Puerto Rico goes to the polls

Though they don't get to vote in the general election, the island's residents are voting in a Democratic primary today, but will enough turn out to make a difference for Hillary Clinton?

By Alex Koppelman
Published June 1, 2008 6:54PM (EDT)

Though they're citizens, Puerto Ricans don't get to vote for president of the United States -- the commonwealth has no electoral college votes. But on Sunday, the archipelago's residents are voting in a primary that will help decide the Democratic Party's presidential nominee.

Polls close at 3 p.m. EDT, and we're expected to know results not long afterward. Most observers expect Hillary Clinton to win, and by a decent margin. That won't be enough to bring her much closer to Barack Obama in the pledged delegate counts, but it will help in the national popular vote tally -- the question is how much it will help.

Clinton is trailing badly in the pledged delegate count, there's no doubt about that. But one of the Clinton camp's arguments on this score actually does hold true: Obama does not have enough pledged delegates to capture the nomination, at least not without help from superdelegates, the same as Clinton.

So if Clinton could capture an undisputed lead in the popular vote -- that is, a lead in a tally that includes as many caucuses as have actual vote estimates, and does not include the controversial primaries in Florida and Michigan -- then she would have a decent argument that might at least help stall the superdelegate rush to Obama that's expected to happen beginning after the final Democratic primaries take place on Tuesday.

Yes, at the moment, the Clinton camp claims to be leading in the popular vote, but they count Florida and Michigan. Let's be honest -- whatever you personally might think of the merits of including Michigan when tallying the popular vote, they'll never be able to win that argument, as Obama's name wasn't even on the ballot there. Including Florida is a different story, as Obama was on the ballot there, but that will be disputed by Obama supporters and probably some in the media as well. That's why I think the undisputed number would be the one they really need to get to for this to become a serious issue for the Obama camp and for the superdelegates, who would surely not like being forced into that tough of a situation.

At the moment, according to an estimate by Real Clear Politics, if you include the caucuses that particular Web site tallies, and exclude Florida and Michigan, Clinton trails Obama by 571,180 votes. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jonathan Last recently calculated the margin Clinton needs in Puerto Rico to take over in that estimate (which, at the time Last made his calculation, was closer by 20,000 votes). Last said that if 2,000,000 Puerto Ricans turned out to vote and Clinton won by 28 percent, she'd take the lead.

Here's the problem for Clinton, though: At the time the Inquirer published Last's calculation, it seemed as if she could reach that bar. But even if she can pull off that big of a victory, it seems right now as if her campaign didn't get enough Puerto Ricans to turn out to vote. CNN reports that election officials say they only printed 1.5 million ballots, and don't expect to come close to running out.

There's still one measure of hope for Clinton supporters, though, and something to strike fear into the hearts of Obama supporters. After the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee voted on Saturday to seat Florida's delegation, the argument to include the state in the national popular vote tally is at least marginally stronger. (In scenarios they're discussing, CNN is actually including Florida and Michigan as well, which seems dubious to me, even though they're giving the "Uncommitted" votes to Obama -- there's just no way of knowing how many people in Michigan would really have voted for him.) If you include the caucuses as well as Florida, by Real Clear Politics' estimate Clinton is behind by 276,408 votes. We'll see if she can make up the difference today, and in the primaries that will happen on Tuesday.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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