How to Win This Election
We are amid the campaign season. The gubernatorial candidates’ victory or defeat will depend, as it does in the United States, on their party’s voters turning out to vote in November. Many of the undecided and nonaffiliated voters don’t even show up to vote.
The parties’ bases in Puerto Rico are very similar in size. Electorally, the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) has oscillated between 41% (2008) and 49% (2000) of the vote. The New Progressive Party (NPP) has oscillated between 46% (2000) and 53% (2008) of the vote. We can deduce that the NPP base is slightly larger (between 3% and 5% bigger) than the PDP base. The NPP can mobilize its voters more easily because it has a statehood agenda while the PDP houses everything from statehooders to independence advocates. However, that diversity makes it easier for the PDP to attract nonaffiliated voters. Therefore, if both bases turn out, the election will be close.
In his new book, “Party Brands in Crisis,” Dr. Noam Lupu completes an excellent analysis of the electoral dynamics in Latin America. His thesis is that in good times and bad, voters mobilize because of the contrasts between parties. When the differences between parties get blurred, the party brand is diluted and voters loosen their bonds to the parties.
During the 1990s and 2000s, many political parties in Latin America implemented austerity measures. Many center-left parties had to put into effect conservative austerity policies to maintain their access to financial markets. That happened to Acción Democrática in Venezuela and to the Partido Justicialista in Argentina under Carlos Menem.
What happens when center-left parties adopt austerity measures? The electoral bases of these parties stop seeing the contrasts between them and the center-right parties, and the partisan allegiance dwindles. Voters respond less to partisan loyalties and more to rewarding and punishing the party in power for economic success and failure. In good times, a governing party that moves to the center can obtain massive electoral victories. However, in bad times, voters punish the incumbent and, at the same time, the party base is not mobilized because they don’t see the difference between the parties. That perfect storm provokes electoral collapses that can lose 80% of a party’s voters from one election to the next. Hugo Chávez won in 1998 precisely because austerity measures failed politically and the traditional center-left parties did not oppose them. His radicalism marked a contrast to an unpopular government.
The Popular Democratic Party has also had to make difficult economic decisions. David Bernier has said, correctly, that he will be focused on solving the economic issues that we face. He has opened the PDP’s door to statehooders and independence advocates. He has accepted proposals that were originally from the NPP, such as the “statehood yes or no” referendum. This has happened because statehood has gained ground, benefiting from voters’ dissatisfaction with the current status. It’s an inevitable strategy.
But that strategy of conciliating permanent union voters runs the risk of diluting the PDP brand, of making voters think there are no great differences between the PDP and the NPP. That is the discourse that the smaller parties and independent candidates are communicating. But to turn PDP voters out, there must be contrasts.
There is a group inside the PDP that would like to differentiate itself from the NPP on the status issue. They want to oppose statehood to the utmost and promote political sovereignty as the alternative. Undoubtedly, that would be a contrast. But it is an electorally unfavorable contrast.
Bernier is right not to push a sovereignty agenda. The vast majority of Puerto Ricans, and populares, reject sovereignty. Parties must stake their ground, but on favorable ground. Contrasting the NPP on the status issue is anti-electoral. We need voters who hold every position on the status issue. Staking our ground on the status issue, by going beyond inclusive proposals like the Constitutional Status Assembly and rejecting the imposition of any particular status alternative, is electorally unfavorable for the PDP.
What should the PDP do? The PDP’s origins show the way. It was formed from a dissident sector of the Liberal Party led by Luis Muñoz Marín, who was driven from the party because they insisted on an immediate solution to the status issue. It won in 1940 by a very close margin. However, a statistical analysis shows that between 40% and 50% of its voters from 1940 onward had voted for statehood parties in 1932 and 1936: the Republican and Socialist Parties that had governed for a decade. That’s why Muñoz Marín famously says during that campaign that “status is not an issue.” Without permanent union voters, Muñoz Marín would not have been close to winning. That’s why he abandoned the status fight.
If the PDP wants to win again in November and be a vibrant party for years to come, it must contrast itself from the NPP on a governing agenda, not on the status issue. To mobilize the PDP, Bernier needs to continue to propose economic and social reforms that can move our voters. He has to stake his ground firmly in those contrasts: the PDP and NPP will not govern the same way. This contrast will appeal to voters on every side of the status issue, who believe in a tolerant, generous and inclusive government.
Luis Balbino Arroyo is an attorney in private practice. He was previously Legislative Director for Sen. Ángel Rosa. In addition to being an attorney, he has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics.