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

BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) — Just blocks from the shuttered Bethlehem Steel plant, the Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley was bustling during lunch recently. Out of sight, a constant stream of visitors was shopping in its massive food pantry.

Over the past seven months, the number of visitors to the pantry has risen by more than a third. The center’s executive director, Raymond Santiago, sees that as a stark sign that many in the area’s Latino community are struggling.

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 campaign coalition President Joe Biden is trying to rebuild.

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 in 2024, is a danger to American democracy. Biden hopes the message energizes the same voters who turned out four years ago, when Northampton County narrowly flipped his way 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.

The threat messaging “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, a place with deep symbolism for the country’s struggle for freedom, as the site of his initial campaign event for 2024, describing the upcoming race as “all about” whether democracy can survive. It was a message similar to one he gave in Philadelphia before the 2022 midterm elections.

Biden has continued the theme during the early primary season this year.

Over the course of several days, The Associated Press interviewed a cross section of voters in Northampton County to ask whether Biden’s messaging was resonating. They 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: Biden’s warning that a second Trump presidency will undermine democratic institutions is, by itself, not enough to motivate voters.

Evelyn Fermin, 74, who regularly visits the Lehigh Hispanic center, said her opinion of Trump was already set before Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to halt certification of Biden’s victory. But she doesn’t feel that reminders of that day will be sufficient to engage voters in November.

Her own priorities are immigration and federal spending abroad.

Curt Balch, 44, worked in the health care industry and is now a stay-at-home dad living in a more rural area 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 danger to the fundamentals of the country moving forward.”

He believes the warnings are overblown and notes that even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump let states decide 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.”

Christian Miller was a lifelong Democrat but became an independent in 2022 out of frustration with political gridlock. The bank executive from Nazareth said he also believes the threat concerns are overstated.

“I feel that the institutions are safe and and are strong enough to withstand the challenges,” he said.

A Biden campaign spokesperson said the democracy message is central to the campaign but is not the only one the campaign will use to reach voters. Protecting abortion rights and fighting for higher wages also will be essential elements of 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 nearly 30 years ago and is now enjoying a revival as a technology and health care hub.

The county has long been a political bellwether. The last time its vote differed from the state’s in a presidential election was 1948, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg University in Allentown.

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

Since she moved to the Lehigh Valley in 1977, she has crossed party lines frequently — until 2016 when she voted a straight Democratic ticket for the first time.

The people Kodama encounters are more likely to respond to a positive messages. She would like Biden 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.

That strategy “resonates with me and with people I know,” said the artist and former teacher.

For Esther Lee, the 90-year-old president of the local NAACP, the threat-to-democracy message about Trump is not generating new concerns: “We already know who he is,” she said.

Lee said in her circle the number one issue is homelessness and its companion, affordable housing.

At the Lehigh Hispanic center, Guillermo Lopez Jr., 69, recalls his deep ties to the area and the 27 years he worked at Bethlehem Steel. A Democrat who said he leans independent, he plans to vote for Biden in part because of how he thought Trump’s rhetoric has made targets of Latinos and other minorities.

But Lopez thinks messaging about Trump imperiling democracy actually “harms the vote.”

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.

Gary Fields, The Associated Press

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