There’s some disagreement about how long it had been since a sitting American president visited Puerto Rico. Barack Obama this week claimed he was the first since John F Kennedy in 1961, but it’s been suggested Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford made subsequent trips. Even so, that’s at least 35 years — a long time between rum cocktails.
It’s not that Puerto Rico is a long way away — it’s a lot closer to Washington than Alaska or Hawaii is (or for that matter Los Angeles), and it’s more populous than about half the states. Its residents are American citizens, and if they move to a state they can vote for the presidency and for congress. But while they stay in Puerto Rico they can’t — which does much to explain the official neglect.
The president’s visit is widely being seen as a bid for Puerto Rican votes on the mainland (according to the 2010 census there are more Puerto Ricans there than on Puerto Rico) and for Hispanic votes more generally. Although he still holds a clear lead in the polls, the dire state of the US economy means next year’s election can’t be taken for granted, and Obama needs all the support he can get.
That poses a particular problem for the Republican Party, since its increasingly nativist slant of recent years — and especially its jihad against Mexican immigrants — is unlikely to appeal much to Hispanic voters. And that in turn is one of the factors behind the talking up of a new potential Republican candidate, Texas governor Rick Perry.
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Perry has been governor since 2000, when he replaced George W Bush, making him the longest-serving leader in the state’s history. Being a Texas Republican, he stands well to the right of the spectrum in national terms, but by Texas standards he seems broadly within the mainstream and his tenure is generally regarded as successful.
Having long denied any ambition to run for president, Perry has recently sounded as if he may be interested in the job. The lacklustre nature of the official field, as displayed in this week’s televised debate from Iowa, has added considerably to speculation, as has the fact that — despite the apparent domination of the party by the south — there is no serious southerner in the Republican field.
Texas will not be a key state next year — it will only be close if the overall result is a Democrat landslide. But several nearby states with big Hispanic populations could be critical: Florida, Colorado and maybe New Mexico or Arizona. If the GOP needs to bolster its southern support, then Perry has obvious advantages over a Mitt Romney or a Tim Pawlenty.
There are other factors at work as well. The party’s conservatives are clearly unhappy with Romney, the current front-runner, but seem unwilling to take the risk of embracing the full craziness of someone like Michele Bachmann. Perry, with deeply conservative positions but the respectability of his record in Texas, looks like an ideal compromise, especially with the rapid fading of Newt Gingrich.
It’s true that governors have a good record in presidential elections, as Nate Silver points out. But the Republican field is already well supplied with those. While Perry might benefit from the combination of conservatism and respectability, it’s also possible he would lose out on both counts, with those who care about electability sticking with Romney while the real ideologues go for Bachmann or — if she runs — Sarah Palin.
Moreover, the big lesson of the 2008 election was that the whole “southern strategy” of the Republican Party has serious limitations. They won the south not by embracing its minority voters but by moving to the right to gather up more of the white vote. But that meant taking positions that alienated voters in the rest of the country, including key states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
As a result, Obama did what had widely been thought impossible: win without having strong support in the south. (He carried just three of the old Confederate states — Florida, Virginia and North Carolina — and would still have won without them.) If the Republicans continue to shift rightwards, it’s very possible he could do it again.