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Winning Isn't Everything, But It's A Good Campaign Slogan

by Lance Oliver

December 17, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

I must have been scanning the business section or searching for bargains in the classifieds the day the news came out that primaries were not about choosing the candidate with the most ability, but rather the one with the most electability.

A recent national poll on the presidential race in the Republican Party illustrates this phenomenon well. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the man with all the early endorsements and big financial contributions, has a 64 percent to 18 percent lead over his closest challenger, Sen. John McCain.

But when the poll question was changed, and potential voters were asked who they would choose if McCain won a few early primaries, thereby showing he is a viable candidate, Bush's margin dropped to nothing, 37 percent to 34 percent for McCain.

What the poll shows clearly is that Bush locked up the early support not because Republicans thought he was the best candidate, but because he was seen as the candidate most likely to win in the general election. Take away his air of inevitability and he becomes just a lackluster campaigner, a two-term governor whose previous job experience was managing a baseball team.

The same phenomenon can be seen in Puerto Rico. In last month's primary elections, candidates often focused their television advertising not on their accomplishments or their plans for the future, but on a different promise: that they were winners.

"Be part of the great Popular Party victory," one ad invited. Another ad urged voters to make their votes count. The way to do that was to vote for the candidate who was going to win. Apparently voting for a losing candidate you believe in is less satisfying than voting for the one who gets the throw the victory party on election night.

The tactic played an obvious role in the Popular Democratic Party's race for resident commissioner between former party president Aníbal Acevedo Vilá and José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral. The Hernández campaign made much of a poll that showed him doing better in a one-on-one matchup with Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barceló than would Acevedo Vilá.

The poll showed Hernández gaining 40,000 more votes than Acevedo Vilá against Romero, and the mayors supporting the son of former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón made advertisements urging voters to vote for a winner. "Vote for the one who gets 40,000 more votes against Romero," one ad urged.

The Acevedo Vilá campaign turned the tactic around, urging loyal party members to give PDP President Sila María Calderón the running mate she wanted. With Calderón the unchallenged candidate for governor, and with her undisguised opposition to running with Hernández Mayoral next to her on the ballot, the campaign again focused on victory, implying that Calderón could lead the party triumphant into La Fortaleza if only she were given the support she needed and the ticket she asked for.

It can be argued that Hernández Mayoral had to focus on his vote-winning ability since he had little else, aside from his name, to recommend him. Though George W. Bush may not have the most compelling resume in the race for president, he is a seasoned and experienced statesman compared to Hernández Mayoral.

Hernández could not match Acevedo Vilá in terms of service to the party or experience in the public sector, so he had to take another route.
But despite that argument, I think there is more at work here than that. Other candidates with years in the legislature also chose to focus not on their accomplishments or positions, but on building an image as a winner.

And Puerto Rico undeniably loves a winner. Look at the incredible crowds that lined the streets when Dayanara Torres came home with the Miss Universe crown, or the even more incredible masses that celebrated when Tito Trinidad came home with the welterweight boxing title. Everybody from Carlos Pesquera to jobless teens hanging around Hato Rey wanted a piece of that glory, to feel a little like a winner by being close to a certified, undisputed winner on a worldwide scale.

For a nation with a 500-year history of having its own sovereignty, and often its own identity, denied, it is probably inevitable. For self-esteem, join the winning team.

Of course for Hernández Mayoral, the tactic wasn't enough this time. But it definitely strikes a responsive chord.

In general elections, most people are still populares, penepes or independentistas. But when choosing from among their own ranks, voters like a winning candidate, maybe even better than a good one.

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

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