Puerto Rico's economic crisis could play a critical role in the race for the White House.
Years of economic decline has driven hundreds of thousands of island residents to the US mainland, and is upending the political calculus on the presidential trail.
Puerto Rican residents cannot vote for the president in the general election, but can cast votes in primary contests.
The hotly contested Republican primary now has every candidate scrambling for whatever delegates they can find, leaving Puerto Rico's oft-ignored primary on March 6 a unique opportunity for a pickup.
“Over half are going to one state, and that’s Florida. This will have an impact on the primaries and subsequent November elections,” said Amilcar Antonio Barreto, an associate professor at Northeastern University and an expert on Puerto Rican politics. “They’re a big wild card.”
Puerto Ricans occupy a unique space in U.S. politics. While on the island, they are residents of a commonwealth and cannot ultimately vote for the president. But they are also American citizens, and free to move to the mainland whenever they want, where they can vote in the general election.
And hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have made that choice, as a massive debt crisis is forcing the island to ask Congress to let it declare bankruptcy on some of its bonds and made providing basic public services a significant challenge.
The mass exodus from Puerto Rico has placed the island in the sights of competing campaigns, eager to win over not only island residents, but former residents now spread across the country.
According to experts, Puerto Ricans generally lean Democratic by a roughly 2 to 1 margin, and Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump puts pressure on GOP Congress Poll: Former Sanders staffer gains steam in race to replace Xavier Becerra Michael Moore: Trump will ‘absolutely’ ban Muslims MORE is expected to win the Democratic primary on the island in June.
But every delegate will count for GOP candidates, with talk of a contested convention growing. And it seems as if the island is up for grabs, with no apparent polling having been done for Republicans.
Prediction markets give Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio wades into Trump-Lewis feud 19 companies that Trump has tweeted about Ex-Dem gov: I would have picked Giuliani over Tillerson MORE an edge, but Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump on Dems boycotting inauguration: 'I hope they give me their tickets' DeVos vows to be advocate for 'great' public schools Trump: 'I don’t like tweeting’ MORE’s extensive real estate ventures have given him a significant presence on the tourism-heavy island.
“My guess is that the majority of them are going for Trump,” said Charles Venator-Santiago, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut. “He’s a known quantity in Puerto Rico.”
While Puerto Ricans, as U.S. citizens, are not impacted by immigration policies, Barreto wondered if Trump’s heavy hand on that topic could hurt him if they feel like the broader public is becoming hostile to Hispanics as a whole.
In past GOP primaries, Puerto Rican voters have supported the front-runners, handing Mitt Romney and John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Cybersecurity: Obama commutes Chelsea Manning's sentence | A malware mystery Overnight Defense: Obama commutes Manning's sentence | Boeing sees 'progress' on Air Force One costs | McCain's 0B defense budget McCain: Leak of Trump dossier ‘totally wrong’ MORE easy wins during their respective White House runs.
Presidential candidates looking to curry favor on the island often do so by nodding toward making it the 51st state. In the past, a majority of Puerto Ricans have supported becoming a state, which would subject the island’s residents to federal income taxes, but also provide access to heightened government benefits. But Congress has generally ignored efforts along that front.
Despite inaction from Washington, presidential candidates including Ben Carson and Rubio have voiced support for Puerto Rican statehood. But the ongoing debt crisis on the island has added a new feature to the politics.
Puerto Rico’s efforts to convince Congress to let it go bankrupt on some of its debt have been met with fierce pushback from investment firms holding those bonds. And generally speaking, support for bankruptcy has fallen down party lines, with Republicans opposed and Democrats in favor.
That has held true on the campaign trail as well. Clinton has publicly backed bankruptcy for Puerto Rico. Many Republicans have steered clear of the topic, but Rubio announced his opposition to it in September, before campaigning on the island.
During Thursday’s debate, Rubio was pressed on his Puerto Rico stance. He argued that it made no sense to allow the island to declare bankruptcy, since the underlying economic and fiscal challenges would remain. And he squarely blamed the island’s current government for the state of affairs.
“Bankruptcy doesn’t work unless you change the way you’re operating,” he said in the CNN debate. “The leadership on the island has to show their willingness to get their house in order.”
That, in turn, earned a sharp rebuke from Puerto Rico’s governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla.
“I can only hope the four million Puerto Ricans currently living on the mainland, including the one million that are Rubio’s constituents, and the 3.5 million on the Island will remember the Senator’s desertion of the Puerto Rican people when they cast their votes in the primaries and the presidential election,” he said in a statement Friday.
For its part, the Obama administration is pushing a balanced approach that would combine heightened federal oversight of the island’s finances with the ability for Puerto Rico to restructure some of its debt if it cannot strike a deal with creditors.
Such a two-pronged approach appears to be gaining some momentum in Congress, as lawmakers hope to craft a legislative package before the end of March.
Island officials warn that it’s possible, if not probable, the island will default on mandatory payments coming due in May and July.