January 13, 1999
It looks as if it's a lot easier for big political money to buy Congress than it is to win the
hearts of grassroots voters. The Puerto Rico statehood bill, which last year appeared to be a
freight train rolling down hill, ran off the track in the Puerto Rico plebiscite on December 13.
The majority of Puerto Ricans rejected a much ballyhooed opportunity to vote for
statehood and voted instead for "None of the above." The election was clearly an endorsement
of the status quo, the option advocated by those who want Puerto Rico to retain its present
The nonbinding plebiscite on Puerto Rico's future was a stiff rebuke to Governor Pedro
Rossello, a vigorous advocate of statehood, and to the governing New Progressive Party (NPP),
which called the referendum, rigged the language in favor of statehood, and spent millions of
dollars on the campaign to win it. It was the second time in six years that the island rebuffed
The Gingrich-Gephardt Puerto Rico statehood bill that passed the House last March 4 by
209 to 208 may have had more money spent in its behalf than any other bill considered by the
105th Congress. Congressional leaders sidelined tax cuts, Social Security and Medicare reform,
regulatory relief, and all the other bills that their constituents care about and, with little notice,
rushed Puerto Rico statehood to the floor for a roll-call vote.
The Senate refused to go along, offering instead a courtesy resolution promising to
"review" any expression of Puerto Rican views. In its "review" of the way Puerto Rico slapped
down the notion of statehood, Congress should also review the gross amounts of money that
were spent in behalf of this unpopular notion and the deceptive techniques used to bamboozle
the House into passing it.
The National Journal called Puerto Rico "a Treasure Island for lobbyists" because the
statehood faction was paying at least 30 high-powered Washington firms. Former White House
chief of staff Harold Ickes lobbied the Democrats, while Republicans were stroked by Bob
Dole's new law firm, former RNC chairman Haley Barbour, and former Christian Coalition
executive director Ralph Reed.
The statehood faction spent $1 million to get Bill Clinton re-elected, hedging its bets with
$132,000 to Bob Dole. They gave members of Congress and the political parties $500,000 in
campaign contributions, with Senator Ted Kennedy's PACs receiving $188,000.
The statehood advocates ran expensive full-page newspaper and television ads and gave
dozens of Capitol Hill staffers all-expense-paid vacations in Puerto Rico. One Puerto Rican
mayor was arrested for demanding a $2.5 million "political contribution" kickback from a $17.5
million disaster-relief FEMA contract.
The most intriguing part of the lobbying campaign was the use of public opinion polls to
persuade Republicans in Congress to back their bill. It's a case study in how polls can be
manipulated to produce the opinions for which the client is paying.
The statehood faction hired Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin to counteract the
conventional wisdom that Puerto Rico statehood would diminish the Republican majority in
Congress by adding two more Democratic Senators and six to eight more Democrats in the
Wirthlin produced an expensive "confidential" poll, complete with color graphics,
designed to predict that Puerto Ricans would really vote for Republicans. This incredible
conclusion was based on alleged support for selected issues among Puerto Rican voters.
After admitting that, in a contest between a generic Democratic candidate against a
generic Republican, Puerto Ricans would vote 55% for the Democrat to only 27% for the
Republican, Wirthlin claimed that Puerto Ricans would vote 72% for a GOP pro-life candidate
to 22% for a Democratic pro-choice candidate.
The Democrats are not stupid enough to run a pro-abortion candidate in a state where the
polls show that 82% of Puerto Ricans want to prohibit abortion. But, funny thing, Wirthlin's
elaborate survey did not report how Puerto Ricans would vote if both Republican and
Democratic candidates were pro-life.
Wirthlin's confidential briefing told Republicans that, on a Presidential ballot, George W.
Bush would come "within just five points of Vice President Al Gore (40% to 45%)." It would
have been more honest to say that we can expect Puerto Ricans to cast their electoral votes for
Al Gore over George W. Bush.
Then, Wirthlin's confidential briefing argued that Puerto Rico would elect Republicans
because 91% favor prayer in public schools. This cheerful statistic was based on ignoring the
fact that, if Puerto Rico became a state, school prayer would be illegal.
The statehood faction also hired pollster Frank Luntz, who came up with the theory that
supporting statehood would help Republicans to appeal to the Hispanic vote. Luntz's polling
methods are considered highly controversial, and his conclusions were completely unrealistic
because there is no evidence that Puerto Rico statehood is a high-priority issue among any
Hispanics except Puerto Ricans.
The NPP is estimated to have spent $10 million of its own money, plus $350 million in
Puerto Rican government money, for lobbying and public relations over the last six years. With
access to that kind of cash, you can be sure the statehood lobbyists will be back on Capitol Hill