Although the territories don’t have nearly as much of an effect on the country’s electoral system, it’s worth examining their histories, acquisitions, and the ways in which they do contribute to our republic. In addition to Guam’s unique set of voting rules, and its first-in-the-nation tabulated results every election, it also served as the most crucial control point during the Pacific Theater of World War II.
Early History – Land of the Chamorros
Guam’s earliest natives, called the Chamorro people, are estimated to have arrived on the island in around 1500 B.C. during the periods of migrations between the Oceanic islands. The first Europeans to reach Guam were Spaniards led by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. Guam would later be claimed by Spain in 1565 and the island would not be colonized until the 1600s. Five villages were then established, ushering in an era of Spanish culture and construction. Roads, ports, hospitals, and schools were built, and the Chamorro people were taught the Spanish language and introduced to Catholicism. Guam would then become a fairly small hub for trade and collaboration, attracting talent from Russia, France, and England in the forms of science and exploration. Agricultural reform brought cattle raising, such as deer and water buffalo from the Philippines and donkeys from Mexico.
Because of Spanish rules, and the island’s relative close proximity to Mexico, Guam retains aspects of Mexican and Latin culture today. Both Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands would inherit many aspects of Spanish culture during their near-three hundred years of Spanish rule.
20th Century History and Politics – American Rule
Guam was nonviolently captured by the U.S. in 1898 and was ceded by Spain by the Treaty of Paris. Guam became a portion of a telegraph line from the mainland to the Philippines, which the U.S. also governed at the time. In strengthening American presence overseas, and putting Japanese expansion in check, Guam became a crucial naval and military hub. Guam’s northern neighbors, the Northern Mariana Islands, became a Japanese territory after World War I, while Guam remained in American possession.
Close Japanese proximity would lead Japan to invade Guam at the same time they attacked Pearl Harbor. In addition to rising tensions of World War II, Japan’s aggression against the United States was mainly retaliatory. Japan had long been on a campaign of pillaging and conquering across Asia, notably remembered by the brutal Nanjing Massacre, otherwise known as the Rape of Nanking, in which hundreds of thousnads of Chinese civilians are estimated to have been killed by Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Japan would conquer their way to Southeast Asia, taking valuable resources and loot from Indonesia. However, the U.S. had placed embargoes against Japan out of protest for their actions across Asia. With that and the U.S. governance of the Philippines, Japan elected to bomb Pearl Harbor and invade Guam.
Japan occupied Guam for almost three years, subjecting the native Chamorros to forced labor, family separation, incarceration, and even execution. The Second Battle of Guam began in July 1944, resulting in 18,000 Japanese casualties. The U.S. also captured the Northern Mariana Islands during the operation. Guam’s military presence was then bolstered under American re-occupation, but the island faced near-total destruction after the war.
With the U.S. Navy retaking control of the island, Chamorro leaders sought true autonomy. The Guam Organic Act of 1950 established Guam as an unincorporated organized territory of the United States and established a civilian government for the first time in the island’s history. In 1968, Guam was then allowed to elect its own governors, and nearly four years later, a delegate to the United States House of Representatives.
The governor and the territorial legislature were the only two offices until the introduction of the lieutenant governor in 1971, the U.S. House delegate in 1972, the territorial auditor in 2000, and the attorney general in 2003. Guam’s political leanings were and continue to be a mixed bag entirely, but the territory leans Democratic today.
Carlos Camacho (R) was the first elected governor of Guam, and parties would share control of the governor’s mansion every four to eight years.
The office of the U.S. House delegate was first filled by Antonio B. Won Pat, a legendary Guamanian politician for whom the island’s only commercial airport is named. Only two Republicans have served in this capacity: Vicente Blaz from 1985 to 1992 and James Moylan since 2023.
Geography – Island of Warriors
- Limestone Plateaus – The northern part of the island is relatively flat and is the source of most of the drinking water; home to the villages of Yigo and Dededo, as well as Andersen Air Force Base.
- Alutom Formation – The center of the island that was sculpted long ago by volcanic activity. Home to the villages of Asan, Tamuning, Barrigada, and the capital Hagåtña.
- Southern Mountains – The southern part of the island is defined by mountains, dramatic coastlines, and cliffs. Home to Umatac, Inarajan, Merizo, Agat, and Talofofo, as well as Mount Lam Lam, the tallest point on the island.
- Coastal Lowlands – These lines the entire perimeter of the island, allowing for beautiful, pristine beaches, jungle hikes, and seaside resort towns. The seat of the tourism industry is Tumon, in the village of Tamuning, which contains major hotels, restaurants, and attractions.
Current Political Leanings – A Unique Form of Government
Although Guam does not cast electoral votes in presidential elections, it has participated in a non-binding presidential straw poll in every election since 1980. It backed Jimmy Carter (D-GA) over Ronald Reagan (R-CA) by almost twenty points. It would back Reagan and George H.W. Bush (R-TX) in 1984 and 1988, respectively, then Bill Clinton (D-AR) in both of his 1992 and 1996 elections. It would narrowly back George Bush (R-TX) by just three points in 2000, but swing to him by almost thirty points in 2004. Barack Obama (D-IL) topped 70% of the vote in 2012, as did Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in 2016. Although Joe Biden (D-DE) won the straw poll in 2020, it was by a much more reduced margin; he beat Donald Trump (R-FL) by about thirteen points.
Since Guam is fifteen hours ahead of the mainland United States, its early results are often seen as indicators for what the rest of the results might entail. Guam has backed every presidential election winner, except for Carter in 1980 and Trump in 2016.
True to its indicator status, in 2023 it elected James Moylan (R) as its non-voting House delegate, the first time in thirty years a Republican has won the position. All territorial House delegates are able to sit on committees and sponsor legislation, but they cannot cast votes on the House floor.
Democrats currently control the Guam Legislature in a 9-6 majority and control all territory-wide offices, except for that of the Attorney General, held by Douglas Moylan (R). Republicans last controlled the Legislature in 2007 and last won a gubernatorial election in 2014, when Eddie Calvo (R) was re-elected in a landslide. His narrow election in 2010 saw the base of his support come from the central, more populated villages of the island.
Guam’s chief industry is that of tourism, followed by agriculture and construction. Defense remains a large sector on the island, with three military bases keeping Guam a strategic control point in the Pacific Ocean.
Similar to other U.S. territories, Guam has also had its own movements for statehood. The Commission on Self-Determination (CSD) has for decades studied opinions on Guam’s political status. In 1982, 49% of voters chose to incorporate as a commonwealth. The ensuing runoff saw 73% of voters opting for commonwealth status over statehood. Only four states, plus the Northern Mariana Islands, identify as commonwealths, which don’t offer any significant change from that of statehood, except in name only.
Today, Guam remains an unincorporated territory despite its referendums. With a population of 170,000, Guam’s population and distance from the mainland are likely preclusions to its advancement of statehood in the eyes of Congress. Additionally, political interests keep the federal government out of the territory to an extent, allowing for more autonomy in local governance and dealings.
While it’s unlikely that Guam will become a state anytime soon, its first-in-the-nation general election results provide an interesting look at an extension of our country on the other side of the globe, as it continues to be a crucial military check in the Pacific.