Washington D.C. – Pennsylvania keeps the lead in the U.S. electoral map. The growing Puerto Rican population in that state is forcing the two major American parties, particularly Democrats, to focus on them in this presidential election.
Even Republican strategists agree that Donald Trump cannot lose Florida and its 29 electoral votes to be re-elected.
But Pennsylvania - with 20 electoral votes - may be essential for Democrats in the race to win the majority of the 538 votes in the American electoral college.
After Florida, Pennsylvania becomes the second key state to win the Puerto Rican vote.
In a diverse state, the Puerto Rican community concentrates basically in the metropolitan Democratic strongholds, such as Philadelphia.
Democratic strategist James Carville once described Pennsylvania as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (Democratic metropolitan areas) with Alabama (referring to a conservative state) in between.
“Pennsylvania’s Puerto Ricans have characteristics that usually favor Democratic candidates. They are people who have more urban life or are in areas that have been urbanized,” said Professor Carlos Vargas Ramos of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.
Pennsylvania has been a swing state in presidential elections and in Senate races. But until Trump’s victory in 2016, it had favored Democratic presidential candidates since 1992.
On election night in 2016, Florida was in the spotlight. But, hours after winning Florida, Trump needed Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan to reach the White House. Gradually, by narrow margins, he won in those three states.
In a state where more than six million people voted, Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania by only 44,292 votes, accentuating the interest on Puerto Rican voters -who usually prefer Democratic candidates- in the Nov. 3 election.
According to Census data, Pennsylvania’s Puerto Ricans total about 493,000 people, about 3.3 percent of the state’s population. Of those, some 314,000 are of voting age on November 3, Vargas Ramos said.
No one can say exactly how many Puerto Ricans are registered in Pennsylvania. Election boards do not collect data on the ethnicity of voters. However, the big task is to get them to vote.
“National U.S. campaigns never do enough for us,” said City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, who has represented the heart of Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican neighborhood since January 2008.
Enough Reasons to Vote
Quiñones Sánchez, the first Latina on the Philadelphia City Council, said that after almost four years of the Trump administration, "we don’t need campaigns to motivate us.
“We have enough reasons” to go out and vote, from the slow and inefficient response to the catastrophe caused by Hurricane María to the lack of access to health services and President Trump’s insistence on minimizing the coronavirus emergency, the city councilwoman said.
Quiñones Sánchez, a Democrat who usually wins in her district without the support of her party, highlighted the effort of the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris tandem to get closer to Puerto Rican voters.
Senator Harris, Democratic candidate for vice president with roots in India and Jamaica, visited recently the Taller Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Workshop) in Philadelphia, a cultural center of the Puerto Rican diaspora in that city.
Biden - a native of this state - campaigned yesterday in Erie, which despite historically voting Democrats, in 2016 supported Trump.
“We could focus the campaign on Biden’s plan for Puerto Rico. It has been a success, because even President Trump, immediately afterward, remembered that it was his responsibility to rebuild Puerto Rico,” said Quiñones Sanchez, who was director of the island’s government office in Philadelphia - which no longer exists - during the administration of Sila Calderón.
Quiñones Sánchez said she during her conversation with Harris to stress that, in terms of status, the diaspora is more diverse than Florida might appear and that in that matter they cannot have "a narrow mind.
She also stressed the importance of mobilizing African Americans, who in the Philadelphia area did not go out to vote in 2016 with the strength they did in 2012, Barack Obama´s last campaign.
The Spanish-language radio, television, and Internet ads that Biden’s campaign has directed at Puerto Ricans-several of which refer to President Trump’s treatment of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria- are aired basically in Florida and Pennsylvania media.
Last week, Biden’s campaign unveiled a new radio ad targeting Puerto Rican voters in Florida and Pennsylvania and questioning the reason to allocate funds to rebuild the power grid and education facilities.
“Three years later he remembers the island. ´Look at that'. You know, here, we had to resolve things and rise by ourselves. We don’t need any more promises... Now what he wants is to buy the Puerto Rican vote. Here we are not fools,” says a mother to her son when he calls her from the United States to ask if she´s heard the news about funds recently approved by the federal government to mitigate the damage caused by Hurricane María.
The Scenario for Trump
When addressing Puerto Ricans, Trump’s campaign - who has rejected statehood for Puerto Rico - has recently highlighted the support of Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced for the President, and insisted - at a time when Trump, without giving details, promises to boost manufacturing - on criticizing the elimination of section 936 of the federal Internal Revenue Code.
As a senator, Biden voted to repeal that statute. But the bill was approved in a Republican Congress under Democrat Bill Clinton. “Puerto Ricans are going to be an important part of the president’s winning coalition,” said Puerto Rican Juan Carlos Benítez of Latinos for Trump.
According to a recent poll by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, confidence in President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 214,000 people in this country, is very low.
On a scale of 0 to 10, 48 percent of Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania and Florida indicated that they have zero confidence in Trump regarding the coronavirus emergency. Only 13 percent answered with more than 6 on that scale.
The 2016 polls failed to reveal the voting intentions of voters in some battleground states. Now, the average poll calculated by Real Clear Politics places Biden with a 9.6 percent advantage in voting intent nationwide.
In the United States, however, victory is achieved vote by vote across each state and Washington, D.C., which based on its population divides the 538 electoral college votes.
In Pennsylvania, the average poll has Biden with a 7.1 percent lead. After the chaotic presidential debate on September 29, the trend seems to be more in Biden’s favor.
A study by the Monmouth University Polling Institute study -conducted September 30 and October 4 - after the debate and covering those days when Trump was hospitalized with the coronavirus - gave Biden a 12 percent lead among those registered to vote and 8 percent among those who say they are most likely to vote.
“Biden rises in support among a group of voters who did not go out to vote in 2016 or simply do not have a strong partisan identity…strengthens the Democratic base, particularly African American voters,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Institute.
Since 2017, coinciding with the catastrophe caused by Hurricane María, the Puerto Rican population in Pennsylvania has been growing. It is estimated that it has increased by about 50,000 people over the last three years.
Puerto Ricans from New York see in northeastern Pennsylvania - where they can still be close to their jobs - a lower cost of living, especially in housing.
Philadelphia and its suburbs are a natural target for Biden. Of the city’s nearly 200,000 Hispanics, two-thirds are Puerto Rican.
The Puerto Rican population also has historical ties to places like Allentown, Reading, and Lancaster. “Our community has spread,” said Councilwoman Quiñones Sánchez.
Newcomers from the island, historically, “are the people least likely to go out and vote,” Vargas said.
José Javier Soto Aguirre, a Puerto Rican businessman who played top-league basketball in Puerto Rico from 2006 to 2010, moved temporarily to the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Philadelphia in December 2017, after Hurricane María struck the island. In Patillas, his hometown, power did not return until March 2018.
“I lost my job,” he said, referring to his soft drink dispensing machines business. An aunt offered him to move to Philadelphia, where he was a Spanish teacher and now is a property manager for the Puerto Rican organization Asociación Puertorriqueña en Marcha.
Although he has been in Philadelphia for almost three years, Soto Aguirre said his home is still in Patillas, where he will go at the end of the month to vote in Puerto Rico’s general election and the statehood referendum.
“I am here out of necessity, not because I just like it. I am still more interested in Puerto Rico politics. I registered because I was thinking of voting here, but when I found out that I can vote in Puerto Rico when I will vote there,” said Soto Aguirre, who attended college and played basketball in Missouri.
Although encouraging new Puerto Rican immigrants is more complicated, Vargas Ramos considered that the thousands of Puerto Ricans who received relatives in their homes and mobilized to help the island "should be the most motivated to go out and vote.