Feature:Opinion

Romney recognizes the sleeping giant of the US territories

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior

Mitt Romney swept to victory in the Northern Mariana Islands Republican caucus this weekend. Not earth-shattering news, until you realize that the Northern Marianas is part of a cohesive Island Caucus from the U.S. territories that collectively controls more GOP delegates than all but seven states — and Mitt Romney is likely to get almost all of them.

The Island Caucus will provide more delegates than Florida this year, more than Kansas, more than Tennessee, more than North Carolina, more than Missouri, more than New Jersey, more than Virginia. Not bad for a group of U.S. citizens who can’t even vote in November’s presidential election. The territories will collectively supply almost twice as many delegates as Michigan and more than twice as many as states such as Iowa, Arizona, Nevada and South Carolina. Of the states that have held primaries or caucuses thus far, only Ohio and Georgia award more delegates than the combined territories. The territories are more important than ever this year, since so many states have been docked delegates for moving their primaries up.

In addition to picking up all nine delegates from the Northern Mariana Islands this weekend, Romney also captured all nine delegates from Guam and seven of the nine from the U.S. Virgin Islands (where Ron Paul picked up one delegate and one remains uncommitted). Romney will likely get all nine delegates from American Samoa, which caucuses this week, and all 23 from Puerto Rico’s winner-take-all primary the following week. That would leave Romney with 57 of the 59 delegates from the territories. Not a bad haul. Considering the millions of dollars that all of the candidates have poured into states that award far fewer delegates, Romney’s modest investment in the territories has probably been as cost-effective as any expenditure that any of the candidates has made during the course of this campaign. At Bain Capital, they would call this type of investment a home run.

The territories are a far-flung group of tiny island communities — Puerto Rico being the exception to the “tiny” rule, at least in terms of population. They include the southernmost part of the U.S. (American Samoa) and the easternmost part of the U.S. (which, depending on how you look at it, would either be in the U.S. Virgin Islands or in Guam). The territories are a highly diverse collection of communities populated by Pacific Islanders (including the Polynesians of American Samoa and the Micronesians of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands), Asians, blacks and Hispanics.

Notwithstanding the great cultural diversity of the territories, it would not be improper to think of the Island Caucus as a fairly unified political bloc. “We stick together,” said Holland Redfield, a Republican national committeeman and Romney delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands. “We’re a sleeping giant.” Redfield said that Republican operatives in the territories have recognized that they can wield considerable clout in the presidential nomination process by acting together. The Island Caucus has made a strong impact on party politics in other contexts as well; the territories’ unified support of Michael Steele when he first ran for chairman was instrumental in his victory.

By working together when they can, the territories can make up for the lack of power they usually suffer from. The territories are usually an afterthought when Congress passes laws that apply to them by default. Policies designed for the 50 states are often ill-suited to fragile island economies that are thousands of miles from the U.S. mainland. When Congress decided to phase in the U.S. minimum wage to American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands a few years ago, the economies of those two territories were almost destroyed.

But the presidential nomination process is a rare opportunity for the territories to exercise some important influence by working together. And while that influence is under the radar and virtually ignored by the media, it is real influence nonetheless.

And lest anyone begrudge the territories the rare moment of power that they are enjoying during this primary season, one thing should be remembered: The territories, on a per capita basis, send far more of their young men and women to fight and die for our freedom than any of the 50 states. For that reason alone, the fleeting influence that the territories are enjoying at the moment has been earned many times over.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the host of the “White Hot Politics” radio show on Adrenaline Radio (Wednesdays at 11PM EST). Follow him on Twitter @DavidBCohen1.