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Trump campaign makes play for Latino voters in Pennsylvania

Though the Republican’s operation might not win the demographic, it hopes to do better than expected in a key state.

Supporters of President Trump wait for him to speak at a campaign rally at Tucson International Airport, on Oct. 19. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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YORK, Pa. — Maria del Carmen Gutiérrez plans to cast her vote for the first time Tuesday in a U.S. presidential election.

The 56-year-old arrived last year in York, Pa., from Puerto Rico and is now working as a field director for CASA in Action, the political arm of a liberal organization that helps low-income and immigrant communities.

Gutiérrez plans to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and is determined to help Democrats make a dent in President Trump’s support in central Pennsylvania, a part of this swing state that overwhelmingly voted for the president in 2016. “I am committed to fight for this country to be better, because this is not the best of the U.S.”

When she lived in Puerto Rico, Gutiérrez was accustomed to coming across Trump supporters at her job at the national teachers association and in her hometown of Trujillo Alto. But she says she’s still shocked every time she encounters other Puerto Ricans in her new city supporting the man who casually threw paper towels at a cheering crowd at a San Juan church in Hurricane Maria’s aftermath.

Gutiérrez says that was Trump’s way of making Puerto Ricans feel inferior to him and she says it’s part of a pattern by the president to otherize Hispanics, Blacks and other immigrants. Her adult son and daughter moved to the United States years ago, but since the ascension of Trumpism in 2015, they’ve both started getting quizzed on the status of their green cards — despite the fact that they’re U.S. citizens — and have been on the receiving end of derogatory remarks on their accents.

“You invade us over 100 years ago, and now you feel like we are invading you?” Gutiérrez angrily exclaimed of the sentiment that she is not welcome on the U.S. mainland, referring to the U.S. invasion and seizure of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

In Erie County, Pa. — a swing county in a battleground state — officials are trying to navigate the challenges of holding an election during a pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post)

Tim Ramos, a Puerto Rican truck driver from Allentown, Pa., who is a member of Latinos for Trump in the Lehigh Valley, Pa., spelled out the reason Latinos supporting Trump is “not a big to-do.”

“Latinos en masse are blue-collar workers,” the 35-year-old said last week. “We want to feed our kids, take care of our families and be able to provide. No matter how much people want to play politics, they can’t deny that our economy was doing great before the pandemic and shutdown.”

Ramos and his brother Steven, an Army veteran who helped launch the local Latinos for Trump chapter, are part of the 30 percent of Hispanic voters supporting Trump nationally, mainly the same non-college-educated, blue-collar workers and men who also back the president.

Pennsylvania doesn’t usually come to mind as a hub for Latino voters. But in places like York, for example, Latinos make up one-third of the city’s population. In Harrisburg, Reading and Lancaster — other county seats in south central Pennsylvania — and in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton in the Lehigh Valley, there’s a growing Hispanic population with roots in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, that the Trump campaign says it can capture.

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“The question is: can [Trump] narrow the raw vote margins among Latinos?” said David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report. "He might win a higher share of them, but there’s far more of them to turnout in 2020 than 2016. Though there’s no doubt that [the Trump campaign] has out-registered Democrats in Pennsylvania and Florida because they have engaged in an on-the-ground effort, whereas Democrats have relied almost exclusively on virtual outreach.

“The Hispanic voter is a working-class vote, and a smaller population of them do their jobs over Zoom than White voters, so the Republican messaging against lockdowns does resonate with the plights of Hispanic voters,” Wasserman added.

Latinos make up 4.4 percent of Pennsylvania voters, according to an analysis conducted by Rodrigo Dominguez Villegas, the research director at UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, and they’re a little over 7 percent of Pennsylvania’s total population. It’s a substantial enough voting bloc to swing a race that could come down to the wire after Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 68,000 votes here in 2016.

Biden is ahead in Pennsylvania polls by roughly six percentage points, according to a polling average at But key factors, such as a late-starting direct voter outreach effort — could be problematic for the Democrat.

As it stands in the Keystone State, early and absentee voting among Hispanic voters are lagging behind other demographics — a potentially troubling trend for Democrats who have embraced absentee voting this cycle. The Biden campaign says it’s betting on robust Election Day turnout among Latinos.

The Trump campaign is relying on what officials call the “Rove strategy” — GOP strategist Karl Rove’s pioneering take on microtargeting certain demographic groups in counterintuitive pockets of the nation. And there are warning signs for Democrats, according to interviews with organizers, strategists and voters in south-central and eastern Pennsylvania, that the president might scrape up more support from the Hispanic community than was previously expected.

“I’m not saying I’m not worried — everyone should be worried about everything, because the election was so close in 2016,” said a Democratic strategist who does work in Pennsylvania. “But [Biden] is in a better position with Hispanic voters than Republicans who are having to explain the past four years to them.”

María Teresa Kumar, the CEO of Voto Latino, credits the Trump campaign for the consistent outreach to Latino communities after Trump’s 2016 win. “People say, ‘How can Latinos or anybody so vulnerable side with this person?’ They’ve never stopped communicating messages to Latinos since 2016.

“Progressives have a tendency to pack their bags and wait until the next cycle. But that’s a bygone strategy,” she added.

Biden is almost certain to win the majority of Latino voters in the Keystone State — and nationwide. Earlier this month, a Monmouth University poll found Biden overwhelmingly leading Trump among voters of color (83 percent to 16 percent). But in battleground states overall, Biden holds a narrower lead over Trump among registered Latino voters (54 to 37 percent), according to a Pew Research poll.

And half of Hispanic men nationally who registered to vote (51 percent) are hopeful about the current state of the country. Hispanic male voters also have a more positive view of the economy under Trump than female voters (34 to 23 percent). The economy is the top issue for Latino voters, according to another Pew survey released in September, followed by health care and the coronavirus pandemic.

Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin still hold the keys to 2020

With gloves, masks and at a social distance, Ramos and his brother, Steven, and other Trump volunteers and organizers in Allentown and around the state, resumed door knocking and voter outreach shortly after the country came to a screeching halt due to the virus. There are more registered Democrats in Pennsylvania than Republicans — but the GOP has narrowed the registration gap over the past few years and through a major summer push while Democrats worked remotely.

The Trump campaign says its summer push helped registered more Latino voters, and points to a robust Spanish-language advertising and rapid-response campaign, as well as a steady stream of visits by various surrogates.

First lady Melania Trump made her first solo campaign debut on Tuesday outside of Lancaster, and Trump held rallies at the Lancaster airport and in Allentown on Monday. The campaign has opened two Latinos for Trump offices in Allentown and Philadelphia, according to a Trump political spokesperson. It’s also running Spanish-language ads in Al Día Philadelphia and La Voz Central PA — the state’s Spanish language newspapers.

The Latino outreach started early for Trump, according to Mercedes Schlapp, a senior campaign adviser — the campaign opened 17 community centers in targeted states in July and it has dispatched a constant stream of Spanish-speaking surrogates to represent it on television.

Charlie Gerow, a GOP strategist of Brazilian descent in Harrisburg, says the ground work by the Trump campaign over the summer with Latino voters will “pay huge dividends” on Election Day. “Some of my friends like to think of Hispanics as a monolith, but you have very wide slices within that community. They all respond to Trump positively on different issues, but overall it’s about the economy and social conservatism,” Gerow said.

“They like his ... style. They like the machismo, and they instinctively respond favorably to Trump personally,” he added.

On a recent call with campaign surrogates, the Republican National Committee boasted of Biden’s poor Latino outreach in Pennsylvania, according to a Trump campaign staffer. Schlapp, who is of Cuban descent, criticized the Biden campaign for treating Hispanic voters “as monolithic single-issue voters,” and prioritized reaching out to individual communities on various issues beyond the campaign’s economic messaging.

“When they are focused on getting the endorsements of celebrities, we were focused on the ground game and relationships with local and religious leaders across the country,” Schlapp said.

The Biden campaign defends its decision to suspend in-person voter contact during the pandemic until recently. Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), have also received support from prominent Latino leaders highly critical of the president’s handling of the pandemic that has devastated Latino communities and his botched federal response to Hurricane Maria, which killed nearly 3,000 people in Puerto Rico.

Nathalie Rayes, the president and CEO of Latino Victory, a liberal organization working to turn out Latinos and increase Latino representation, is optimistic that Puerto Rican and Dominican men and women in particular will prove to be the margin of victory for Biden in states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida.

“We’re focused very heavily on Election Day turnout. … We’re expecting really big numbers in Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley — way higher than 2016,” said a Biden campaign official, who predicted “huge and historic” turnout of Hispanics in the state overall.

The Biden campaign told reporters on Thursday it expects the bulk of Latinos to turn out on Election Day and is “100 percent on track to match or exceed the Obama vote numbers” among Latinos across the country. Five million Latinos have voted early so far, compared to 2.5 million in 2016, according to the campaign.

Complicated mail-in voting procedures in the state, however, might work against Democrats. The Democratic chairwoman of Philadelphia’s election board warned in a letter last month the Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court decision requiring mail-in ballots to enclosed in secrecy envelopes could cause 100,000 mailed ballots to be rejected statewide.

Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, commended the massive push to educate communities in the Keystone State about “naked ballots.” But she notes the policy could “most likely affect people inexperienced with vote-by-mail.”

“As a historical matter, that tends to be people of color, because in most states, people of color utilize in-person voting more,” Pérez said.

The Biden campaign resumed in-person canvassing and literature drops several weeks ago and Democratic organizing groups started pounding the pavement again earlier this fall. Gutiérrez and two other CASA in Action organizers, 41-year-old Varion Broadnax and 27-year-old Jesse Buch of Lancaster, were out talking to voters at the start of October after a summer spent phone-banking. The three of them agreed they’ve seen a backlash against Trump over the course of the pandemic that was accelerated after his first debate performance.

But they’re still concerned about misinformation that has taken hold — as are Biden campaign officials and Democratic strategists. “Misinformation is rampant in minority communities,” Rayes said.

Broadnax says she’s heard people say Trump personally gave them coronavirus bailout money for their businesses, “And I’m, like, ‘He didn’t personally do that.’ ”

“People whose doors I’ve knocked on, they say, ‘I am for Trump because of the checks I have received that he signed,’ and they think he is the one sending the money,” Gutiérrez said of the $1,200 stimulus payments some received as part of economic stimulus legislation.

“Sometimes we’re at someone’s door, and I turn around and say, ‘Oh, my God, how are we living in the same world as this person?’ ” Buch said. “We encounter lots of people who talk about something Trump has done for them.”

“Lies works with people who do not have the opportunity to receive more information,” Gutiérrez said. “That’s our work. You need to have all of the facts to make your best choice.”