By Dr. Víctor Vázquez-Hernández and Israel Colón
In one of the most important swing states for this year’s national election, the Joe Biden campaign in Pennsylvania is displaying a significant lack of a local Puerto Rican presence. This move coincides with a tightening race in the Keystone State, home to close to 1 million Latinos, according to Pew Research. In fact, between 2010 and 2019, the state’s Latino population grew by an estimated 274,000, while the state population overall experienced an increase close to 91,000.
As of 2020, an estimated 521,000 Latinos in Pennsylvania are eligible to vote, with Puerto Ricans (who are U.S. citizens) accounting for close half the state’s Latino population as of 2016. Given the projected population increases by the U.S. Census, the 2020 Democratic party-leaning Latino and Puerto Rican electorate should be a strategic focus of attention for the DNC and the Biden campaign, particularly in Pennsylvania where the presidential race is projected to be a nail-biter.
Unfortunately, early indications suggest, according to local political activists in Philadelphia and Central Pennsylvania, the Biden campaign has lagged in its engagement with this community. It seems odd and counter-intuitive for the Biden campaign to appear tone deaf to the fact that in Pennsylvania, Puerto Ricans make up a significant majority of the Hispanic Democratic vote. A few days ago, according to our knowledge, the Biden campaign in Pennsylvania announced several appointments to the statewide staff, including only one field organizer assigned to Central Pennsylvania. And recently according to news reports, the campaign hired several top advisors, including Sinceré Harris, who we believe has connections with the broader Latino community.
But that is not sufficient.
Although Philadelphia County is the home to the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in the state, more than two-thirds of the Latino population reside outside Philadelphia and its suburbs. So where are the Puerto Rican and Latino ground field staff, campaign coordinators, bilingual communications personnel, and why does this matter?
Puerto Rican voters, like many other communities, are finicky. They want political campaigns to consider their issues and, just as important, to speak to them directly. The Latino electorate is not a monolithic group and, as such, requires a more nuanced approach. In Pennsylvania, Puerto Ricans in particular are going to be mobilized by other Puerto Ricans, especially if they come from those same communities. It is baffling to us that the Biden campaign does not seem to get this point, even if campaign statements about the island still trickle out. So what is at stake?
For the 2020 election, in the important swing state of Pennsylvania, an ultimate margin for victory may (again) be small. In 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by slightly more than 44,000 votes, less than 1 percent. That is, in a state where there are likely more than 300,000 eligible Puerto Rican Democratic-eligible voters. So bumping up the turnout of Puerto Ricans in cities where they reside, (such as Philadelphia, Lancaster, Reading, Allentown and York, among others) will have a significant impact. Having Puerto Rican field organizers in Pennsylvania working those communities can swing the election in Biden’s favor.
In addition, a new Biden Latino agenda barely mentions (if at all) issues specific to Puerto Rico—like PROMESA legislation, political status, the Jones Act and real action on federal aid.
The irony here is that in each of those communities, there is already a Puerto Rican organizational infrastructure experienced and capable of engaging in electoral campaign work. There are plenty of willing and able activists available from which the Biden campaign could recruit.
In the last few weeks, national polls have reflected a significant Biden lead over Trump. Some local polls have had Biden leading by double figures but, we know that those polls are merely snapshots in time and will tighten. More recently, polls in Pennsylvania indicate Biden’s lead over Trump to be just between 4-6 points and could get slimmer. As the race moves closer to November, Latino voters and Puerto Rican voters in particular are poised, if fully engaged, to make the difference.
Dr. Víctor Vázquez-Hernández is a PhD graduate of Temple University and Professor of History at Miami Dade College. Israel Colón is a policy analyst, with five decades of community non-profit and government service experience.