After being hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017, Puerto Rico suffered an extraordinary economic and humanitarian crisis — and President Trump maligned the territory and its government. But with Joe Biden’s election as the 46th U.S. president and the possibility that Democrats may control the U.S. Senate, many Democratic policymakers have been talking about granting Puerto Rico statehood.
Legislators have introduced bills to admit Puerto Rico as a U.S. state before. Those don’t get far — in part because little is known about whether mainland American voters would support that initiative. Our study finds that both Republican and Democrat voters become more willing to support Puerto Rican statehood when they learn more about the island’s political status.
Puerto Rico’s political status
The United States took control of Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898 — and its status has been debated ever since. Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917. While they are exempt from paying federal income tax, they do not have the right to vote in federal elections and lack voting congressional representation.
For the island to become a state, Congress would need a majority support for the initiative in both chambers similar to any other federal legislation. Legislators are often prompted to act is when their constituents support a position. Our research, published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, investigates both how mainland Americans feel about the possibility of Puerto Rico as the 51st state and what might change their attitudes.
Here is how we researched this question
To examine public attitudes toward Puerto Rican statehood, in February 2016, we conducted an original survey of non-Hispanic White U.S. mainland citizens recruited online by Cint. Although not nationally representative, our heterogeneous sample of 1,750 respondents largely matched the targeted population across important demographic and political characteristics.
To test what might change their opinions on statehood, we included an information experiment describing Puerto Rico’s political status and its relationship to the United States. After completing a short demographic survey, our respondents were randomly divided into two equal groups. Respondents in the first group were asked to read information about a small tree frog, the coquí, native to Puerto Rico. The second group was asked to read a short explainer of Puerto Rico’s political connection to the United States.
The second group’s explainer described Puerto Ricans as having been U.S. citizens since 1917 and serving in every major U.S. war since World War I. It also explained that while residing on the island, Puerto Ricans do not have the ability to vote for U.S. president and do not have a voting representative in Congress.
The explainer made a difference. Our results indicate that while White Americans are generally ambivalent about Puerto Rican statehood, the “informed” respondents had significantly higher levels of support (51 percent vs. 40 percent) and lower levels of opposition (19 percent vs. 26 percent) to statehood than did the coquí group. White Americans who read the explainer were more likely to say that Puerto Ricans should maintain their U.S. citizenship and that it is unfair that they lack federal representation. We saw these effects equally among all major demographic and political subgroups of White respondents, including both Republicans and Democrats.
Of course, our research has some limitations. Most important, our experimental treatment combines several distinct pieces of information, which could all have had a potentially separate influence. For instance, did knowledge that some Puerto Ricans are U.S. military veterans influence some, while simple knowledge that they were citizens without federal representation influence others? However, the difficulty of disentangling these effects arguably makes our findings more reliable. After all, mainland Americans mostly get their information about the island from the major news media who usually provide multiple facts about Puerto Rico in their coverage.
Of course, in everyday life, mainland Americans don’t simply read neutral presentations of facts. Republicans and Democrats generally learn about current events from very different media streams, which often carry partisan weight. If the Republican Party were to oppose Puerto Rican statehood on the grounds that it would add more Democratic votes for president and Congress, for instance, Fox News and other right-leaning outlets would probably campaign against such a bid. However, since we found that neutrally presenting information changes minds on both sides of the partisan line, we believe it’s possible that some significant portion of Republicans might support it nonetheless.
What does this mean for the prospects of Puerto Rico statehood?
Clearly, our study cannot determine whether statehood is the best choice for the island or the United States in general. However, we do find that mainland White voters could support statehood if they knew more about Puerto Rico’s history as part of the United States; about its U.S. citizen residents; and about those residents’ long history of significant contributions to U.S. society and culture. In Congress, which will ultimately decide on Puerto Rican statehood, this could make the difference.
Abdiel Santiago is a doctoral student at Stanford University Law School.
Alexander Kustov (@akoustov) is a postdoctoral associate in the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University.
Ali A. Valenzuela (@AliAValenzuela) is an assistant professor in the department of politics and program in American studies at Princeton University.
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