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In politically divided Pennsylvania, little-noticed new voters could have a big impact

A little-noticed group of voters could turn out to have a big impact on a purple Pennsylvania that Donald Trump won by less than a percentage point four years ago.

President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Wildwood last month.
President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Wildwood last month.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

A little-noticed group of voters could turn out to have a big impact on a purple Pennsylvania that Donald Trump won by less than a percentage point four years ago.

The number of immigrants in Pennsylvania who will be able to cast ballots in November surged 7.9% in a year to 465,395 people, according to New American Economy (NAE), a bipartisan, business-focused research organization in New York. NAE gathered data on all 50 states to determine the growth or decline of “eligible immigrant voters” — that is, newly naturalized American citizens over the age of 18.

That figure grew by about 34,000 people in Pennsylvania from 2017 to 2018, a new report from NAE said — not much less than the 44,000 votes by which Trump beat Clinton in the state in 2016. Nationally, the number of potential new voters increased by more than 700,000 in the same period, for a total of 21.4 million eligible immigrants, the study found.

“There’s a really large voter base out there, relatively new to the community, making contributions,” said Nan Wu, deputy director of quantitative research for NAE. “We hope this can help the public better understand not only the general immigration population but this growing electoral power in local communities.”

The organization found that Pennsylvania ranked 17th among states in percentage growth of eligible immigrants. But it’s a state in play, unlike most of the states ranked above it, which tend to reliably vote Republican or Democratic.

What remains to be seen is how many of those eligible voters have registered or will register, and then actually cast ballots — not to mention how those votes break for or against a president who has hardened immigration regulations at all levels and routinely disparages people who enter the country illegally.

“It is difficult to predict how individuals will vote,” said Richard N. Gioioso, director of Latin American and Latinx studies at St. Joseph’s University. “But it is safe to assume that newly-minted naturalized immigrants will consider U.S. immigration policy an important aspect of any candidate’s platform.”

Trump’s position on immigration is clear, and is likely to hurt his popularity among many naturalized Americans, Gioioso said. So the 34,000 potential new voters in Pennsylvania “could very well impact which way it sways in the 2020 presidential election, tipping the scales away from Trump and toward the Democratic candidate.”

» READ MORE: In Pennsylvania’s conservative heartland, a historic cloister explores the immigrant struggle

Immigration promises to be at least as polarizing in 2020 as it was in 2016.

“The bigger hurdle for immigrants is getting registered,” said Ricardo Ramírez, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, where his studies include the politics of race and ethnicity. “Once they’re registered, they vote at rates outperforming the native-born.”

In 2018, the voter turnout rate for naturalized Latino and Asian citizens who were registered to vote was higher than among their U.S.-born counterparts, according to the Pew Research Center. Latinos and Asians are the nation’s two largest immigrant groups.

The turnout rate for naturalized-citizen Latinos was 44.2%, compared to 39.0% for U.S.-born Latinos. The gap between the two groups narrowed from 2014, when turnout was 35.2% and 24.2% respectively, Pew said.

For Asians, naturalized citizens had a turnout rate of 42.7% compared with 36.7% for those born in the United States. Both figures were up from 29.6% and 22.4% in 2014.

Among all eligible voters in the country, the 2018 turnout rate of naturalized citizens trailed that of the U.S.-born, 45.7% to 54.2%, Pew said.

The total number of naturalized-citizen voters reached almost 10 million in 2018, up from 6.6 million in 2014, according to Pew.

Nationally, the top immigration policy goal for Hispanics is establishing a way for most undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally, according to a Feb. 11 national Pew Research Center survey. More than half deemed that that goal “very important,” Pew found.

In a February poll by Univision Noticias and the Latino Community Foundation, 73% of Latino registered voters said they would almost certainly vote in the presidential election. They listed “protecting immigrant rights” as the fourth-most important issue, behind lowering the cost of health care, improving incomes, and creating more jobs.

“There were predictions in 2016 that there would be a swell of naturalized Latino citizens voting in the presidential election," said Stella Rouse, director for the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland, "but the numbers did not materialize at the rate that many were hoping for. Whether this changes in 2020 remains to be seen. There are signs that there may be an increase in their turnout, based on this and other data that show the dislike for Trump’s policies on immigration and minorities.”

In 2016, the Latino voter turnout rate held roughly steady, at 47.6%, compared with 48.0% in 2012, according to Pew. The number of Latino voters reached a record 12.7 million in 2016.

Trump did far better among Latino voters than expected, winning 29% of the vote, compared to his 20% in pre-election polling, according to the Edison Research national exit poll. Clinton polled above 70% among Latino voters, but won just 65%.

Some may wonder how Latinos could support Trump, given his stance on immigration and his harsh remarks about migrants. But Latinos don’t vote as a monolith. Their heritage lies in many different nations and their politics can be just as diverse.

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NAE works to make an economic case for immigration, measuring the value of migrant contributions in everything from taxes to health care, and advocating for immigration policies that create jobs and grow the economy.

Its new research did not break down eligible voters by race or age. It relied on the latest microdata in the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Montana saw the greatest growth, a 19.8% increase in eligible migrant voters. But the number itself is small, increasing only about 2,200 people from 11,161 to 13,369, and the state is safely Republican in presidential elections.

Similarly, second-place, reliably red Alaska experienced a 17.9% increase in immigrant voters, though that represents only 5,264 people, from 29,435 to 34,699. Since becoming a state in 1959, Alaska has voted Republican in every presidential election except the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964.

The NAE figures showed potential impact in battleground states, however, with eligible immigrant voters growing 6.5% in Michigan, 6% in Colorado, 5% in Florida, and 4.5% in Ohio.

Eleven states saw declines, led by Nebraska, Delaware, West Virginia, and New Mexico.