NATIONAL NEWS

Saving democracy is central to Biden’s campaign messaging. Will it resonate with swing state voters?

Feb 17, 2024, 6:02 AM

Raymond Santiago, executive director, Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley, poses for a photo during an in...

Raymond Santiago, executive director, Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley, poses for a photo during an interview, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Bethlehem, Penn. President Joe Biden is warning that Donald Trump will be a grave threat to American democracy if he wins re-election, but interviews with Pennsylvania voters again suggest it's not resonating. Santiago sees the recent 38% rise in use of the organization's food pantry as a stark sign of something he has felt over the past couple years: Many in the area's Latino community are struggling to meet their basic needs. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) — Just blocks from the shuttered Bethlehem Steel plant, the Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley was bustling on a recent day with scores of older people eating lunch. Downstairs, out of sight, a constant stream of visitors was shopping in its massive food pantry.

Over the past seven months, the number visitors to the pantry has risen by more than a third. The center’s executive director, Raymond Santiago, sees that as a stark sign of something he has felt over the past couple years: Many in the area’s Latino community are struggling to meet their basic needs.

Northampton County, which includes Bethlehem, is a traditional bellwether for Pennsylvania, one of the most important presidential swing states, and Latinos are a key part of the coalition that President Joe Biden is trying rebuild as he embarks on his campaign for a second term. In doing so, the Democrat might have challenges selling a crucial part of his reelection strategy.

One of the messages he has delivered in previous visits to Pennsylvania is that former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, is a danger to American democracy. Biden is hoping that message energizes the same voters who turned out four years ago, when Northampton County narrowly flipped to him after supporting Trump by a thin margin in 2016.

Based on his interactions with visitors to the Hispanic center, Santiago isn’t so sure. It’s the price of groceries and lack of affordable housing that dominate conversations there.

“I think so many people are already immune to that messaging, it won’t land as cleanly this election as it did in 2020,” he said. “If he keeps pushing that message, it might turn voters away.”

Biden chose a location near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, with its deep symbolism for the country’s struggle for freedom, for his initial campaign event for 2024, portraying Trump as a grave threat to America and describing the general election as “all about” whether democracy can survive. It was a message similar to one he gave before the 2022 midterm elections at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the nation’s founding documents were created. Biden warned that Trump and his followers threatened “the very foundation of our republic.”

Biden has continued the theme during the early primary season, telling supporters winning a second term is essential for maintaining the country’s democratic traditions.

Over the course of several days, The Associated Press interviewed a cross section of voters in Northampton County to ask whether Biden’s messaging around the fate of democracy was resonating. These voters represented parts of the very coalition Biden will need to win Pennsylvania again — Black voters, Latinos, independents and moderates from both parties.

Their overarching response: The president’s warning that a second Trump presidency will shred constitutional norms and destroy democratic institutions is not one that, alone, will motivate them and get them out to vote.

Like people across much of the rest of the country, most of those interviewed would prefer avoiding a rematch of the 2020 contest, and several suggested they would seriously consider a serious third-party candidate with a strong message and a chance of winning.

Evelyn Fermin, 74, who regularly visits the Lehigh Hispanic center, has lived in the county for two years after spending most of her life in New Jersey. Her opinion about Trump has been set since Jan. 6, 2021, when the former president’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent bid to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s win. But she doesn’t think reminders of that day will be sufficient to persuade voters in November.

For the daughter of parents who immigrated from the Dominican Republic, her concerns are border security and spending abroad.

“Rather than sending it out to foreign countries, I think we should use it for our people,” she said.

As a divorced mother who supported her son as he worked his way through school to become a lawyer, she also doesn’t support Biden’s attempt to waive student loan debt: “If I was able to to do it, I feel that they should.”

Curt Balch, 44, worked in the health care industry and is now a stay-at-home dad. He was weathering a two-hour school delay with his 5-year-old daughter in his home in Hellertown, in a more rural part of the county. He registered Republican so he could vote in primaries, but describes himself as more libertarian.

Balch said the messaging by both sides is “pretty toxic” when they warn that the other is “a threat or a danger to the fundamentals of the country moving forward.”

He supported Trump in the past two elections but is open to considering other candidates this year, especially if he thinks there is an appealing third-party or independent candidate. Balch believes the dire warnings about a potential second Trump term are overblown. Balch notes that even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump let states decide for themselves how to handle it.

“I understand the rhetoric, ‘Oh, he’s going to be a fascist dictator,’” Balch said. “I don’t think it’s a message that’s getting people to the polls. I don’t think people are legitimately thinking that they need to be afraid of Donald Trump.”

Christian Miller was a lifelong Democrat but became an independent in 2022 out of frustration with political gridlock and a sense that as he got older, he was growing more conservative.

He said he might one day consider switching to the Republican Party, but not as long as Trump is leading it. That’s not out of any worry that Trump would become a dictator if he wins a second term.

“I don’t know that I fear it as much as it’s being made out to be in the media from either side,” said Miller, a 53-year-old bank executive who lives in Nazareth. “I feel that the institutions are safe and and are strong enough to withstand the challenges.”

Miller cited the dozens of failed court challenges seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential results by Trump and his allies as an example of the institutions holding firm.

Surveys indicate concern about the state of democracy, but it’s not clear how that will translate in November’s election. A Biden campaign spokesperson said the democracy message is central to the campaign but it is not the only one the campaign will use to reach voters. Protecting abortion rights and fighting for higher wages will be among the issues essential to the president’s pitch.

Northampton County, especially Bethlehem, has been slowly emerging from the economic shock that followed the collapse of the local steel industry. The plant produced the steel that built the Golden Gate Bridge during the Great Depression and a decade later, during World War II, became the country’s largest shipbuilder.

The blast furnaces, which fell silent nearly 30 years ago, are still visible for miles as they sit alongside the Lehigh River. But Bethlehem has been enjoying a revival in recent years as it has evolved into a hub for health care and technology companies. New shops, an art center, museum, performing arts stage and a casino, among other developments, have added vibrancy to a picturesque city dotted with historical structures dating to the 18th century.

Northampton also is a historical bellwether. As the county has gone in the presidential election, so has the state, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg University in Allentown. The last time they split was 1948, when the county voted for Democrat Harry Truman but the state went for Republican Thomas Dewey.

“It’s about as great a benchmark county as you’ll ever find,” Borick said.

Biden narrowly carried the county in 2020, four years after Trump had narrowly prevailed in his victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Anna Kodama, 69, is the type of voter who traditionally has swung back and forth between the parties.

She grew up in a Republican household in Ohio but switched parties during college. She recalls voting across party lines frequently since she moved to the Lehigh Valley in 1977 — until 2016 when Trump was making his first run for the presidency and she voted a straight ticket for Democrats.

The people Kodama encounters are not listening to Biden’s messages about a dark future under Trump. Instead, she would like him to speak more about what he is doing to improve the economy and forge stronger ties with Europe. She paid attention to a Biden visit earlier this year to a nearby town, Emmaus, where he stopped at local stores to discuss the importance of supporting small businesses.

She said Biden seems to connect better with people when he promotes a positive message, rather than a negative one that she believes will not motivate people in the fall.

“That’s where I find it compelling — look what we can do together,” said the artist and former teacher who was sipping coffee at Café the Lodge in Bethlehem. “That message resonates with me and with people I know.”

For Esther Lee, the 90-year-old president of the local NAACP, the threat-to-democracy message is not generating much concern among the people she contacts. She already plans to vote, but not because she is fearful of another Trump presidency.

“We already know who he is,” she said.

Getting Black voters engaged is going to take more from Biden, she believes, because so far his campaign messages have not resonated. She questions whether the Black community in Northampton County is the target audience: “I’m not seeing evidence of it,” she said.

Lee said the issue she hears about most in her circle is homelessness: “It’s No. 1,” she said, adding that the resources don’t seem to be sufficient to address the local problem. The companion to that, she said, is affordable housing.

“With Biden’s campaign, they need to reach down further,” with the messaging, she said.

At the Lehigh center, Guillermo Lopez Jr., 69, recalls his deep ties to the area and the many members of his extended family who worked at Bethlehem Steel. He worked at the plant for 27 years, following a father who worked there for 36.

He is now on the center’s board of directors and a local leader in the Latino community. A Democrat who said he leans independent, he plans to vote for Biden in part because of how he thought Trump’s rhetoric, beginning with is campaign announcement in 2015, made targets of Latinos and other minorities.

“It just speaks to me that there’s so much misguided hatred toward people like me,” he said.

But Lopez thinks messages of fear and Trump imperiling American democracy are essentially meaningless for many of the county’s working class voters. Their concern, he said, is finding steady work with good pay.

“I actually think that harms the vote,” he said of the democracy warnings. The average person who “just puts their nose to the grindstone and goes to work, I don’t think that motivates them. I think it scares them and freezes them.”

___

The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Saving democracy is central to Biden’s campaign messaging. Will it resonate with swing state voters?