It’s increasingly clear that Pennsylvania will determine the winner of November’s presidential election. What’s less clear for many is how to win the state. Too many, including those in Joe Biden’s camp, remain solely focused on white working-class voters and suburban moms. This strategy misses the mark: Winning Pennsylvania requires focusing at least as much on Black, Latino, and young voters.
In 2016, Donald Trump carried Pennsylvania by roughly 40,000 votes. This razor-thin margin of victory included many white working-class voters and suburbanites — but it was also a reflection of the Clinton campaign’s failure to fully engage and energize Black, Latino, and young voters. Though Latino turnout in 2016 increased compared with 2012, the Latino share of the vote was far below Latinos’ share of eligible voters in Pennsylvania. More than 200,000 eligible Pennsylvania Latino voters didn’t vote in 2016, according to U.S. Census data. That’s in addition to more than 350,000 eligible Black Pennsylvania voters who did not vote, plus many youths who also stayed home.
These lower turnouts reflect a number of factors, including economic barriers to voting (like having a harder time taking off work or having fewer transportation options to get to the polls), plus disinformation efforts from the Trump campaign and others. In 2016, the Trump campaign hired a firm that helped it identify Black voters whom it could deter from voting. But the turnouts also reflect an organizing failure among Democrats, who too often take support from Black and Latino voters for granted, or fail to engage people who have voted less frequently in the past.
In 2020, Democrats and progressives committed to defeating Donald Trump need to focus on Black and Latino voters, who could well be the margin of victory. Black and Latino voters overwhelmingly reject Trump. If Black voters turn out at or above 2012 levels, and Latino voters increase their vote share to more closely reflect their portion of the electorate — and if young people who lean progressive turn out at higher numbers — they can easily overcome the 40,000 vote deficit from 2016 and deny Trump the Electoral College votes in Pennsylvania he desperately needs to win.
Reaching these voters requires investment and mobilization. The progressive organization I lead, Make the Road Action in Pennsylvania, is focused on making two million phone calls and sending one million text messages to voters in 10 counties across Pennsylvania. We’re focusing specifically on Black and Latino voters, with a bilingual team ready to connect with Spanish speakers in their native language. This one-on-one voter contact strategy — which begins by asking people about the issues they care about and having real, honest conversations — works. In 2016, our internal analysis showed a 20% increase in turnout in key precincts where we engaged voters in communities like Reading and Allentown, compared with the last similar election.
Winning Pennsylvania will require similar efforts to reach Black, Latino, and young folks early and often. Communicating with voters is particularly important this year, as COVID raises many questions about voting, including by mail, and voters continue to receive misinformation designed to sow confusion and reduce turnout, such as Trump tweeting to North Carolina voters to vote twice, which is illegal.
We need to use all our resources to reach Black, Latino, and young voters, make sure they have a plan to vote, and follow up to make sure their vote has been cast. If Democrats fail to invest enough dollars and energy in this type of engagement, as they did in 2016, Pennsylvania may well remain out of reach. And those who suffer most will be the very voters that they have failed to engage.
Our communities’ future depends on 2020 being different. Deeper engagement in Black and brown communities is the way America wins and builds a better country.