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The Gravitational Pull Of The PDP

by Lance Oliver

November 26, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Aníbal Acevedo Vilá is not the most beloved politician in Puerto Rico. He does not often inspire the cult of personality expected and demanded by many voters, who want to support a candidate not because of his or her policy position, but because the candidate can be seen as almost a savior, a leader worthy of screaming, cheering, rock-star adulation.

Yet despite this, Acevedo Vilá has some impressive wins on his resumé. Under his presidency, the Popular Democratic Party successfully mobilized its followers during last year's status vote. The so-called "fifth column" went from single-digit support to majority in a matter of weeks.

He followed up on that success with a solid victory over José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral in the primary election for resident commissioner.


Of course others must share the credit for those two victories, especially Sila María Calderón, and there are many factors that contributed. But I believe the PDP leadership, in this case personified by Calderón and Acevedo Vilá, has an inherent advantage.

Call it the gravitational pull of the PDP.

Since the 1940s, the PDP has been the center of Puerto Rican politics, and the 1952 formation of the commonwealth enshrined that central position. The PDP represents the status quo while statehooders, independentistas, free association advocates and others are alternatives, the satellites wheeling about in sometimes eccentric orbits.

At crucial times, the center exerts its pull and stray voters, those not firmly tied to the other alternatives, are drawn back to the PDP.

The 1998 status vote was one such moment. Fatigued from the bloody Puerto Rico Telephone Company strike and battered by Hurricane Georges, almost nobody outside the professional political class had a lot of enthusiasm for a status vote in the months before the plebiscite. Yet the PDP leadership was able to get its message out and ensure its supporters voted for "none of the above."

Other factors, specifically the public's disgust with Gov. Pedro Rosselló's handling of the strike and other controversies, played a role. But it was the nature of the PDP as the center of politics that enabled it to benefit from that dissatisfaction.

I've talked to independentistas who voted for "none of the above" just because they were angry with Rosselló. To the great frustration of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, their protest votes went not to their favored status choice, but to the PDP, which was seen as the real opposition to Rosselló.

I've even come across an occasional statehooder who voted for "none of the above." These are people who support statehood for reasons of economics or convenience, but think of themselves as Puerto Ricans first and foremost, not Americans. They, too, gravitated to the PDP.

Think of the PDP as a default position. When in doubt, vote popular.

The same factor played a role in the primary election for resident commissioner. In this case, a vote for the party was a vote for the official leadership, not the Hernández faction. Despite a lineup of influential mayors against them, Acevedo Vilá and Calderón were able to bring home enough stray voters to clinch a decisive victory not many had predicted.

Why is the PDP able to tap this level of loyalty among its followers that other parties cannot quite match?

Once reason is history. The PDP ruled Puerto Rico politics unchallenged for a quarter of a century. Even when Luis A. Ferré broke the party's grip in 1968, he did it only with help from then-Gov. Roberto Sánchez Vilella, who split the party as he tried to forge his own way and emerge from the shadow of Luis Muñoz Marín. When many Puerto Ricans look back at their roots, they see red and pavas.

In the Puerto Rico of today, despite slowly growing voter independence, party affiliation is still part of many people's identity, something handed down like a last name. Just as many consider themselves Catholics even though they haven't been to mass in 20 years, plenty of people call themselves populares, regardless of how they vote, because their family has been popular for generations. It's part of their identity.

When in doubt, vote PDP. Follow the party leadership.

Today, politics in Puerto Rico is mostly a standoff. Both the NPP and PDP can count on a solid core of supporters of roughly the same size.

In such a situation, small advantages can make the difference. The PDP's ability to pull in wavering voters is a very real advantage.


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

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