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Philly was supposed to turn out huge for Biden. It didn’t. What happened?

It could be a warning sign for a party that relies on huge Philadelphia turnout in a state often decided by tiny margins — and where key races for governor and Senate loom in 2022.

A Biden campaign volunteer in the Hunting Park section of Philadelphia on Election Day. Hunting Park is one of several predominantly Latino and Black areas of the city where Joe Biden won by smaller margins than Hillary Clinton.
A Biden campaign volunteer in the Hunting Park section of Philadelphia on Election Day. Hunting Park is one of several predominantly Latino and Black areas of the city where Joe Biden won by smaller margins than Hillary Clinton.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

As the 2020 election unfolded across Pennsylvania, voters came out in record-breaking numbers for President Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

But for Biden, there was a surprising exception: Philadelphia.

In one of the most Democratic cities in the country, the president-elect’s support was roughly flat, even as Trump increased his support.

While the final votes are still being counted, Biden’s margin over Trump in the city is on track to be over 450,000 or even 460,000. That’s a huge advantage, and crucial in a state he won by what’s likely to be around 100,000 votes. But it would still be smaller than Hillary Clinton’s 475,000-vote edge in Philadelphia in 2016.

And it’s likely to mark the third straight presidential race in which the Democratic margin out of Philadelphia has shrunk. While Biden will probably improve on Clinton’s Philadelphia vote total by a few percentage points, Trump increased his vote by more than 18%.

» READ MORE: How Joe Biden won Pennsylvania

Election data points to a sharp drop in Democratic votes in heavily Latino areas of North Philadelphia, suggesting the party’s slide with that demographic wasn’t just contained to places like Florida and Texas. It could be a warning sign for a party that relies on huge Philadelphia turnout in a state often decided by tiny margins — and where key races for governor and the Senate loom in 2022.

There wasn’t just one cause for Democrats' relatively flat vote in their biggest stronghold. In-person outreach was hampered by coronavirus restrictions. Democrats were likely hurt by the many college students who were off campus because of the pandemic. And in a city where Black and Latino communities suffered some of the worst impacts of the virus, many were coping with lost loved ones, illness, or economic calamity, adding new obstacles to voting.

But a number of Latino activists, elected officials, and scholars were critical of Democrats and the Biden campaign, saying they reached out too late, didn’t address issues that resonate with the city’s predominantly Puerto Rican Latino population, and didn’t have enough information available in Spanish — a critical element as many people navigated mail voting for the first time.

“We didn’t really see the Biden campaign or any Democrat holding office right now anywhere near those neighborhoods until two weeks before the election. It was crickets,” said Vanessa Maria Graber, lead organizer with the grassroots group Philly Boricuas, which registered Latino voters.

She specifically mentioned the Fairhill, Kensington, Hunting Park, and Juniata Park neighborhoods in North Philadelphia. While the exact totals could change as ballots are counted, those areas are indeed home to three of the five wards that saw the biggest drops in Democratic votes for president.

The 7th Ward, which is 83% Latino, topped the list. Biden’s vote count in the Kensington and Fairhill neighborhoods there fell by more than 2,000 compared to Clinton’s total. Trump’s vote more than doubled, to over 1,000. In Hunting Park’s 43rd Ward, which is 61% Latino, Biden’s vote total also slipped by about 2,000. Trump’s more than doubled, to about 600. And in Juniata Park’s 33rd Ward, which is 68% Latino, Biden’s vote count slid by about 1,500, while Trump again grew his total.

Put another way: There are five Philadelphia wards that are majority Latino. They were all in the top seven in which Biden’s raw vote total fell the most compared to Clinton’s. The other two that saw the steepest drops have significant shares of college students.

Biden still won the vast majority of votes in these areas, between 79% and 95%. But his margins shrunk in a city where Democrats expect to run up the score. Latinos make up between 7% and 8% of Pennsylvania’s population, and about 4% and 5% of the 2020 electorate.

“There was very little messaging in the community,” said City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents Hunting Park and Juniata Park, and was critical of Biden’s Latino outreach before Election Day. She said individual voters did not appear to be targeted for outreach, and door-to-door campaigning was limited. “They didn’t think it was important.”

Philadelphia delivered more than 580,000 votes for Biden, nearly one out of every five he got in the state, his single biggest source in Pennsylvania. But it was stagnant compared to an explosion of Democratic turnout in the suburbs. Biden even grew Democratic support in some rural, post-industrial areas.

Trump gained ground in the city, also winning more support in the white, working-class areas of South and Northeast Philadelphia. His improvement undercuts his false, baseless claims that Democrats in Philadelphia rigged the election against him.

“The swing toward Trump among Hispanic voters is real and certainly something I did not see coming,” said U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat.

Nationally, exit polls show that Trump’s share of the Latino vote grew by 4 percentage points, and in Pennsylvania by 5.

“Clearly it’s not just a Philadelphia story," Boyle said. "We’re part of a larger national story.”

Biden also appears to have performed slightly worse than Clinton in heavily Black parts of the city, although the drop-off was not as steep as in Latino wards. In 23 of the city’s 30 majority-Black wards, Clinton’s margins of victory were higher than current tallies show for Biden. (Biden may still close the gap in a handful of those wards.)

The Biden campaign disputed the idea that it left votes on the table, or neglected any community. The campaign noted that when all the counting is done, Biden will emerge with more votes from Philadelphia than Clinton in 2016, despite the pandemic having severely limited campaigning.

“Our campaign ran without question the most robust Latino engagement program that any presidential campaign has run in Pennsylvania,” said Brendan McPhillips, Biden’s Pennsylvania state director, pointing to millions of dollars spent on Spanish language radio and television, mail, and organizing. He called it “a multifaceted effort to persuade and turn out Latinos across Pennsylvania.”

Biden aides said they focused on Latino outreach as much as they did outreach to other groups. Ads began running on Black and Latino radio stations at about the same time, for example.

“Engaging Black and brown communities was a priority and our investment and engagement reflected that,” said Sinceré Harris, Biden’s senior adviser in Pennsylvania.

Matt Barreto, of the liberal group Latino Decisions, noted that about 77% of Latino voters in Philadelphia supported Biden.

“Joe Biden won a historic election, he won overwhelmingly … we need to really celebrate that victory” said state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a top Biden ally whose district includes some of the wards that saw the biggest drops in Democratic vote counts. “When Democrats win elections, no matter how big we win by, the question is always ‘How come Democrats didn’t win bigger?’ When Donald Trump wins an election by half a percentage point, the question is ‘Why is Donald Trump unstoppable?’”

» READ MORE: Just enough white working-class voters bought into Biden’s blue-collar appeal to win him Pennsylvania

Philadelphia was also already voting at high levels, including in 2016, so there were fewer obvious routes to increase the Democratic margin. But activists and scholars within the Latino community argue that if Democrats don’t improve their outreach, they could lose ground with one of the country’s fastest growing demographics.

“It’s relatively cost-efficient to turn out somebody who you know has already voted [in the past], and already voted for you,” said Michael Jones-Correa, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied Latino politics. But that approach, he said, “is terrible at mobilizing new voters … who never voted for the Democratic Party before. You are invisible to them.”

Groups that already tend to vote at lower rates are likely to be more affected by coronavirus limits on outreach. And in tight Pennsylvania elections, even tiny shifts in turnout can make a huge difference. Trump, after all, won the state by less than 1 percentage point in 2016 and Biden’s margin looks likely to be less than 2 points.

“The main thing that was lacking is this community engagement that’s over a longer period of time that really educates people about the entire electoral process,” said Graber, of Philly Boricuas.

The digital campaigning that came earlier in the election wasn’t effective, she said, because many people in those heavily Latino wards lack internet access. Meanwhile, libraries, community centers, and other usual sources of information were closed or risky to visit because of the pandemic.

The Biden campaign was torn about in-person campaigning. One of Biden’s central arguments was that he would handle the pandemic more responsibly than Trump, so he tried to model that by limiting in-person events and door-knocking. But that also hamstrung outreach until the race’s final weeks.

“It came very late,” Jones-Correa said.

And when the campaigning did ramp up, not enough of it explained the basics of using mail ballots or finding polling places, Graber said.

While a strong majority of Latinos still support Democrats, several lawmakers and activists noted that some community traits make the Republican message appealing. Quiñones-Sánchez pointed to religious issues for a heavily evangelical demographic.

“I think the evangelicals and Pentacostals were doing a quiet campaign that we didn’t know about,” she said.

Carlos Matos, the Democratic leader in the 19th Ward, said federal stimulus checks to combat the economic impacts of the coronavirus was a factor.

“A lot of people were basically thinking that Trump was the one who sent them the check,” he said.

Emilio Vazquez, the Democratic leader in the 43rd Ward, said there wasn’t enough distinction between Biden and Trump.

“I don’t think people were that excited,” Vazquez said. “It was like voting for the same person, basically.”

Tabatha Scott, 26, of Hunting Park, voted for Biden, and tried to bring her family and friends along.

“I know a lot of people that didn’t vote," she said. "They don’t believe change is going to happen. The only person I convinced is my sister. She voted for the first time, and she’s older than me.”

Several activists and officials echoed Scott’s concerns, reiterating a common sentiment in lower-income communities: Candidates come seeking votes, but that little changes, leaving voters even more disenchanted.

“If we don’t address this poverty issue, what’s the reason to vote?” asked Ryan Boyer, business manager for the Laborers District Council and president of the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council. “Under Obama, under Trump, under Biden, we’re still the poorest big city in America.”

He added, “The imperative is: Does voting really change my life? We have to give people something to vote for, rather than just coming around and saying Trump is the boogeyman.”

» READ MORE: The Divided States of Pennsylvania: How one state embodies America's political discord

Graber said people in struggling areas want practical answers to everyday issues, like crime and the trash that has piled up.

“They don’t see how the policies are affecting their day-to-day life," she said. "They have this attitude that nothing’s going to change, so why should I go out of my way for them?”

Several activists and officials said Democrats need to reach out sooner in 2022, and do something to show their leadership makes a difference.

“We can’t be outreached to anymore. Either the Latino community is important or it’s not,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. 'We can’t be just a small part of the engagement if we’re on the path to victory."

Staff writers Juliana Feliciano Reyes, Samantha Melamed, and Allison Steele contributed to this article.