PHILADELPHIA — Joe Biden has beaten Donald Trump in nearly every public poll in Pennsylvania this year. Still, almost everyone on both sides expects another squeaker like in 2016, when Trump took Pennsylvania in 2016 by an eyelash.
With a winning margin of less than 1 percentage point, Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the state since 1988.
“The election is going to be close in Pennsylvania,” said former Philadelphia Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter. “It always is.”
Biden currently enjoys a solid, though not overwhelming, lead of about 4 percentage points in the state, according to polling averages. That’s been halved since a high of a margin of roughly 8 points in July — a slight narrowing that the Biden campaign has long warned would come.
Even as the race has become closer, Biden has maintained the most support among two key voting blocs: suburbanites and seniors, both of whom Trump won in 2016. At the same time, the Biden campaign is looking to flip Obama-Trump counties in northeastern Pennsylvania while avoiding Hillary Clinton-like blowout losses in parts of western Pennsylvania. Biden aides want to reduce Trump’s margin of victory in areas such as Westmoreland County — one of the most populous in western Pennsylvania — from roughly 30 percentage points to 20 or 25 points.
“The problem for the president is Joe Biden is going to have a very strong vote in areas where Democrats have done well historically or even with greater intensity recently, meaning among city voters and suburban voters,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. “But Joe Biden is also cutting into the president’s support in areas like northeastern Pennsylvania as well as southwestern Pennsylvania. I think part of the reason he is is people see a leader. They see someone with experience and empathy.”
The Trump campaign dismisses the polls, pointing to their poor track record in states in 2016 — Clinton led in nearly every Pennsylvania poll fielded that year. The president’s aides in Pennsylvania believe he is in a strong position here, and attribute that in part to the fact that voters trust him to handle the economy more than Biden. They also argue that Biden’s position on fracking, taxes, and law enforcement are major weaknesses.
The Trump campaign is looking to boost turnout for the president in places such as western Pennsylvania, while also limiting losses among Black and Latino voters in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Trump’s campaign has run ads in the city hitting Biden for hurting Black people by supporting tough-on-crime bills in the 1990s, and touted a criminal justice reform bill signed by Trump. And there were an estimated 2.3 million white eligible voters without college degrees in the state who did not vote in 2016, a group that the Trump team thinks it can turn out this year.
“Washington, Westmoreland, even Cambria, Beaver [counties], places like that have been trending more and more Republican,” said Ted Christian, Trump’s senior adviser in Pennsylvania. “I think in places in the southwest and the northeast where people were surprised by the president, maybe felt that he overperformed, I actually think we’re going to do better.”
While Democrats see cause for hope in their suburban-fueled victories in former GOP strongholds in the 2018 midterms, Republicans are optimistic about the fact that they flipped county commission seats in 2019 in western counties that Democrats long controlled. Likewise, GOP leaders in the state said they expect more one-time Democrats in labor unions such as the building trades to vote for Trump, just as they did in 2016.
“I’ve been talking to labor folks in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and they tell me that they were working and busy under the Trump administration with the economy the way it was,” said former GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, a top Trump ally in Pennsylvania. “They’re concerned that Biden has moved further left. Putting Kamala Harris on the ticket is almost like throwing in the towel in Pennsylvania with her anti-fracking position.”’
Trump’s team has accused Biden of wanting to ban fracking altogether, which is false: He wants to halt new permits for the drilling technique on public land. Harris, however, did support an outright ban during the primary. In a sign of how important the issue is in state politics, especially in western Pennsylvania, Biden reiterated his position at a campaign stop in Pittsburgh last month.
“I am not banning fracking. Let me say that again: I am not banning fracking. No matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me,” he said.
Some former Bernie Sanders supporters in Pennsylvania, who are now helping to elect Biden, are worried that the election could slip away from the former vice president like it did in 2016. They fear he might not generate the massive turnout he needs due to a lack of enthusiasm.
“What I’m seeing is that it’s anyone’s race. I think Trump has a real shot of winning reelection,” said Amanda McIllmurray, a Philadelphia-based progressive strategist. “The Democratic Party establishment and the pollsters were in 2016 deeply out of touch with the hearts and souls of Americans, and particularly the struggle of Black, brown and white working-class people. And that hasn’t changed.”
But Biden’s top allies and aides, including those who worked on Clinton’s 2016 campaign in Pennsylvania, said this year seems different.
“Honestly, it does feel a lot more encouraging this year. We’ve got people just banging down the doors trying to get their hands on the signs,” said Brendan McPhillips, Biden’s state director in Pennsylvania. “There were not consistent signs like that in 2016.”
Democrats explain Biden’s advantage in the polls as a function of his political profile: The former vice president is a Scranton native, ideologically moderate, and doesn’t carry the baggage Clinton did in 2016. Plus, they say, voters think Trump has done a poor job handling the coronavirus pandemic, worsened civil unrest, and broken promises to workers.
“People are exhausted from the lack of leadership in the White House,” said McPhillips. “They see Joe Biden in the Obama-Biden administration take care of real problems and get the country out of crises, and here we are four years into what the Trump era looks like, and I think folks have buyer’s remorse.”