Original article by Anna Rubenstein and Elena Eisenstadt of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Demetrius Ivy couldn’t hold back his laughter when remembering Joe Biden’s performance in the first presidential debate.

“It’s hard to know if Joe knew where he was,” he said. “He was bad on the issues.”

But Mr. Ivy, 57, a Black voter in Pittsburgh, is still planning to stick with the Democratic ticket when he votes in November.

“Not for Biden, for social programs,” he said. He believes if it isn’t Mr. Biden, another Democrat will employ programs like the child tax credit, which helped his son.

William Matthews, a Latino voter in Pittsburgh, is leaning toward voting for Republican Donald Trump.

He said he respected when Trump went for “rebuttals,” but when Mr. Biden did so, “it kind of made me lose respect for him. I never respect somebody who would rebuttal with insults.”

Black and Latino voters are considered a key demographic by both parties in the 2024 race.

In the aftermath of the debate, those voters locally are grappling with how they’re going to vote in November’s election — or whether to participate at all, which increasingly worries local community leaders.

Low voter turnout a growing concern

Recent national polls suggest more Black voters than ever could be willing to vote for Trump, but a more justified concern is “if they will vote at all,” said Tony E. Carey Jr., an associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh.

“This could be a death knell for the Biden campaign,” Mr. Carey said.

Maryn Formley, the founder of Voter Empowerment Education & Enrichment Movement (VEEEM), said her organization is noticing less energy in this contest compared to 2020.

VEEEM is focused on registering voters in the East Hills, a predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood. Ms. Formley said voter turnout in the neighborhood was holding above 20% before 2023, and then dropped back down to single digits.

“It feels like people are just not as interested or invested, or maybe they’ve just given up hope,” she said.

Of particular concern is a lack of enthusiasm among young voters of color.

The significance of voting and democracy might not be enough to motivate younger generations, Ms. Formley told the Post-Gazette.

“Black people didn’t always have the right to vote, which galvanized us,” she said. “But that doesn’t have the same power in younger generations. … You can’t just expect people to vote … just because that’s what people have always done.”

In Pennsylvania, just 25% of high schoolers of voting age are registered to vote, and in urban centers it falls to 15%, according to advocates at the Urban League’s recent State of Black Pittsburgh event, which focused on housing and voting. In Pittsburgh, the percentages change depending on where you are. In areas like Sewickley, voting registration is over 25%; in the Hill District, it’s around 7%.

But efforts to register Black voters generally have born fruit, said Khari Mosley, District 9 city councilman, at the Urban League event.

“I don’t think that you have a Mayor Gainey … [or] a Congresswoman [Summer] Lee without the work,” he said. “The folks who are in office right now are in office because of Allegheny County … so hopefully we can continue that trend into 2024.”

“If local Black residents are more excited and motivated to ensure the elected politicians stay in office … that might very well trickle up,” Mr. Carey.

Mr. Biden still holds 56.2% of Black voters in the state, with Trump holding 10.8%, a recent USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll found. In 2020, 69% of Latino voters in Pennsylvania voted for Mr. Biden, while 27% voted for Trump, according to exit polls.

However, Democrats are concerned that Latino support for Mr. Biden is slipping.

In local Latino communities, low voter turnout could stem from a lack of faith in any political candidate, said Daniel Conlon Gutierrez, 41, of Ben Avon and a board member of the Pittsburgh Hispanic Development Corporation.

Mr. Conlon worries about Mr. Biden’s ability to “energize” Latino voters.

“In an election where things are so tight, you need to energize every group. I don’t think that’s what the current president is doing,” he said.

Monica Ruiz, executive director of Casa San Jose, a community resource center in Beechview, predicts low Latino voter turnout due to fears among many mixed-status immigrant families about interacting with the government.

“You’ve got people that are afraid that at any given moment they could not be here anymore. So then they may not buy a house, not open a business, not do the things that they could do for longer term stability,” she said.

This same mentality applies to voting, she said: “People are more likely to not vote at all” than to vote for Trump or Mr. Biden.

However, Melanie Marie Boyer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is hopeful that Latinos will value voting more as politics become an important investment in the lives they start here.

Between 2010 and 2020, Allegheny County’s Hispanic and Latino population increased by 80%. This growth has spurred a wave of Latino-owned business openings around the Pittsburgh area in places like Beechview, Brookline, Coraopolis and Ambridge.

“As resources grow, and people are more empowered and become more educated [about voting rights, policies and procedures], they do start to realize that everything is touched by policy,” Ms. Boyer said.

Economic issues are a top priority

The highest priority issue for Black Pennsylvanians polled in the USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll was the economy and inflation, at 37.8%.

Carlos T. Carter, the president of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, said Pittsburgh is considered a livable city nationally, but that isn’t always true for Black and brown people.

“[I’m] not saying those other issues aren’t important, like abortion and other hot-topic issues, but I think for the everyday person it’s the basic things that are important,” Mr. Carter told the Post-Gazette.

The past four years of Mr. Biden’s record for Black Americans have been “unparalleled” said Mr. Carter, who points to debt forgiveness and housing as efforts the Trump’s administration did not support as vigorously.

Economic issues are often tracked by day-to-day quality of life. Cam Watts, 21, who said he registers voters as part of the Black Men Vote Civic Action Fund, said he’s seen Trump hold the majority for Black voters in Pittsburgh.

“People feel if Trump’s in office, they’ll get money,” Watts said.

“I didn’t like when [Trump] was in office … then he left, and I was like ‘come back,’ ” said HnR Melo, a 26-year-old mixed Puerto Rican music artist from Homewood.

He remembers when his food stamps were cut after Mr. Biden took office. They went from $400 a month to $150, then were cut completely, he said, a product of phasing out from the COVID-era economic policy.

On the other end, some who have lost faith in Mr. Biden are sticking with him for economic benefit, such as Mr. Ivy, who will vote blue not for Mr. Biden, but for social programs like the child tax credit.

Recent polling data from UnidosUS suggests that economic issues, followed by immigration, are “major concerns” for Pennsylvania’s Latino voters. But they are divided as to which candidate might address those issues most effectively.

As more Latinos open businesses in the Pittsburgh area, some have more faith in Trump’s promised economic growth than in the economic conditions they have witnessed under Mr. Biden’s presidency.

Ivan Gil-Silva, 38, owner of Mi Empanada in Lawrenceville, considers himself more socially liberal, but when it comes to business matters, he said he benefits from conservative policies.

When Trump was elected president, Mr. Gil-Silva was not yet a U.S. citizen and was still selling empanadas on a street corner. He initially didn’t like Trump, he said, but was able to open his restaurant during Trump’s presidency.

And it wasn’t just him: “A lot of people around me pulled themselves up from their bootstraps from a fair amount of poverty. Things were very accessible,” he said.

Mr. Gil-Silva thinks many Latino voters are likely to vote for Republicans in this election because they believe it is the economically beneficial choice.

In Western Pennsylvania, which is home to more recently arrived Latino immigrants, Ms. Ruiz explained that many residents are concerned with immigration over economic issues. Whereas in Eastern Pennsylvania, where more longtime Latino residents live, the opposite is true, she said.

“The vast majority of the people [in Western Pa.] are recent arrivals. So their priorities are a little bit different than somebody who’s been here for a longer period of time,” she said.

Social, demographic issues will help decide

Democracy and freedom are issues African Americans are “particularly well positioned to understand the significance of” Mr. Carey said. Even though some may remember the Trump years as better economically, they will also recall 2020’s reckoning with police brutality and Black quality of life in America, he said.

Tim Stevens, chairman of The Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP) said the Supreme Court and the power to appoint justices is an issue he hopes to make people more aware of locally.

“In a relatively short time, key decisions have been made by this court. The presidential power to appoint is huge,” Mr. Stevens told the Post-Gazette.

For Alexis McMiller, 19, who is voting for the first time this November, and Jackie Dixon, 75, who has never missed an election, abortion and access to birth control are on the ballot. Black women are disproportionately impacted by lack of access to birth control.

Ms. Dixon said she personally is not a proponent of abortion, but deeply believes in the right to choose.

“That’s an issue between women and God, not between women and men,” she said.

Integrity is important when she enters the voting booth, said Ms. Dixon, who noted that Trump’s criminal convictions will further solidify her vote for Mr. Biden.

Polls quickly disproved Trump’s speculation that his criminal conviction will increase support among Black Pennsylvanians.

“That’s very degrading to imply,” Mr. Carter said. “He’s a very privileged white man.”

Immigration policy is a primary political concern for many Latino voters, including Karin Christoff, 50, of Cranberry and founder of Fierce Knockouts Enterprises. She plans to vote for Mr. Biden, and thinks many other Latinos will as well, because she believes that he will support pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Immigration and economic growth are also primary for Mr. Matthews, who — unlike Ms. Christoff — is leaning toward Trump, as noted at the outset.

Mr. Matthews, an analyst at DXC Technology, said he has witnessed a “huge change” in the political leanings of Pittsburgh Latinos.

In the past, many supported Democratic candidates because of their dedication to “inclusion in the workplace,” in addition to policies that create pathways to citizenship for immigrants, he said.

But now, Mr. Matthews sees many more Latinos supporting Trump because they believe he has their best interests in mind.

Local jobs are of particular concern. “I have some friends who can’t see their wife and families more than twice a week because they have to travel to find work in different states like Indiana or Ohio,” he said.

Mr. Gil-Silva, who is originally from Argentina where he saw socialism “ruin small businesses” like his restaurant in Pittsburgh, said he’s not keen on socialist economic policies reaching America.

While he is still conflicted about which U.S. presidential candidate to vote for since becoming a citizen in June, when it comes down to it, Mr. Gil-Silva said he will vote for “whoever has my best interest.”

First Published: July 8, 2024, 5:30 a.m.
Updated: July 9, 2024, 8:40 a.m.