PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Searching for indicators of the direction of a deeply divided country, political experts across the United States have set their sights on Pennsylvania in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.
The state will be an important bellwether for the 2020 presidential election between Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, according to Kristen Coopie, a political science professor at Duquesne University.
“It’s really representative in its own way of so much of the country,” she said.
Counties along Pennsylvania’s coast tend to lean more Democratic while the center counties, mostly rural areas, usually lean Republican.
Drawing on the words of political consultant James Carville, Coopie reiterated that “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle.”
William Rosenberg, a politics professor at Drexel University, noticed this himself during the 2016 election when he was driving through the upper part of the state. You would virtually never see a Hillary Clinton sign, he recalled.
“Once you get out of areas like Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and maybe a little bit of Scranton, you notice that it’s really Trump country,” Rosenberg said.
Coopie, who is based on the western side of the state in Allegheny County, which surrounds Pittsburgh, explained further: “Demographically, we have a lot of blue-collar, white, non-college educated voters in more central parts of the state.”
Allison Sponic, a 25-year-old Democrat, remembered coming home from college to vote in a central Pennsylvania county that swung for Trump in 2016. Although she’s registered to vote in Philadelphia this year, she said there are still about as many Biden signs as there are Trump signs in her hometown.
“I have no idea if the county will go blue this year,” Sponic said.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, as of mid-October, the state has achieved a record high of roughly 9 million total registered voters this year. Of those, 4.2 million are Democrats, 3.5 million are Republicans and 1.3 million have no affiliation or are registered with another party.
What makes taking the state complicated for presidential candidates is this split layout of voters, which has been further complicated by the unique campaign issues of 2020, including the Covid-19 pandemic and national civil unrest that began to unfold this spring in reaction to taped incidents of police brutality against Black Americans.
A September poll indicated the most important factors to Pennsylvanians in deciding who to vote for in the presidential race are the economy, Covid-19, “law and order” and racial inequality, respectively.
“Something that both campaigns are going to have to struggle with is figuring out how to be a servant to many masters in some ways,” Coopie said. “It’ll be a close race.”
In the last 12 presidential elections, Pennsylvania has voted with the winning candidate in 10. It leaned blue, out of sync with national results, in both elections won by George W. Bush.
“Pennsylvania is classified as a swing state,” explained Rosenberg. “Sometimes it goes with the Republican candidate, sometimes it goes with the Democratic, in terms of the presidency.”
In the 2016 race between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and President Trump, Pennsylvania was one of six purple states — along with Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida — that tipped to Trump, Rosenberg said.
“A significant reason why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 is because she lost the state of Pennsylvania,” he explained, noting that Trump won by “a small number of votes,” around 40,000. “But since we use the Electoral College to choose the president, if he’d won by one vote, he would get the entire delegation of electors to the Electoral College.”
Coming in behind Florida, which has 29 votes, Pennsylvania, at 20, has the second-highest number of electoral votes of the swing states that fell to Trump in 2016.
To win the presidency, a candidate needs 270 or more out of 538 total. In 2016, Trump took 304 to Clinton’s 227.
Run for Reelection
“In the 2020 election early on, it looked like Pennsylvania was going to continue to be a sort of toss up state,” Rosenberg said. “But recent poll numbers show that Joe Biden is now pulling away a little bit at the state level.”
An Oct. 7 Quinnipiac Poll estimated Biden leads Trump in the state 54 to 41 percent — a gap that has widened since September.
“The president’s hopes for re-election are growing dimmer by the day,” Quinnipiac University polling analyst Tim Malloy, commented on the trend in the university’s report.
Political experts have speculated that one reason Pennsylvania went red in 2016, rather than blue — as it has in every presidential election since 1992 — is that Democrats have fallen out of touch with the state’s working class voters.
“The traditional numbers of the Democratic Party — especially union members and blue-collar, white workers — have trended to the Republican Party in more recent years. Especially in 2016, because of dissatisfaction with things like trade and environmental policies,” Coopie explained, noting some working class voters think Democratic-led policies have hurt industries where jobs used to be plentiful but are now scarce. For example, manufacturing, coal mining and steel production.
“These industries suffered greatly in recent years, partly from foreign competition, partly from the automation, and partly from a shift in the energy production of Americans from coal to natural gas,” explained Michael Hagen, an associate professor at Temple University.
When fighting for voters on the campaign trail in 2016, Trump pledged to put miners back to work and bring back manufacturing jobs from overseas. Now, Biden has an advantage that Clinton didn’t — he’s running against an opponent with a record, an uphill battle, according to Coopie.
“Trump made all of these promises to voters in western Pennsylvania and across the state, and across the country for that matter, saying that he would revitalize these industries,” Coopie explained, noting Trump has indeed repealed a number of Obama-era environmental regulations on the coal and oil industries, but these rollbacks haven’t necessarily revitalized them.
“He has tried. He’s been reducing a lot of regulations, but they’re not coming back,” she said. “I think a lot of the blue-collar workers that were dissatisfied with the trade and environmental policies of the Obama Era are just as dissatisfied with what President Trump has done.”
One way he’s trying to appeal to these same Pennsylvania voters this time around is by talking about fracking.
“The Trump campaign argues that Joe Biden is opposed to fracking and is going to end fracking. Joe Biden has not said that he is ever going to stop fracking from occurring. So There’s a certain degree of mistruth in some of the campaign rhetoric by Donald Trump on the issue of fracking in Pennsylvania,” Rosenberg explained, adding that fracking “is not just an issue in Pennsylvania, but in many states around the country.”
Compared to Trump’s former adversary Clinton, Rosenberg pointed out that Biden has a bit of an advantage with Pennsylvania voters: He was born in Scranton and has blue-collar roots.
“He also takes the position that he’s kind of an every man’s man,” Rosenberg said. “His father was a worker. He grew up in a household that was designed to instill worker values in him. He often refers to the lessons that his father taught him as a young child.”
By contrast, Trump’s appeal to blue-collar workers is the same he made in 2016. His main connection to the state is the time he spent at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School.
He can hope to appeal to voters by “trying to promote a sense of conservative values,” Rosenberg said, a term frequently associated with Christian beliefs. According to a Pew Research poll, roughly 75% of people in the state identify as Christian. However, Biden’s lifelong Catholic faith could also appeal to this same subset of voters.
Where Biden particularly appears to be gaining on Trump, however, is with women. According to an Oct. 10 poll by the Washington Post and ABC, Biden nationally holds a 23-point lead over Trump with women who are likely voters, scoring 59% to 36%. The same poll, notably, showed each candidate is likely to get roughly 48% of men’s votes.
Trump has been courting Pennsylvania women for his reelection bid since 2019. His campaign launched its national “Women for Trump” campaign at the Valley Forge Casino just outside of Philadelphia.
While attendees credited Trump for the national increase when it comes to women’s employment and the number of women on the White House staff, some indicated that they didn’t agree with some of his tweets.
“We’re still supporting, but we don’t necessarily agree with everything he does,” a female supporter at the time said, speaking for herself and a friend.
At a rally in Pennsylvania last week, Trump indicated that he’s heard that suburban women don’t like how he talks, but that he doesn’t have time to change his decorum.
“They want me to be politically correct,” Trump said, indicating that because his administration repealed an Obama-era anti-segregation rule, suburban women, “should like me more than anybody here tonight.”
“I ended deregulation that destroyed your neighborhood. I ended the regulation that brought crime to the suburbs,” he told the crowd.
Diane, a 56-year-old voter who lives in a suburb of Scranton, is one suburban voter who does not like Trump. She said that she’s always voted for the person and not the party since she cast her first vote for Ronald Reagan in 1985 — but that she intends to vote straight down the Democratic ticket this time as Republican Party members have lost her trust.
“Sadly, it’s going to be a very long time before I ever vote for a Republican again at this point,” she said. “The one thing that gives me hope for this election is knowing the overwhelming majority of my friends and family who voted for Trump in 2016 are refusing to vote for him again in 2020.”
The Green Party being thrown off of Pennsylvania’s ballot this year by the state’s Supreme Court also changes the political nature of the election. It leaves one less third-party option for voters, which Coopie indicated could mean more voters for Biden.
“This isn’t the first time that this has happened,” Coopie said. “The procedures for getting onto a ballot as a third party for an election are very rigorous, and you have to do certain things and meet certain deadlines, and according to the PA Supreme Court, the Green Party candidate did not abide by those procedures.”
This result could be more votes for Biden that would have otherwise gone Green.
“The Democrats have a history of trying to keep third party or Green Party or Libertarian candidates off ballots when they think that it could be detrimental to their party,” she said.
Layers of 2020
As hallmark issues of the 2020 election, two matters on Pennsylvania voters’ minds are presidential candidates’ plans to handle the evolving Covid-19 pandemic and national outrage about police brutality against Black Americans.
According to Hagen, when protests over George Floyd’s death and several subsequent lootings broke out in May, the Trump campaign saw an opportunity to pull a phrase from the headlines that they could work to their advantage: ‘Law and Order.’ A phrase that indicates he isn’t afraid to use force to control chaos and crime.
“The Trump campaign is using that as an opening to appeal to folks who might not otherwise be on board with Trump,” Hagen said.
He added that he thinks the Biden campaign has struggled to address the issue of racial inequality and discrimination in a way that will garner support both from moderates and those further left.
“Racial inequality and racism are issues that are important to lots of people,” Hagen said. “For example, in the Philadelphia region where the Biden campaign is able to draw enormous numbers of votes, there’s a large African American population that will be paying attention to what Biden has to say about those issues.”
The former vice president has shown a much more cautious reaction to Covid-19, wearing a mask at campaign events and taking recommended precautions on the trail — compared to Trump who tested positive for the virus at the beginning of the month and has repeatedly held packed campaign rallies in which masks were not mandatory.
“2020 definitely feels like one of those years that we are going to put an asterisk on whenever we speak about it in the future,” Coopie said. “It’s the first time that we’ve had two candidates and parties run virtually essential campaigns, trying to figure out how to utilize social media and not having the rigor of a 50-state strategy, visiting all the states on an airplane or in a bus, and having these personal interactions with voters.
“I think it has been very hard for both candidates,” she added, particularly so for Trump who thrives in a crowd environment.
For Cindy, a voter located in the suburbs of Reading, the Trump campaign’s actions when it comes to Covid-19 have disappointed her.
“I have interstitial lung disease, which is what you get after a Covid-19 pneumonia scars your lungs,” she explained, a condition she developed after contracting a bilateral double pneumonia 30 years ago.
As someone with a preexisting condition, she has spent the last seven months indoors and is not satisfied with the president’s coronavirus-related actions.
“Trump handled it by mishandling it in every conceivable way,” she said. “We had nurses wearing garbage bags for goodness sake.”
In addition to seeding fear and doubt in national leadership, Rosenberg noted the pandemic’s presence has also affected one of Trump’s biggest campaign promises: a strong economy.
“The coronavirus couldn’t have happened, perhaps at a worse time for Donald Trump,” Rosenberg explained. “Because essentially, it has impacted the economy. The economy has largely had to retrench. It’s had to get smaller. A lot of places had to close and as a result, our economic numbers are nowhere near what they were a year-and-a-half ago.”
Covid-19 has also changed how many Pennsylvania voters are participating in the election. They now have the option to vote remotely without an excuse and can choose to cast their ballots either by mail or in-person.
Perhaps because Democrats are planning to vote by mail in large numbers, the Trump campaign has actively fought against the placement of mail-in ballot drop boxes within the state, filing a lawsuit over the security of the sites in June, which has since been dismissed.
Pennsylvania was also one of several Democratic-led states that took the United States Post Office to federal court, seeking injunctions that would help election mail get to polls in a timely manner after the Trump administration made sweeping policy changes in July that slowed delivery times.
County officials said this past Wednesday that offices have thus far mailed out 97% of ballots to voters, one of which was Edward Raso. A voter in the Philadelphia suburbs and registered Democrat, Raso said he decided to vote by mail early because of the pandemic.
“I filled it out within five minutes,” he said, and plans to drive his ballot to a drop box early next week. While the process was easy, he said he does worry for voters who have issues with their ballots.
“If something goes wrong, there’s not much time to correct it,” he said.
Another voter, Matt, a registered independent who lives outside of Reading, also opted to vote by mail, along with his wife and both of their mothers.
“We brought them to the only currently available ballot drop box in the county in downtown Reading,” he said. “It was not convenient to get to, but we didn’t trust the postal service, so we’re glad we did it.”
Unthwarted by the virus, Howard Miller, an 80-year-old Republican in central Pennsylvania, is part of the estimated 67% of Pennsylvania voters who still plan to vote in person on Election Day.
“I don’t believe in mail-in voting unless you’re out of the country or somewhere else,” he said.
Noting that he’s been impressed by President Trump’s commitment to trying to get people back to work, Miller affirmed he plans to vote for him, although “he can get a little arrogant at times.”
“They blame him for this virus, but it’s not his fault. It’s China’s fault,” Miller said, adding that he’s always been a Republican but votes for the person he thinks is best for the job, and even once cast his ballot for Democrat John F. Kennedy.
Overnight election results for Pennsylvania aren’t a sure thing this in 2020. In 2016, state poll workers received just over 265,000 mail-in ballots, compared to the millions they’re expecting this November.
In accordance with state law, poll workers can’t open the envelopes until 7 a.m Election Day. Pennsylvania is one of four states where election officials have such a restriction.
Department of State Secretary Kathy Boockvar has said this puts the state in a position where it could take days to get a final count, although the state’s 67 county election offices have been hiring additional staff and bringing in new equipment to help speed the process.
It remains to be seen if the state’s Republican-led Legislature will move to vote next week on a measure, pushed by the state’s Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, that would allow counties to open ballots earlier.
For voters who plan to vote in-person, Hagen said it’s possible some could face confusion due to consolidation of polling places.
“There could be people who are trying to vote in-person and struggle to find their polling place,” he said. Others may face longer or more stretched out lines than usual, due to this consolidation on top of six-foot social distancing restrictions designed to keep voters safe.
“Long lines will surely frustrate some voters,” Hagen said. “No question about it.”