puerto Ricans living here in the continental US can vote if they're registered. Have they voted so far? What do we know about that vote?
Frances: They voted. I don't think that necessarily, we've seen, anything new in terms of how many were engaged. It was within what's expected. In Florida, particularly, they played a crucial role in helping Donald Trump hold the state according to our NBC News exit polls. Around 30% of the Puerto Ricans in the state favored President Trump in the 2020 Election.
Even though Puerto Ricans, as a group, are more likely to vote Democrat, maybe more defining in other races like in Philadelphia, for instance, in Pennsylvania, and other battleground states like that, it doesn't mean that if a small amount votes for the republican president, it could actually help them because that's all they need. They don't need all the Latino vote or all the Puerto Rican vote, they only need that little margin to be able to prevail.
Tanzina: Frances, your thoughts on that because there were a lot of folks, and for a while now, I mean, we've been talking about the role that the Puerto Rican vote can play outside of the usual places like New York and Florida, for example. If 30%, average, early exit poll numbers are telling us that voted for President Trump, that still leaves 70% or the vast majority of Puerto Ricans who still support the democratic ticket. What did you see in terms of how the media has been covering this election with regards to understanding the different constituencies among Latinos?
Frances: I think a few things to say about Florida. I've been in Florida since May, so I've heard, not only my study, but I also have day-to-day interactions with people. I see a few things that caught my attention. One is that although it seems that the vote did not come out as much as people expected, there were types of campaigns that were designed that I have never seen before.
For instance, the Boricuas for Biden campaign, one of their ads was basically interviews with people in Puerto Rico, telling people into the diaspora, including I think that I was primarily focused for Florida, to vote for them, which meant to vote for Biden. Although it doesn't seem that it had the groundswell that people expect quite, it is a shift and a direct address by the people of Puerto Rico through that ad to the people of Florida to vote for Democrats.
Another thing that we have to keep in mind that Puerto Ricans, of the old Latino groups, that so far, I've seen data, have the highest percentage of support of Democrats. 30% might seem high, and it does seem high to me, given all the suffering inflicted by the government on Puerto Rico during this past more than 10 years. At the same time, we have to think about the environment in Florida and some of the ideologies or some of the ways that people think of themselves when they move to Florida.
One of the big differences between Florida and other parts of the United States is that Latinos who are light-skinned or were treated as white, let's say, in their countries of origin, keep thinking of themselves that way. They don't so much identify as people of color. That's one factor. The other factor is that, I would say, Florida is a place where neo-liberalism is common sense. For instance, a lot of people that I heard here in Florida would say that Trump is good for business. As a place where a lot of people are in business, and they very much prized the environment for a business in the area, they identify with that message very much more than in other parts of the country.
I heard a lot people talking about how Trump was a real man that stands up for the interests of the United States. From the Cubans, you heard that often in relation to Cuba and China, but from other people, also in relation to China and other competitors to the United States or perceived competitors in the global economy. When you factor all those in, you realize that Florida has its own particular environment, where people might behave differently than in Pennsylvania or New York, California, or even Arizona.
Tanzina: I'm wondering, Nicole, recently, you talked to us about some of the notable Latino candidates who were running for office in this election. How did some of those candidates end up doing?
Nicole: Well, a lot of those races were competitive. We're still waiting for some of them to be called even though some of them have already declared victory. For instance, Richie Torres in New York, it's already settled. He won. He would be effectively replacing Congressman José Serrano in 2021. He's the first LGBTQ Latino to ever be in Congress. That was a historical win in that sense.
We also have other candidates that we're still waiting on in New Mexico, who it's likely to become the first Latina to represent the Third Congressional District, which was previously held by Ben Ray Luján, who left the seat to run for the Senate and won. Now, he's the fifth Latino in the Senate. Even though five Latinos in the Senate are still very little compared to how many Latinos live in the US, it's still a gain for Latinos in that high chamber.
Tanzina: There was a sense, Frances, that the diaspora and those living in Puerto Rico, on the island of Puerto Rico, had set aside some of the differences and come together to help each other out. Did the diaspora vote in a way that would support the interest of Puerto Ricans on the island, or is still too early to tell?
Frances: Well, it's early to tell because, for instance, I've read that less than 50% of Puerto Ricans voted, and there's all kinds of reasons that might be the case. First, a lot of people that are settling in Florida are in precarious situations. They're also new to the country. They're not familiar yet with the issues and the landscape of political participation. Those are factors that might be contributing. It may not only be the fact or the possibility that the campaign was ineffective and so forth. It might also be that the conditions are still not quite there for mass Puerto Rican participation. That's one set of issues.
The other is that I do feel that Florida is a very different environment for Latinos, where voting for republican has a different charge for Latinos and in other parts of the country. Still, in that environment, Puerto Ricans have voted Democrat in much greater numbers than other groups. Cubans are 56%, compared to Puerto Ricans, that's much lower.
Tanzina: Curious to hear from both of you, quickly, whether or not you think COVID-19 had any effect on how Latinos voted in this election, given that this community has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, many of them are frontline essential workers. Frances, your thoughts?
Frances: I think in the Puerto Rico context, it's one of various issues, definitely. I wouldn't say it was a determining issue. In the US, I think it was a bigger issue, but economic matters that are tied up to policies regarding COVID-19, I think also played a large role.
Tanzina: Nicole, your thoughts?
Nicole: I would say, according to our latest exit polls, the economy played a bigger role among Latino voters, especially if they're republican-leaning. Anything that had to do with bettering the economy and centering that issue was more top of mind this time around, even though the coronavirus has hit both economic and health consequences disproportionately to our Latino communities here in the United States.
Tanzina: Frances, finally, just a quick thought on how you think the media coverage of Latinos and politics has been.
Frances: I mean, I can't say that I saw a huge breakthrough in that regard, certainly, a bit more attention. I didn't see that there was that recognition that many Latinos articulate that they want across the country. I didn't quite see that.
Tanzina: We still have some work to do on our parts. Frances Negrón-Muntaner is a Puerto Rican writer, scholar, and professor at Columbia's Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, and Nicole Acevedo is a digital reporter for NBC News. Thanks so much to you both.
Nicole: Thank you.
France: Thank you.
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