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Status Not A Vote-Winning Issue In 2000

by Lance Oliver

August 27, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Now that Carlos Pesquera has toned down his pro-plebiscite position, it appears all the top politicians have come to the same realization: in 2000, focusing on political status will not win you votes, and could lose you a few critical ones.

At the beginning, Pesquera played the status card, promising to seek another plebiscite if elected. That's a good way to get your most dedicated followers revved up, but in the long run, focusing on status is not a winning strategy. Not this time.

The statistical evidence for that assertion was contained in the poll results released by El Nuevo Día this week. In the poll, 59% said there should be no more status votes for now. Even among New Progressive Party followers, the group most enthusiastic about revisiting the issue, 53% said no plebiscites soon. Most importantly, among unaffiliated voters, 58% opposed a plebiscite in the near future and just 15% favored one.

In the wake of the poll results, Pesquera clarified his position, saying he would only be seeking another vote if it had the approval of Congress.

But as Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barceló said, you don't need a poll to know the voters of Puerto Rico are tired of status votes.

The focus has shifted to other hot topics: the Navy and Vieques, corruption, the political prisoners. You hear less talk these days on the radio shows and in the newspapers about the status issue.

The tactical situation faced by a candidate for governor in Puerto Rico today is that the two main parties are at near parity. Exciting the hard core of the party by flogging the status issue may be necessary, to a certain extent, to ensure that those people get out to vote.

The hard core may cost you the election if they are unmoved by your campaign and they stay at home. But they can't win the election for you because they are negated by the other party's hard core.

In recent elections, the small slice of unaffiliated voters has become the key battleground. They voted for Pedro Rosselló in 1992 and 1996 but he lost much of their support in the last two years.

In El Nuevo Día's poll, Sila Calderón's lead over Pesquera is entirely due to her support from unaffiliated voters, who favor her 37% to 11%. Pesquera 's job is to make progress among those important swing voters.

Even more than other Puerto Ricans, the unaffiliated voters are turned off by traditional, divisive status politics. Sure, Rosselló won their votes in 1992 while promising a plebiscite, but at that time Puerto Rico had not voted on status in 25 years. Since then the island went through two plebiscites in less than six years.

To attract unaffiliated voters, a candidate has to focus on quality of life issues, such as crime, transportation, education and the economy.

Controversies such as the Navy in Vieques, which creates unusual consensus, are ripe for exploitation, as is the corruption issue. The AIDS Institute scandal was an embarrassment to many people, especially since the federal government had to crack the case after the local government had dithered.

No doubt other issues will come into prominence in the 14 months between now and the election and will present opportunities for winning votes. But it's very unlikely that political status will be among them.


Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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