Hispanics in Pennsylvania?  Their Defections Could Doom Biden in 2024

Photograph Source: formulanone – CC BY-SA 2.0

Where is the Hispanic vote most likely to affect the outcome of this year’s bitterly-contested race for the White House?   If you ask most analysts, one-time battleground state Florida and the swing states in the US Southwest, especially Arizona and Nevada, both of which went for Biden in 2020, would likely be cited.

According to Real Clear Politics, Donald Trump enjoys a sizable single-digit lead in both states – about 4 points, on average, in Arizona, and 5 points in Nevada.  In Florida, he enjoys an even larger lead, about 7 points.

All three states have unusually large concentrations of Hispanic voters – about a quarter of their electorate, which means relatively small shifts in voter allegiances can tilt them either way.  And with 47 electoral votes combined, they comprise a sizable chunk of the 270 needed to capture the presidency.

But the nation’s Hispanic population, while still concentrated in about a half dozen states overall – including New York, California and Texas –  is beginning to be felt elsewhere politically – and in some very surprising and little noticed places.

One of those places is Pennsylvania.

The Keystone State has witnessed a massive influx of Hispanics over the past few years – a whopping 600,000, some of them internal migrants from New York –  and most are eligible to vote.  Biden carried Pennsylvania by a fairly comfortable 82,000 vote margin in 2020 after Trump eked out a razor-thin victory four years earlier – by about half that margin (just 44,000 votes, or 0.7% of the total).  It was enough to put Trump over the top in the Electoral College, crushing Hillary Clinton’s historic bid for the presidency.

This year’s contest is expected to be just as close.  According to Real Clear Politics, Biden held a narrow 1-2 point lead until April; now, the same narrow lead has switched to Trump.  Most observers feel the race could still go either way, and with Hispanics looming large, continuing defections to Trump could well prove fatal.

The state’s burgeoning Hispanic population – which has doubled in size over the past decade and risen to 9% of the electorate – is heavily concentrated in an area known as the “222 corridor” which links a series of Latino “hubs,” including historically Democratic small and mid-sized cities spanning from northeastern Pennsylvania to the Lehigh Valley.

These cities, where the Hispanic population either predominates or is a plurality – were once coal mining and steel manufacturing centers.  Over the years, cheap foreign steel and excessive domestic production flooded the domestic US market, and the industry was forced to downsize significantly. Younger workers increasingly were drawn to white collar jobs in technology, healthcare and education.

But today, it’s warehousing and logistics that dominate the state’s increasingly globalized economy.  And it’s Hispanics, especially younger Hispanics – not older Whites – that increasingly comprise this transitioning industrial workforce.

These are not undocumented workers for the most part.  Those workers are heavily concentrated in the agricultural industry, especially in the mushroom farms in Chester County, where they regularly migrate from rural villages in Mexico.  By contrast, Hispanics in cities like Allentown and Reading in the new Latino Belt are long-standing legal residents, mostly Puerto Ricans, who first came to the area as far back as World War II, and who stayed and settled.  Over the years, especially recently, their numbers have mushroomed.

Like Hispanics everywhere, Pennsylvania’s have been voting Democratic 2-1 for at least two decades, but they’ve started to defect to the GOP.  And by all accounts, those defections, which began under Trump in 2016, are increasing with each election cycle.  Now, they pose a potential threat to the Democrats’ traditional hold on the state.

In 2020, even though Trump lost Pennsylvania, he actually improved his standing with Hispanics in towns like Reading and Allentown.   For example, in one section of Reading where the Latino population has reached a whopping 86 percent, Trump improved on his 2016 performance by 21 percentage points.  Many other pockets of small towns in the state’s “Latino belt” have reported similar gains.

So far, the Biden campaign has focused most of its outreach efforts on the suburbs around Philadelphia – where potential shifts in voting, especially among women, could also heavily influence the 2024 race.  Yet even here, Hispanics are becoming a more notable presence.  In Philadelphia proper, Hispanics are now well over 15% of the city’s population.  And in near-in suburbs in the service and construction industries, Hispanics are also increasing their numbers.

These Hispanic concentrations, especially in the high productivity warehousing  and logistics centers, have magnified the importance of the Latino “sub-economy” well beyond the population’s numbers.

A recent report by the Latino Donor Collaborative found that the state’s Latino gross domestic income was $36 billion in 2021, which accounted for nearly 20% of growth in Pennsylvania’s Gross Domestic Income between 2011 and 2021.  The state’s overall growth rate barely topped 1% while the Latino growth rate was 6.2% – about five and half times faster.  In addition, while the non-Latino share of the state’s workforce is shrinking, the Latino share is rising rapidly.

At 9% of the electorate, Pennsylvania’s Hispanics could affect more than just the race for the White House.  One of the nation’s most competitive Senate contests – the battle between Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Robert McCormisck (which has shrunk to just 2-4 points in a spate of polls throughout April) could also hinge on the state’s Hispanic vote.  And there are two toss-up House races in eastern Pennsylvania, with high numbers of eligible Hispanic voters, that could also be affected.

In other words, how Pennsylvania Hispanics vote this November could be critical to determining the nation’s overall partisan balance – an important reason for both parties to take notice.

Have they?  Local Democrats and Republicans alike say that the conservative drift among Latinos is due to widespread perceptions that the Biden administration is failing the nation – and the state’s Latinos – on the economy.  But Pennsylvania Hispanics are also angered by the steady flow of illegal immigrants into the state, which weakens their own standing, economically, and in the eyes of many non-Hispanics, who are more likely to stigmatize all Latinos as a result. And there is also a notable culture war element, with the Latino Belt’s heavily churched Hispanic communities – both Catholic and Pentecostal – upset with the Biden administration’s full-throated embrace of abortion and LGBTQ issues.

But so far, at least, neither party seems to have fully captured Latinos as a permanent part of their voter base. Local Democrats admit that Latinos, especially youth, are being drawn to Trump in large numbers – but say it’s not necessarily to the GOP.  And local Republicans acknowledge that their party has not conducted sustained outreach to Latinos in cities like Allentown or Reading.  While Trump may have growing appeal and can help down ballot GOP candidates in November, the longer-term partisan allegiances of many Latino voters are still up for grabs, both sides agree.

Biden is not completely oblivious to the need to woo the state’s Hispanic voters.  His visits to the state two months ago did include a stop in the Lehigh Valley where he touted the administration’s support for Latino small businesses.  But overall the administration’s major focus is on winning over suburban and mostly White upscale women in the large suburbs around Philadelphia, a Democratic stronghold, and Pittsburgh, which tilts more conservative.

That concentrated focus – emphasizing threats to abortion rights and democracy, and touting supposed economic gains since Biden took office – could run counter to the White House’s new outreach to poorer Latinos in the absence of a more sophisticated messaging strategy, observers say.

How many Pennsylvanias are there in the US today?  The same broad trend – deindustrialization in manufacturing combined with fast-paced economic growth in more service-oriented industrial sectors – is apparent elsewhere, but not to the same degree.  In neighboring Rust Belt states like Michigan and Wisconsin – where Hispanics are 6% and 7% of the population respectively – the dominant subgroup is Mexican, with a relatively high proportion still undocumented. Still, the drift toward Trump, especially among young males, is pronounced and at this point, remains largely unchecked,

Biden, unlike his recent Democratic predecessors, doesn’t seem to have much of a feel for the Hispanic vote.  In 2008, Obama hired the best Hispanic pollster in the country and indeed, built his whole election campaign – drawing upon the Mexican farmworker slogan “Si Se Puede” – around the Hisoanic vote.  By contrast, Biden, much like Hillary Clinton in 2016, has largely taken the Hispanic vote for granted – thus far, at least.

Hispanics in Pennsylvania aren’t the only base voter group falling away from Biden’s presidency – African-Americans in Philadelphia, which the campaign targeted last week, are also highly vulnerable.  But while many disaffected Blacks may just decide to stay home in November, the threat of Hispanics crossing over to Republican candidates is real.  Democrats, in theory, have a superior ground game.  Yet, by all accounts they are losing the messaging war.  If the election comes down to just a few thousand votes, and Hispanics decide to turn out for Trump, Biden and the Democrats could lose the state in November – and with it, the election.

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at stewartlawrence811147@gmail.com.