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'Building for the last four years': Pennsylvania Latinos were pivotal for Biden

"We've been building for the last four years this movement," said a Latina organizer. As many as 6 in 10 Latino voters in Pennsylvania supported Biden, according to exit polling.
Voters wait in a long line outside the Heinz History Center to vote in Pittsburgh on Election Day.Michael Swensen / for NBC News

Latinos are a small part of Pennsylvania's electorate, but they came out strong for Joe Biden and were pivotal in helping deliver the state that gave him more than the 270 Electoral College votes he needed to claim the White House.

Exit polling showed that Latinos were about 4 percent of all voters who showed up at the polls. As many as 6 in 10 Latino voters cast their ballots Biden. President Donald Trump got 35 percent of Latino votes.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won about three-quarters of the Latino vote in Pennsylvania, and Trump got 22 percent.

A little more than half a million Latinos — about half the state's Hispanic residents — are eligible to vote in Pennsylvania. Puerto Ricans are the dominant Latino group, followed by Dominican Americans and Mexicans.

"We already knew that since the last presidential election, there were 300,000 new Latino voters in Pennsylvania, and we know that based on the results we have seen that without those folks coming and participating, maybe the result wouldn't have been the same," said Thaís Carrero, Pennsylvania director of CASA in Action, a progressive group that does political organizing around Latino and immigrant rights advocacy, which endorsed Biden in August.

The group knocked on doors, held "caravanas" (car caravans), carried out phone banking and targeted misinformation that mostly was centered on voting and registration processes. Its work did not get a lot of outside investment, and it was largely grassroots, she said.

The group also provided translation and language services for voters in counties that have not had many people who are more comfortable voting in Spanish and therefore are not required to provide bilingual materials.

"We've been building for the last four years this movement, making sure the folks know that this presidency is bad and dangerous for our communities and that they had all the tools they need to come out," Carrero said, "whether by mail or in person to vote."

Pennsylvania's Hispanic population has grown significantly, a 274 percent increase from 2010 to 2019, while its white population has declined.

Some of the growth has included Puerto Ricans who fled the island's drought and financial crisis, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, and the still-active earthquakes. The relocations have even led to some Latino presence in the state's Amish country in south-central Pennsylvania.

"I have been in Pennsylvania — I'm Puerto Rican — for five years, and this is my first presidential vote ever," Carrero said.

Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and not a state, Puerto Ricans who live on the island cannot vote in presidential elections. But like Carrero, Puerto Ricans who moved to one of the 50 states are able to vote, and the Democrats and groups like CASA focused on turning them out for Biden, as did his campaign.

Carrero said her organization and its members made the "mistreatment of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria" and "abuse toward our immigrant community and the criminalization of immigration" the focus of their outreach.

The impact of Covid-19 also was a priority, including in the organization, some of whose members or their family members died after having contracted the virus. Carrero said that helped connect the dots for voters about long-standing inequities in schools, health care coverage and employment and helped connect them with people in power.

Latino leaders had expressed worry about the Biden campaign's Hispanic outreach in the state. The Biden campaign focused its work in the Lehigh Valley, the area that includes Allentown, but also in the Reading and Harrisburg area, largely through virtual and digital events, the campaign said.

Biden also won the endorsement of the popular Pennsylvania Latino radio host Vic Martinez, known on the airwaves as VJ Mar. The endorsement for Biden was the first the radio program has made in its 17 years, Martinez said.

His shows broadcast on a network of stations in Reading and Allentown, where they are known as "La Mega," and in Philadelphia on the station known as La Kalle — all areas with sizable Latino populations.

Groups such as Make the Road Pennsylvania and Mi Familia Vota also targeted young Latino voters in the state.

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CORRECTION (Nov. 8, 2020, 12:20 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the Philadelphia radio station that airs VJ Mar's program. It is known as La Kalle, not La Calle.