Opinion: Why Santorum's 'English Only' Gaffe is Genius

Flag of Puerto Rico

Before this weekend's Puerto Rico primary, GOP candidate Rick Santorum was quoted in saying that if the territory wanted U.S. statehood, they'd have to make English their only official language. (Puerto Rico lists English and Spanish as official languages). Obviously, this indelicacy likely contributed to his huge loss on Sunday. 

Santorum’s Puerto Rico loss to Romney, who won an incredible 83 percent of the vote and all 20 delegates, was no doubt accelerated by the fact that Puerto Ricans are very proud of their Hispanic culture and language and partly by the support of Puerto Rico’s governor and other GOP leaders for the Former Massachusetts governor. But was Santorum deploying a tactical strategy? 

Why? For starters, Mitt Romney has said in the past that English must be the official language of the United States. But when he was in Puerto Rico this week looking for primary support and was asked he now said there would be no prerequisites for statehood should the island wish to pursue this. Flip flopping again Governor?

The Hispanic media feasted on the Santorum story - it was by far the most prominent political story in all of them. I was asked by Café CNN, at CNN en Español to do "post-Puerto Rico primary" analysis, the first time in 42 years as an analyst I’ve been asked to comment on the “Island of Enchantment” primary.

The important number in all of this is 48.4 million, the estimated Hispanic population of the United States, of which 21.5 million adult citizens will be eligible to vote in November 2012. Hispanic voters have become an important political factor in many states. George W. Bush snagged roughly 41 percent of Hispanic voters and a big victory in 2004. McCain and Palin only received 31 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush recently noted that Hispanic voters represent the "margin of victory" in 15 battleground states that are likely to decide in 2012 who wins the White House and controls the United States Senate.

All of the GOP contenders this year except Newt Gingrich have taken positions that don’t connect with Hispanic voters. For example on immigration reform they have mostly favored militarizing the Mexican border and deportation. None of them support the “Dream Act” which, if passed by Congress, would give young Hispanics in the U.S. illegally a chance to apply for citizenship if they complete college or serve in the US military. Now the language issue has been piled on top of an already steep climb with Hispanics in November.

It's a surprise to nobody that the GOP has a "Hispanic problem" - with the exception of Newt Gingrich, no Republican candidate has an immigration plan that is palatable to a large number of Latinos, but that's not a problem right now. It's a problem in the general election, when the GOP candidate can pivot back to the middle away from the wings of the party.

Rick Santorum isn't in a general election - he's in a tenacious fight for the Republican nomination, where every difference between him and the frontrunner is an asset in branding. So, the language incident that erupted in Puerto Rico is clearly a major long-range challenge for the Republicans as they march towards the November race against Barack Obama.

The truth is, there is a big segment of Americans who support having English as the official language. So, while it seemed like a faux pas for Puerto Rico, Santorum's "English only" boondoggle may have been a genius move in getting conservative Republican voter support in the many forthcoming non-Puerto Rican primaries. Genius.