Mike Bloomberg Shakes Up Puerto Rico’s Democratic Primary

Jan 29, 2020
9:45 AM

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg on the campaign trail in December, 2019 (Photo provided by Bloomberg campaign/Facebook)

A week ago, most experts agreed that Joe Biden was going to easily win the March 29 Puerto Rico Democratic primary. The numbers just added up.

The reasoning went like this: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders would split the young progressive vote (with Sanders winning that matchup), while Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, and Amy Klobuchar would not reach the 15% threshold needed to secure delegates. Biden would triumph thanks to his name recognition and the help of an impressive bipartisan list of politicians who endorsed him.

Then Michael Bloomberg added himself to the equation of a primary with 59 delegates in play. On Monday, Bloomberg’s campaign published an op-ed in El Nuevo Día and the Orlando Sentinel detailing his plans for Puerto Rico should he become President. But it was Bloomberg’s full-throated support of statehood that got everyone talking.


We had people who viewed the announcement as nothing more than an electoral move designed to steal some delegates from the Puerto Rico and Florida primaries.

Others rightly reminded us that national parties and presidential candidates had supported statehood or “solving of Puerto Rico’s status” in every election since forever. And yet Puerto Rico is still a colony.


And some people even made it about Trump (for some reason):

But what really piqued my interest was the revolú the Bloomberg news caused with statehood supporters, and how it suddenly upended the the Puerto Rico primary. It quickly became apparent —from the reactions on Twitter PR and conversations with people on the island— that Biden is the candidate that stands to lose the most with the rise of Bloomberg.

“Biden had a lot of appeal with supporters of statehood,” said Gabriela Medina Marrero, the San Juan Region representative of the Democratic Party of Puerto Rico. “He has name recognition, is one of the front-runners, and in closed meetings, he was always a big supporter of statehood, but Bloomberg’s announcement will cut into his lead.”

“This certainly shifts the landscape. Bloomberg was able to get the interest of a sector that represents at least 50% of Puerto Rico’s population,” said Luis Dávila Pernas, a Democratic Party of Puerto Rico committee member. “Spending money in advertising that embraces the ideal of statehood will also increase the interest of the supporters of statehood.”

The first time I heard that Bloomberg was becoming a factor in the Puerto Rico happened in early December when I was discussing with a friend what the presidential campaigns were doing in Puerto Rico.

“You know which campaign has surprised me? Bloomberg’s,” she said. “They are starting to interview potential staffers on the island, and they’re also meeting with people all presidential campaigns need to meet with.”

A couple of weeks later, as seven other candidates were debating in Iowa, Puerto Ricans watching from home got the opportunity to hear from Mike Bloomberg as well. His campaign had done what no other Democratic presidential campaign has done in Puerto Rico this cycle: run TV ads. The ad buy is rumored to have cost several hundred thousand dollars.

And then came Monday’s announcement along with several endorsements from prominent members of the pro-statehood party. That was the moment when Bloomberg shook Puerto Rico’s race like a kid shakes a snow globe.

“People are commenting that they want to withdraw their endorsement of the Biden campaign. And when someone withdraws an endorsement, it can be a tough hit,” Dávila Pernas said.

You may be wondering how a simple pro-statehood announcement can hurt Biden more than the other candidates. Once again, we turn to math and some commentary from the island to find the answer.

“Once you are committed to supporting Warren or Sanders, it’s difficult to make a change to Bloomberg. He is too ideologically different from the others. He represents everything I dislike in politics: a billionaire that can buy his way into the election,” said Joshua Manuel Bonet, a pro-statehood Democrat who supports Warren. “Also, a lot of the Democrats who support Bernie on the island do not support statehood, so he is not affected. I do worry that Warren may get crowded out and not get any delegates.”

So if Warren, Yang, and Buttigieg do not reach the 15% threshold needed to win Puerto Rican delegates, and Bernie does not depend on statehood supporters, only Biden’s share of the vote is up for grabs.

“Biden’s campaign bet on being in the happy medium when it comes to status. He depends on the support of both pro-statehood people and autonomists. As more supporters of statehood jump ship, Biden might end up with a handful of autonomists that won’t move the needle much and will have to compete against Bernie and Warren with a similar stance on status,” Dávila Pernas said.

Bloomberg has been telegraphing his moves from the very beginning, repeatedly stating that he would not compete in the early states and instead focus on Super Tuesday and all the states that come after. It is no surprise then that Bloomberg’s campaign targeted Puerto Rico as an easy pickup—especially since Puerto Rico will send more delegates to the Democratic convention than 20 other states.

What is surprising is that a large part of the pro-statehood Democratic electorate is apparently composed of one-issue voters. They are not questioning Bloomberg’s support of the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) nor how the existence of the FOMB makes it harder for Puerto Rico to become a state. They just like that he came out in support of statehood.

So what can we learn from all this? For one, it looks like a sizable part of the Democratic electorate in Puerto Rico is passionate about the status issue, no matter what their preference is. It also underlines the importance of candidates not being wishy-washy about PR’s political status. Every conversation I had mentioned how refreshing it was to see a presidential candidate strongly support a side of the status debate.

We also learned that last year’s decision by the party to move up the Democratic primaries in Puerto Rico from June to March is already paying dividends.

“The date change is important. Holding the primary only weeks after Super Tuesday allows Puerto Rico to be on center stage. We are the only primary that day,” Dávila Pernas explained.

Bloomberg’s support of statehood will also be on the center stage on March 29, but will his gamble pay off?

“I’m not sure that this will propel Bloomberg to victory. A lot of pro-statehood people identify with Republicans. Still, it is a good contrast to see a centrist Democrat endorse statehood, especially when you have the greatest enemy of statehood in the White House,” Bonet said.


Frederick Vélez III Burgos is a former Congressional staff member and has worked in the last three election cycles to get out the vote in the Latino community. Born and raised in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, he now lives in Miami, FL. You can follow him on Twitter at @frederickviii.