The demographic that could tip Pennsylvania

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BETHLEHEM, PA — For 17 years, La Mega, a Spanish language radio station serving Lehigh Valley’s rapidly growing Puerto Rican population, has been playing it safe. Sure, they criticized Donald Trump when he called Mexicans “rapists” back in 2015. But they’ve never endorsed a presidential candidate.

“We [didn’t] want to get anybody upset,” said Victor Martinez, owner of the station and host of the morning show El Relajo de la Mañana, or The Morning Commotion.

This year is different: La Mega is firmly behind Democratic nominee Joe Biden. And it’s not stopping at an endorsement. The station is educating listeners on how to vote safely in the pandemic, how to find ride-share options to the polls and even showing up at campaign events. Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, recently appeared on the show.

“We are all in this year,” Martinez said. “We’re not leaving anything behind. Puerto Ricans are not happy with Trump.”

With a week left until the election, Biden, Trump and their surrogates are spending much of the little face time they have left in Pennsylvania, sometimes specifically courting Latino voters. Though Latinos make up only roughly 6 percent of the electorate in Pennsylvania, they could prove pivotal to Biden’s chances in a close contest. In 2016, Trump won the state by less than 1 point — and both campaigns are girding for another nail-biter.

Trump’s team is looking to peel off Latino men at the margins to cut into Biden’s base, though there’s little indication it’s working. Biden’s campaign sees an opportunity to run up the score with Puerto Ricans who typically favor Democrats, in part by highlighting Trump’s mismanagement of Hurricane Maria.

But some Democrats say there’s still cause for concern. Latino voters in Philadelphia are returning their mail ballots at slower rates than other demographics. Outreach to this group, the Democrats say, came too late. Some politicians see an energized voting bloc. Others fret they’re not enthusiastic enough.

“I don’t want to be in a situation where the Latinos don’t come out and then we get blamed because the campaign didn’t do what it was supposed to do,” said Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, a Democratic city councilwoman in Philadelphia.

‘Deal with your conscience’

There are more than 500,000 eligible Latino voters in the battleground state, accounting for roughly 53 percent of the total Latino population. An overwhelming majority are Puerto Rican, followed by Mexicans, Dominicans and those with Pan-Latin American origins.

Puerto Ricans make up more than two-thirds of eligible Latino voters in the state. For these voters, health care and the pandemic are top of mind, according to voters, Democratic lawmakers, and activists on the ground.

Martinez’s audience reflects those demographics. His listeners are 25- to 55-year-olds, working-class, and Puerto Rican, many of whom migrated from New York over the years. More recently, a growing segment from the island landed here after Hurricane Maria in 2017.

And they’re far from complacent politically, said Martinez, who dedicates the first hour of El Relajo de la Mañana to the election. In 2016, he said, Latinos thought “Hillary had it in the bag.” This time, he said, “they’re “engaged” and “expressing their feelings.”

Many are still angry about Trump’s treatment of Puerto Rico, he said.

During his show last week, after an upbeat intro sprinkled with reggaeton music, Martinez turned to the news at hand: reports that immigration lawyers cannot find the parents of 545 children who were separated at the border under Trump’s family separation policy.

“If there was inside of me a 0000000.0001 percent of a possibility to vote for Trump, last night that disappeared,” said Martinez, who urged his audience to drop off their mail ballots in person.

“Let me tell you: If this isn’t reason for you to vote for someone else, well, then you go deal with your conscience.”

‘The difference maker’

Biden will almost certainly win a majority of Latinos in the state as many have historically skewed Democratic. Though few public polls track Latino voters in Pennsylvania, a Monmouth survey from earlier this month found Biden overwhelmingly led Trump among voters of color in the state. Biden received 83 percent support among voters identified as Hispanic, Black, Asian or other, compared to Trump’s 16 percent. In 2016, Hillary Clinton received 81 percent of voters of color to Trump’s 16 percent, according to exit polls.

The Biden campaign is trying to woo Puerto Rican voters on three fronts: Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria; the president’s handling of Covid on the island; and addressing Puerto Ricans in the United States as mainland voters.

“The Latino vote definitely has the capacity to be the difference maker in Pennsylvania,” said Matt Barreto, a Biden pollster. “It’s definitely one of our top states of importance when we talk about Latinos.”

Pennsylvania is so important that for more than 20 years, Democratic New York Rep. Nydia Velazquez has been making the trek to the state to stump for Democratic presidential candidates. Velazquez, like Martinez, said this election isn’t like 2016.

“I came here for Obama and I saw the energy and enthusiasm,” Velazquez said during a recent visit to the state. “When I came here to campaign for Hillary, I didn’t have the same vibe. I didn’t see it. This time around, I see people coming into the streets, you know, cheering — and I’m very excited.”

On a recent afternoon, a Biden campaign car parade snaked through Lehigh Valley, making stops in Reading, Allentown, Bethlehem and Hazelton — all towns with a majority or sizable Latino population. A black La Mega Hummer, with red speakers displayed in the back, sat alongside dozens of cars decked out in Biden-Harris signs and Puerto Rican flags as Velazquez and local elected officials took to the mic, exhorting everyone to show up and vote.

“The fact that I’m here and I am not in New York today is because I know that the path to victory is through Pennsylvania,” Velazquez told the crowd.

Dalila Garcia, 60, stood in the crowd, wearing a Biden-Harris T-shirt and scooping up Biden-Harris signs. She’s voting for the former vice president, she said, because “he is the only one that could do better for all Hispanics.” Her No. 1 issue, like many voters across race and ethnicity, is health care, especially due to the pandemic.

“[Trump’s] not wearing the mask,” said Garcia, who is Puerto Rican. “That’s the way he gonna protect all of us? No, that’s not the way.”

‘It’s like a slap in our faces’

But Biden’s path to victory in Pennsylvania is far from assured. According to data provided to POLITICO by the Democratic firm Hawkfish, only 49 percent of Latino voters in Philadelphia who had been sent mail ballots have returned them , compared to 55 percent of Asian voters, 59 percent of Black voters, and 64 percent of white voters.

A private poll commissioned by a liberal group in September also showed the presidential race tightening in the Lehigh Valley, largely due to a higher-than-expected percentage of Latino men backing Trump, said a Democrat familiar with the survey.

Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents a Philadelphia council district with a large working-class Puerto Rican population, worries about the low mail ballot return rate among Latinos. She said that it is partly because Biden’s campaign didn’t start knocking on doors until this month.

“In hard-to-reach communities like ours, we could have done this for the last 60 days and followed health precautions,” said Quiñones-Sánchez, who is also a member of Biden’s Latino Leadership Council in Pennsylvania.

Quiñones-Sánchez added: “I’m very concerned about the churches and the evangelicals quietly organizing for Trump. Because of Covid, the groups are small and they’re tight-knit. And because you don’t see it, you don’t know it’s happening.”

Allentown city council member Cynthia Mota echoed Quiñones-Sánchez’s frustration.

Mota, who is from the Dominican Republic, said the campaign didn’t start focusing on the Latino electorate early enough. “I’m voting for him, but to me it’s a slap in our faces,” said Mota, adding she was asked to join the car parade late.

“This was not the effort that I was expecting,” said Mota, who spends two to four hours a day driving people to drop their absentee ballots off and ensure they are aware of how to properly seal their ballots.

“Maybe it’s because of the Covid-19, but I don’t see all the excitement, you know what I mean, and I’m in the streets,” Mota said. “I go to barbershops, I go to beauty parlors, I go to the convenience stores, I go to the bodegas … but I do not see the excitement. And that worries me.”

However, Meagan Llerena, Pennsylvania director for the progressive Latino group Make the Road, is expecting strong turnout from Latinos in the state. But most don’t trust voting by mail, she said. Most of the Latinos her group is engaging said they’re more likely to vote in person on Election Day, she said.

In the final days, Make the Road, which endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primary election, is not focused on undecided voters. Instead, the group is trying to close the deal with Latinos who are leaning toward Biden.

“Although Biden is not the candidate of our dreams,” said Llerena, “he’s still somebody that we can hold accountable and have conversations with as opposed to talking to a brick wall.”

Latinos for Trump?

This month, Vice President Mike Pence held a rally with no social distancing and limited mask-wearing in Reading, which is 60 percent Latino. The energized crowd at the small local airport was majority white, though a handful of “Latinos for Trump” signs were visible in the crowd.

Ricardo Hernandez, 47, who was born in Mexico, and his wife, who is Dominican, have long supported Republicans, pointing to the “right to life” and “the sanctity of marriage” as key issues for them.

“If you say I’m a Catholic, but then you go for abortion, you go for a marriage between whoever you want to — it’s against your own religion,“ Hernandez said of Biden’s Catholic faith. (Pope Francis last week said he supported same-sex civil unions.)

Like the other Latinos POLITICO spoke to at the rally, Hernandez voted for Trump in 2016. Others expressed a disdain for what they called a Democratic socialist agenda.

While Trump’s campaign knows that Biden will carry the voting bloc nationwide, it is trying to win over a larger number of Black and Latino men than it did in 2016. In Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign said it has opened two “Latinos for Trump” community centers, held food drives throughout Hispanic Heritage Month, and hosted training for Latino activists. Meanwhile, Biden’s campaign opened a field office in Allentown, which has a population that is more than 50 percent Latino.

“Hispanic Americans can see through Biden’s smokescreen and know that he is running on an extreme platform,” said Ken Farnaso, Trump’s deputy national press secretary.

Trump’s campaign has tried to court certain Latino subgroups — evangelicals, Cubans and Venezuelans — by appealing to their faith and aversion to socialist politics, casting Biden as a radical left-winger. But outside of Cubans and Venezuelans in Florida, that approach hasn’t gotten much traction.

A TargetSmart survey conducted for the Latino Democratic firm Equis Research found Biden at essentially the same level of support among Latinos in Pennsylvania, 77 percent, as Clinton was in 2016. The survey was a head-to-head without third party candidates.

Biden’s campaign said Latino supporters of Trump are Republicans who were always going to back the president. The segment of Latino men who are attracted to Trump isn’t new, Barreto said.

“If you take a holistic view and go back to 2000, there has been a gender gap in the Hispanic community,” Barreto said. “Some people are confusing very loud Republicans for Trump and thinking that somehow he’s making inroads with Latinos, but we’re not seeing any sign of that in the data.”

Trump’s team, which has been bogged down by an unexpected cash shortage, has spent nothing on Spanish-language TV ads in Pennsylvania during the general election as of last week, according to the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics. In contrast, Biden’s campaign has spent $211,000 on Spanish-language spots in the state. Nuestro PAC, a pro-Biden group, has also aired Spanish-language ads.

Trump’s campaign has sought to make up for the advertising deficit with in-person events.

A week-and-a-half ago, Trump’s son Eric held a “Latinos for Trump” campaign event at In the Light Ministries, an evangelical church in a Philadelphia neighborhood with a large Latino, especially Puerto Rican, population. Trump supporters at the event, a mix of white people and Latinos, praised the president for advancing anti-abortion rights policies and backing the military.

Outside of the event, a few dozen activists of all ages and races, led by the local group Philly Boricuas — Philly Puerto Ricans —waved Puerto Rican flags and chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho! Donald Trump has got to go!”

“We’re here to represent all the Latinos who have been oppressed by the Trump administration,” said Vanessa Maria Graber, a lead organizer of Philly Boricuas, a small grass-roots group created last year.

The group has registered Philadelphians to vote, knocked on hundreds of doors, and educated residents about mail voting.

She said there is a small but loyal minority of local Latinos who back Trump: “Trump is a misogynist and a sexist and I think unfortunately we still have machismo in Latin American communities.”

She said the message that resonates best with Puerto Rican voters leaning toward Trump is one centering on the island: “One thing we’ve been telling people — and we’ve definitely convinced a few people — is that Joe Biden has a comprehensive policy for Puerto Rico. And Trump does not.”

Sabrina Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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