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Latino voters could prove vital in battleground Pennsylvania

By Danny Freeman, CNN

Allentown, Pennsylvania (CNN) — Every weekday morning, DJ VJ Mar steps up to his microphone and rattles off the latest on pop culture, celebrity gossip and political news.

But on a recent Tuesday morning, he had a special guest.

“How important is the Latino vote here in Pennsylvania for the Biden-Harris campaign?” DJ VJ Mar asked his guest live on the air.

“It’s VERY important,” Vice President Kamala Harris emphatically replied.

The vice president had called in to the Spanish-language radio station “La Mega” in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley to criticize former President Donald Trump and promote the administration’s work on the economy, immigration, abortion and more.

“That to me is a signal that (President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign) wants to engage the Latino community in Pennsylvania,” DJ VJ Mar — whose real name is Victor Martinez — told CNN in an interview.

Martinez believes both campaigns need to prioritize Latinos here in Pennsylvania, which will again be one of the most watched states on the presidential map.

“I think the Latino vote could be the deciding factor,” said Martinez.

From his Allentown studio, Martinez has watched his Latino audience grow rapidly across the working-class rustbelt strongholds of southeastern and central Pennsylvania.

There are more than a million Hispanic or Latino people living in the Commonwealth, according to recent census data. The Hispanic/Latino population has grown more than 40% in Pennsylvania since 2010.

The White population is still by far the largest in the state, but it has decreased slightly over the same time period.

Much of the growth has occurred in what’s known as the “222 Corridor”—a group of cities surrounding US Route 222 that includes Reading, Allentown, Lancaster, York and more.

With that growth has come increasing electoral power.

According to Pew Research Center, an estimated 615,000 Pennsylvania Latinos will be eligible to vote in November’s election.

In 2020, Biden beat Trump in Pennsylvania by roughly 80,000 votes, and recent polling from CNN shows another tight presidential race this year.

But while Biden carried the Latino vote in Pennsylvania and nationally handily in 2020, some argue that support may be slipping.

“You will find Latinos who are not all in with Biden, and they’re keeping their options open for a possible vote for Trump,” Martinez said.

The ‘right reason’ to turn out

“They have taken things for granted when it comes to the Latino vote,” said Democrat Cynthia Mota, Allentown’s first Latina city council president.

Mota is all in for Biden in November, but she worries that if his campaign and her party don’t do more, Latinos will not turn out enough or vote Republican.

“I believe that we’re gonna be all in danger,” said Mota, pleading for more resources and investment in this voting bloc.

“If you give us the right reason to go out and vote, we’ll be there in masses,” she added.

For its part, the Biden campaign says it is investing time and resources to make sure Pennsylvania Latinos are not taken for granted — and interviews like the one Harris did with La Mega are evidence of that.

The administration’s Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra visited the Allentown area last month as well, touring health facilities while promoting the Affordable Care Act and the administration’s work on health care.

The campaign also pointed to a new initiative called “Latinos con Biden,” which is designed to mobilize Latino voters across the Commonwealth and other key battleground states.

That includes a $30 million spring advertising buy in English, Spanish and Spanglish “with regional accents” dependent on the state.

Biden pollster Matt Barreto explained that while the majority of Latinos in Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley are Puerto Rican, there are a growing number of Dominican and Mexican immigrants as well.

“It’s an extremely interesting and diverse electorate, and you need to understand that diversity in order to win,” Barreto told CNN.

“You can’t only have a Puerto Rican flag in every single piece of outreach, it won’t resonate with Dominicans or Central Americans or Mexicans.”

Republican inroads

However, with some recent polls showing Trump improving his standing with Hispanic and Latino voters nationwide, some Republicans see an opportunity.

“I’ve seen a change, a shift from that mentality that all Latinos have to be Democrats to saying, ‘You know what? If I want a better economy, I need a change,’” Berks County Commissioner Michael Rivera told CNN in an interview.

The elected Republican calls himself a “Dutch-a-Rican” as his mother is Pennsylvania Dutch and his father is Puerto Rican.

Rivera says while there are some efforts statewide to improve Latino outreach, he believes if his party did more, they could dent Biden’s support.

“You can’t go after the Latino vote three months before the election. It has to be something that’s year-round. You have to have outreach to the Latino community, you have to understand who they are, what they represent,” Rivera said.

“In 2020, Crooked Joe Biden’s idea of Hispanic outreach was playing Despacito,” Trump campaign spokesperson Danielle Alvarez wrote in a statement to CNN.

“Now, we truly see how despacito [sic] Biden is. Democrats have taken the Hispanic community for granted and Crooked Joe’s failed policies are responsible for rising costs, record inflation, Biden’s Border Bloodbath, increased crime in our neighborhoods, and the demise of the American Dream,” the statement continued.

The Republican National Committee recently outlined in a memo they would focus on reaching out to voters who have been “habitually missed” by the party, but it did not provide specifics on pursuing Latinos.

Voters’ view

Regardless of potential outreach efforts, many Pennsylvania Latino voters CNN spoke with remain frustrated with Trump’s rhetoric towards migrants and immigrant communities.

At a Michigan rally on Tuesday, Trump described migrants coming across the border as “military-age” men adding, “This is country changing, it’s country threatening, and its country wrecking. They have wrecked our country.”

During a December rally, Trump said immigrants crossing the border illegally are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

Those people CNN spoke with said issues and policies will be more important when it comes to their votes.

Angie Chapman is a Republican, a Trump supporter and a longtime resident of Hazleton.

The immigrant from the Dominican Republic told CNN she’ll vote for Trump because of his strength on the economy and immigration.

But she said Democrats have better Latino outreach than her own party.

“[Democrats] register the people, they have a lot of [voter] registration applications,” Chapman said. “[Republicans] have to do that!”

Fermin Diaz, a Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for Hazleton’s city council last year said he’s a staunch Biden supporter because of the strengthening economy and because he believes the current president will defend democracy.

“Good or bad, if he loses the election, he will transfer power without problem,” Diaz said.

But Juan Martinez is still on the fence.

Martinez is a small business owner in Easton, Pennsylvania, who also immigrated from the Dominican Republic.

While he’s not bothered by Trump’s rhetoric — “I’m blue collar so we talk rough,” he told CNN — he wants a president with “good values and morals.”

However, he feels the immigration system is not working and hasn’t felt the economy fully recover since the pandemic.

“We need new blood, we need somebody that’s gonna continue to move America forward,” Martinez said.

But he said his vote is up for grabs if either candidate gives him a good reason to support them.

“That’s why we’re in this country—for better opportunities, so we’re looking for a candidate that can put the bullshit away and focus on the people and focus on moving the country forward to help us realize the American dream.”

CNN’s Bonney Kapp contributed to this report.

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