As more candidates for the U.S. presidency throw their hats in the ring, those already in the race are making the rounds, glad-handing for early promises of voters’ support. Iowa, one of the most important stops on the campaign circuit, was the first destination of Hillary Clinton, the only Democrat to declare her candidacy thus far, on her much-publicized road trip to meet and greet voters.
Presidential candidates are already looking to the south, too, and putting one place that can’t be reached by road trip on their travel agendas: Puerto Rico.
Earlier this week, Jeb Bush, a Republican who hasn’t actually declared a formal bid for the presidency yet, announced he will visit the island on April 28.
According to a report published in the local English-language newspaper, Caribbean Business, Bush “will take part in a $1,000-per-person fundraising luncheon at Zoraida Fonalleda’s residence in Guaynabo. Fonalleda is the Republican Party’s island delegate.” He will also hold a public town meeting in Bayamón, a city just outside metro San Juan. Bush, who is Caucasian and who is married to a woman from Mexico, was recently criticized for identifying himself — accidentally, he says — as Latino on a voter registration form.
Identity gaffe aside, Bush’s visit to Puerto Rico is a smart move, representing a jump start on what is expected to be a densely populated field of Republican candidates. While only Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have made formal announcements of their candidacies, at least nine other members of the party have expressed that they will likely join the fray.
Bush’s early visit will put him ahead of the pack, garnering key support on the island of 3.5 million people. Although they can’t vote in the presidential election itself, Puerto Ricans can cast votes in presidential primaries, and with such a substantial population, those votes could contribute to a “make or break” situation on the Republican slate.
Clinton has not yet announced plans to visit the commonwealth, but she will inevitably make at least one campaign stop there, and Puerto Ricans who vote Democrat are already anticipating her with open arms. They’ve kept track of the time and attention Clinton has spent on the island during the course of her political career, and last Sunday, they published an open letter detailing exactly that, saying:
“[T]here has been no presidential candidate in the history of the U.S., Democrat or Republican, who knows and has visited Puerto Rico more than Hillary Clinton. In addition to visiting us in 1998 after Hurricane Georges, and supporting many legislative initiatives in benefit of Puerto Rico when she served as U.S. senator, between her, her husband and her daughter, they campaigned for 17 days at more than one-third of Puerto Rico’s municipalities. In that campaign, she managed to unify important state and local Democratic leaders of both major parties in Puerto Rico. Her final televised ad, for example, included [local political leaders] Prats, McClintock, and Hernandez Mayoral and Ricardo Rosselló.”
Candidates who include the island as a stop on the campaign trail should be prepared to face tough questions from Puerto Ricans who want to know where the presidential hopefuls stand on the status issue: statehood, independence, or continued commonwealth? And if the latter, will any provisions of commonwealth status be adjusted? Might, for example, Puerto Ricans finally be granted true representation in Congress? Might they be allowed to vote in the presidential election?
The candidates’ records of public statements on the issue will inevitably be scrutinized, with inconsistencies or hypocrisies seized upon.
Most likely, after the flurry of campaign activity dies down and the new president takes office, Puerto Rico’s importance and its very real needs will be forgotten. The island, so valuable during election season, tends to recede as a priority among politicians once they’ve been sworn into office.