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Jorge A. Rey

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Why Obama Is Visiting Puerto Rico

Posted: 06/13/11 01:10 PM ET

Puerto Rico's beaches are as warm as its people, and the island's food is as delectable as its rum. But these are not the reasons why President Obama will be visiting the Island of Enchantment this week. The President is fulfilling a promise he made back in 2008 to the people of Puerto Rico to return to the island if he was elected president. His trip, however, is as much about the 2012 presidential race and making further inroads into the Latino community as it is about keeping his promise.

With the U.S. presidential election less than 17 months away, President Obama knows that his road to re-election will run through the Latino community, and his campaign is hoping that images of his trip to Puerto Rico will remind Latinos back in the U.S. of how he has feverishly courted the community since 2008 -- particularly, Latinos in Florida and out West.

In 2008, Latinos were not decisive in Barack Obama's victory over John McCain -- but they helped the President achieve a decisive victory. President Obama beat John McCain by more than 9.5 million votes. Latinos accounted for roughly 36.7% of the winning margin, padding Obama's victory with approximately 3.5 million votes.

In the battleground states, Latinos proved decisive in the state of New Mexico where they accounted for 106% of the President's winning margin. In Florida, Latinos accounted for 69% of Obama's winning plurality. In Nevada, they comprised 62% of the President's winning margin, while they constituted a more modest 35% of his margin of victory in Colorado. Given that the 2012 election will likely be more competitive than it was in 2008, Latinos will be critical to the President's re-election prospects. The Obama campaign will undoubtedly capitalize on the recent U.S. Census Bureau report indicating that 1 out of every 6 Americans is Latino. Assuming the campaign can close the voter registration gap between Latinos and their white and African-American counterparts, the President should be able to repeat his victories in these states, and strongly compete in Virginia, Arizona, and North Carolina.

So how could his trip to San Juan help him get re-elected? For starters, images of the President in a white guayabera shirt embracing the island's residents will appear faster on Telemundo and Univision television stations than you can say "ay Dios mio." Despite the President's 48% approval rating in the U.S., his approval rating among Latino voters stands at a striking 70%. A high visibility trip to San Juan will go a long way to remind Latinos why they like this President so much; particularly, when he mentions that he has appointed more Latinos to his presidential cabinet than any other president in American history. And yes, he will drop the "S-Bomb" and remind his audience that he elevated Sonia Sotomayor to become the first Hispanic woman to the nation's Supreme Court.

Who does the Obama campaign hope will take note of his trip to San Juan? Guess no further than Latino voters residing in Orlando, Tampa, Denver, Pueblo, Las Vegas, and Albuquerque. The President's re-election will inevitably turn on one of two winning strategies: win Florida, or the western triumvirate of New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado. Latinos will be pivotal in executing either strategy. The President's trip to Puerto Rico will be heavily reported in the I-4 corridor in Florida than runs between Tampa and Orlando, which is home to the bulk of the approximately 850,000 Puerto Ricans that live in the Sunshine State. Heavily Democratic, these voters will be critical in helping the President mitigate his losses among more conservative Cuban-American voters in southern Florida. If the President wins Florida, he will likely be assured a second term, as the challenge for the G.O.P. candidate to amass 270 electoral votes will become herculean. Without Florida, the G.O.P. would have to win a number of additional states including Ohio and Pennsylvania, which will not be an easy task given that no Republican presidential candidate has won Pennsylvania since 1988. Assuming the President loses both Florida and Ohio, in addition to North Carolina, Indiana, and Virginia, and all else remains equal from the 2008 race, he would still win 273 electoral votes.

Of course, the qualifier is that all else would have to remain equal. A lot can happen to alter the electoral landscape dramatically in 17 months. If the Republican candidate manages to win all five of these states and picks up New Hampshire, there would be a 269-269 split, and the election would be tossed into the House of Representatives, effectively leading to a Republican victory.

If the Florida strategy fails, and the President only loses several of the states where he may be vulnerable, he can still win assuming he holds on to the Midwest, and repeats his 2008 sweep of Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. The burgeoning Latino population out West served as a massive seawall that stopped the Republican tidal wave that swept across the country during last year's midterm election dead in its tracks. Remember all those polls showing Harry Reid was headed towards an early retirement of slots and shrimp cocktail in Vegas? They were all wrong, and Latinos, not Lady Luck, saved Harry Reid. According to Latino Decisions, a polling firm that specializes in gauging the political views of the Latino community, Harry Reid captured a staggering 90% of the Latino vote, which gave him an approximate 65,676-vote plurality amongst Latino voters. He won the race by a difference of 41,244 votes, underscoring the fact that Latinos helped Harry Reid beat Sharron Angle. In Colorado, Latinos helped the Democrats hold on to the governorship as well as Michael Bennet's senate seat, while in California, they deepened the blue hue of the Golden State.

So as the affable President travels to the Island of Enchantment this week to fulfill a promise, his secret hope will be to enchant U.S. Latinos watching the President from the mainland with all eyes on the 2012 U.S. presidential race.