In­side the Fight for Penn­syl­va­nia

A Key State to Win­ning the Pres­i­dency

Newsweek - - Contents - by STEVE FRIESS @Steve­friess

All sum­mer long, Joe Bi­den sur­ro­gates in Penn­syl­va­nia lived in fear of a re­run of 2016’s Night­mare on Elec­tion Night, when the Demo­cratic can­di­date for president, af­ter lead­ing in the polls for weeks, lost the state to Don­ald Trump by less than one per­cent­age point, clear­ing his path to the White House. Their big­gest con­cern was tac­ti­cal: By avoid­ing in-per­son cam­paign­ing dur­ing the pan­demic, Bi­den in­sid­ers wor­ried, the for­mer VP was ced­ing a big ad­van­tage to Trump, who, coro­n­avirus be damned, was hold­ing bois­ter­ous ral­lies across the Key­stone State and, by proxy, knock­ing on mil­lions of doors, just as he’d suc­cess­fully done four years be­fore. Fast for­ward to early fall, though, and sud­denly Bi­den was ev­ery­where—on a tour of western Penn­syl­va­nia with whis­tle stops in Pitts­burgh, La­trobe, Greens­burg and John­stown; de­liv­er­ing a unity speech in Get­tys­burg; and au­tho­riz­ing door-to-door can­vass­ing to drum up sup­port and get out the vote, not just in PA but across other bat­tle­ground states as well.

What con­vinced “Base­ment Bi­den,” as Trump mock­ingly refers to his op­po­nent, to so dra­mat­i­cally re­verse course—iron­i­cally, just be­fore the president was forced by his COVID-19 di­ag­no­sis to pull back from the cam­paign trail? In a word: Penn­syl­va­nia.

The tip­ping point, sources within the cam­paign say, was a Septem­ber 26 ABC News/wash­ing­ton Post poll show­ing much softer sup­port among the state’s Bi­den vot­ers than among those back­ing Trump. Echo­ing the cam­paign’s own dis­qui­et­ing in­ter­nal data, the sur­vey found that, de­spite an over­all nine­point lead for the for­mer VP, only 51 per­cent of Bi­den back­ers were “very en­thu­si­as­tic” about their can­di­date vs. 71 per­cent of those who sup­ported Trump. That “rang the alarm,” a top Bi­den in­sider says. “Penn­syl­va­nia is driv­ing ev­ery­one’s strat­egy,” the source tells Newsweek. “We can’t leave any tac­tic off the ta­ble.” The in­sider adds, “We’ll prob­a­bly win here. But if we don’t, we are so screwed.”

The out­sized po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence of Penn­syl­va­nia is partly pure math:

The state’s 20 elec­toral votes are musthaves in al­most every likely path to the nec­es­sary 270 for ei­ther Trump or Bi­den. The web­site Fivethir­tyeight, which uses sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis to fore­cast out­comes, calls it “the sin­gle most im­por­tant state of the 2020 elec­tion,” and the like­li­est to pro­vide the de­ci­sive vote in the Elec­toral Col­lege. Its mod­el­ing gives Trump an 84 per­cent chance of re­main­ing in the White House if Penn­syl­va­nia goes red and es­ti­mates there’s a 96 per­cent chance of a new oc­cu­pant—at 1600 Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue, mind you—if the state flips to blue in­stead.

The num­bers game, though, is only part of the story. The com­po­si­tion of the state also makes it a rea­son­able stand-in for the Amer­i­can elec­torate writ large, all jammed into one vast ge­o­graphic rec­tan­gle. It has a nearly even mix of non-his­panic white vot­ers with­out col­lege de­grees (par­tic­u­larly in the heart­land) and more di­verse and ed­u­cated vot­ers (par­tic­u­larly in and around Pitts­burgh and Philadelph­ia). It also has a large num­ber of high tech and health­care pro­fes­sion­als as well as blue-col­lar work­ers, once likely to toil in the coal or steel in­dus­tries and now of­ten em­ployed in nat­u­ral gas pro­duc­tion.

“Penn­syl­va­nia is this mi­cro­cosm of the na­tion where Demo­cratic sup­port has be­come more and more con­cen­trated in highly pop­u­lated ar­eas and Repub­li­can sup­port is be­com­ing con­cen­trated in less pop­u­latd ar­eas,” says David O’con­nell, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at Dick­in­son Col­lege in Carlisle, in the south cen­tral part of the state. “The out­come [here] will de­ter­mine the fate of the na­tion it­self.”

It’s not ex­actly sur­pris­ing then that, with less than four weeks to go be­fore vot­ing ends, both can­di­dates are amp­ing up ef­forts and strate­giz­ing fiercely to map out the road to vic­tory in Penn­syl­va­nia. For Bi­den, that means heed­ing the lessons from Hil­lary Clin­ton’s los­ing cam­paign in 2016 and, in some respects, do­ing the op­po­site. For Trump, on the other hand, it’s more of the same—to the ex­tent that he can fol­low the same path amid a pan­demic. Mean­while, le­gal chal­lenges to the vot­ing process by both par­ties (but es­pe­cially Repub­li­cans) mean that Penn­syl­va­nia could lead the na­tion in an­other way: as a sym­bol of elec­tion chaos in an al­ready-tur­bu­lent year.

The Trump Way in PA

If there Is any doubt about how se­ri­ously the Repub­li­can ticket is tak­ing mes­sag­ing in Penn­syl­va­nia, con­sider how of­ten they talk about frack­ing—bound to res­onate in a state that is the na­tion’s sec­ond largest pro­ducer of nat­u­ral gas (af­ter Texas).

Less than a day af­ter re­turn­ing to the White House fol­low­ing his hos­pi­tal­iza­tion, Trump took a mo­ment dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly hec­tic tweet­storm to pon­der and pre­dict: “How does Bi­den lead in Penn­syl­va­nia Polls when he is against Frack­ing (JOBS!), 2nd Amend­ment and Re­li­gion? Fake Polls. I will win Penn­syl­va­nia.” The next day, dur­ing the de­bate, Vice President Mike Pence hit hard on frack­ing as well, in­sist­ing his pre­de­ces­sor as VP wants to ban the prac­tice, even though Bi­den has ex­plic­itly said oth­er­wise. The fol­low­ing day, Trump was back on the frack at­tack, tweet­ing: “The Great Com­mon­wealth of Penn­syl­va­nia would ab­so­lutely die with­out the jobs and dol­lars brought in by Frack­ing. Mas­sive num­bers! Now Bi­den & Har­ris, af­ter Rad­i­cal Left Dem Pri­maries, are try­ing to change their stance.”

Speak­ing to Penn­syl­va­nia vot­ers in strug­gling ru­ral and in­dus­trial re­gions of the state, many of them life­long Democrats who felt ig­nored and de­graded by their party, was crit­i­cal to the sur­prise Repub­li­can win in 2016. Trump spent his first cam­paign criss­cross­ing those ar­eas, blast­ing both par­ties for in­ter­na­tional trade deals that had brought mis­ery upon man­u­fac­tur­ing and agri­cul­ture and promis­ing Penn­syl­va­ni­ans he would bring back steel mills and coal pro­duc­tion, pro­tect the nat­u­ral gas in­dus­try from en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions and im­prove the for­tunes of farm­ers.

It worked. While Clin­ton led in and around Philadelph­ia and Pitts­burgh on Elec­tion Day, exit polling showed Trump won ru­ral and ex-ur­ban vot­ers by 71 to 26 per­cent, with 63 of the state’s 67 coun­ties vot­ing Repub­li­can by wider mar­gins in 2016 than they had in 2012.

Trump’s strat­egy for 2020 is to con­tinue do­ing what worked four

years ago, only with bet­ter or­ga­ni­za­tion and hun­dreds of ad­di­tional field or­ga­niz­ers. The cam­paign fre­quently brags about its can­vass­ing prow­ess—1 mil­lion door knocks a week, it says, al­though there’s no way to ver­ify that—and claims to have held more than 4,000 meet-ups in­volv­ing some 38,000 peo­ple. Un­til COVID side­lined him, Trump made per­sonal ap­pear­ances as well, vis­it­ing Penn­syl­va­nia 24 times as president—the most to a state where he doesn’t own a golf re­sort—in­clud­ing three ral­lies in Septem­ber in crowded air­port hangars in Pitts­burgh, Har­ris­burg and La­trobe.

The state’s Repub­li­can Party has ben­e­fit­ted too, says Realclearp­ol­i­tics edi­tor Charles Mcel­wee, who over­sees Penn­syl­va­nia cov­er­age. As of Septem­ber, every county with fewer

“You still have those se­cret Trump vot­ers who won’t say they’re sup­port­ing the president but when it comes to Elec­tion Day, they’ll pull that lever.”

than 100,000 vot­ers has more reg­is­tered Repub­li­cans com­pared to 2016. Democrats still main­tain a nearly 800,000-voter statewide edge, but that lead is down more than 16 per­cent from four years ago.

“The en­thu­si­asm is greater in 2020 for the Repub­li­cans than it was in 2016,” says Lisa Buck­iso, chair of a sub­com­mit­tee of Pitts­burgh’s Al­legheny County Repub­li­can Party. “It’s go­ing to be a close race in Penn­syl­va­nia.”

That’s not ex­actly what re­cent polls show. The lat­est Realclearp­ol­i­tics sur­vey of state polls has Trump down by an av­er­age of 7.1 points, vs. just 3.2 per­cent­age points a month ago. But Buck­iso isn’t buy­ing it: “So many polls were wrong in 2016. You still have those se­cret Trump vot­ers who won’t say they’re sup­port­ing the president but when it comes to Elec­tion Day, they’ll pull that lever.”

The cam­paign’s TV game re­flects a de­sire to pan for votes in every re­gion. For the ru­ral and small-town vot­ers who came to Trump’s side in 2016, there’s a garage owner in Scran­ton, Bi­den’s home­town, who at­tests, “Un­til COVID hit, Trump had the econ­omy boom­ing” and “Jen,” a frack­ing tech­ni­cian, warn­ing about Bi­den’s less gungho stance on the prac­tice.

For sub­ur­ban­ites, Trump stokes fear of ra­cial un­rest by paint­ing Bi­den as pro-ri­ot­ing and anti-po­lice. “Joe Bi­den em­pow­ers th­ese peo­ple,” says one cop, re­fer­ring to Black Lives Mat­ter demon­stra­tors. “The more you em­power them, the more crimes they go to com­mit.” And, in a gambit to peel away some Black vot­ers, Trump is also air­ing a spot with re­tired NFL player Jack Brewer warn­ing: “Joe Bi­den’s Amer­ica was mass in­car­cer­at­ing black men. President Trump set them free.”

Still, the bread and but­ter is the same as 2016. “How the Repub­li­cans are go­ing to win is to fur­ther in­crease their mar­gins in ru­ral and ex-ur­ban Penn­syl­va­nia while hold­ing down their losses in var­i­ous sub­urbs,” says

GOP strate­gist Christo­pher Ni­cholas. “It re­mains to be seen if they can.”

Bi­den: Not Trump. Or Hil­lary

bi­den has also been pay­ing at­ten­tion to Penn­syl­va­nia from the start of his run. In 2019, he gave the first speech of his third bid for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion at a union hall in Pitts­burgh, say­ing, “I came here be­cause, quite frankly folks, if I’m go­ing to be able to beat Don­ald Trump in 2020, it’s go­ing to hap­pen here.”

Bi­den’s Penn­syl­va­nia cam­paign di­rec­tor Bren­dan Mcphillips in­sists the lack of in-per­son cam­paign­ing un­til the fi­nal month and a de­ci­sion not to set up tra­di­tional field of­fices has not hob­bled the cause. In a mid-septem­ber memo lay­ing out the cam­paign’s endgame, Mcphillips noted staffers and vol­un­teers had made phone calls and sent text mes­sages to nearly 5 mil­lion prospec­tive vot­ers over the prior three months. He also sug­gested the 44,000 votes that Clin­ton lost by in 2016 could eas­ily be found in the Philadelph­ia sub­urbs where anti-trump sen­ti­ment was so high that Democrats flipped three House seats in 2018. And the cam­paign made clear it has no in­ten­tion of ced­ing small towns as Clin­ton did, main­tain­ing it has “held over 250 events and en­gaged 140,000 sup­port­ers in ru­ral ar­eas that voted for Trump in 2016.”

The cen­tral les­son: “We aren’t tak­ing a sin­gle Penn­syl­va­nian for granted.”

In an in­ter­view with Newsweek, Mcphillips elab­o­rated. “We’re mak­ing a real, in­ten­tional ef­fort to go ev­ery­where and talk to ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing cam­paign stops in deep red coun­ties where for a long time Democrats have strug­gled,” he says. “We be­lieve we can win back a lot of those vot­ers by just hav­ing an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion and giv­ing them the re­spect of ask­ing for their vote. We’re not go­ing to win all the time, but we will close the mar­gins and it’s go­ing to be a dif­fer­ence-maker.”

Bi­den echoed that sen­ti­ment dur­ing his post-de­bate whis­tle-stop tour. “Look, a lot of peo­ple around here voted for Don­ald Trump last time. I get it,” said Bi­den, stand­ing in front of a mas­sive CAT rig at a train­ing cen­ter for heavy ma­chin­ery in New Alexan­dria, af­ter pick­ing up the en­dorse­ment of the United Broth­er­hood of Car­pen­ters and Join­ers and the In­ter­na­tional Union of Op­er­at­ing Engi­neers. “I’ve been asked many times in re­cent years, ‘How did we get to a place where the peo­ple who teach our kids, take care of our sick, build our bridges, op­er­ate our trains, who race into the burn­ing build­ings and don’t ask who’s in there, peo­ple who, in fact grow our foods, how do we get to a place where they think we don’t see them or hear them or re­spect them?’ Well I see ‘em. I hear ‘em. I re­spect ‘em. I know ‘em. They’re fam­ily. It’s gonna change. It’s gonna change with me.”

Bi­den, un­like Clin­ton or Trump, also cul­ti­vated ties with the state’s union and in­dus­try lead­ers over his 36-year Se­nate ca­reer rep­re­sent­ing neigh­bor­ing Delaware, and was some­times re­ferred to as Penn­syl­va­nia’s third sen­a­tor. “There’s a real com­fort level talk­ing to Joe Bi­den,” says Bobby “Mac” Mcauliffe, Penn­syl­va­nia di­rec­tor of the United Steel Work­ers,

Of 2.4 mil­lion mail-in bal­lot re­quests in Penn­syl­va­nia through Septem­ber, 66 per­cent came from Democrats ver­sus 24 per­cent for Repub­li­cans.

which en­dorsed the Demo­crat at that first cam­paign stop in 2019. “He un­der­stand our is­sues. Don­ald Trump ap­pealed to some of our mem­bers by talk­ing about tar­iffs and about how that would re­vi­tal­ize the steel in­dus­try. But we saw so many jobs still that went over­seas.”

“Penn­syl­va­nia is look­ing like a lot of other states where Trump is un­der­per­form­ing among whites who have a col­lege de­gree, among women, among se­niors and in the sub­urbs,” says O’con­nell, the Dick­in­son pro­fes­sor. “That’s a lot of who lives in those coun­ties in the Philadelph­ia re­gion, which makes up about 20 per­cent of the state pop­u­la­tion. It’s not enough to win, but if Bi­den runs up huge mar­gins there, more so than Clin­ton did, it’s go­ing to be very tough for Trump.”

The Bi­den cam­paign has mounted an ag­gres­sive ad­ver­tis­ing ef­fort in Penn­syl­va­nia, spend­ing $27 mil­lion be­tween April and mid-septem­ber, which is more than dou­ble the Trump spend, ac­cord­ing to Kan­tar/cmag, a mar­ket re­search firm that col­lects data on TV buys. For the fi­nal six weeks be­fore Elec­tion Day, Trump had re­served $11.5 mil­lion to Bi­den’s $10.1 mil­lion in TV time for the state. Also play­ing are ads from the Lin­coln Project, a group of Repub­li­cans sup­port­ing Bi­den, which spent $380,000 in Pitts­burgh, Har­ris­burg, Erie and Philadelph­ia in Septem­ber fea­tur­ing L.A. Clip­pers coach Doc Rivers slam­ming Trump’s at­tacks on demon­stra­tors protest­ing po­lice bru­tal­ity against Blacks.

The up­shot? Most ob­servers think Bi­den’s lead in the polls is more au­then­tic than Clin­ton’s was four years ago. Back then, O’con­nell says, “State-level poll­sters weren’t weight­ing for ed­u­ca­tion level, which turned out to be a predictor of in­di­vid­ual votes, and weren’t weight­ing for ed­u­ca­tion be­cause it wasn’t as im­por­tant un­til

you saw this re-align­ment of vot­ers with col­lege de­grees to­wards Democrats. That will be reme­died this time.”

Le­gal Bat­tles Loom­ing

one measure of the pri­macy of Penn­syl­va­nia to both sides is the pha­lanxes of lawyers lin­ing up to file suits over vir­tu­ally every piece of the 2020 elec­tion process. Most of the chal­lenges re­volve around le­gal­i­ties re­gard­ing ab­sen­tee vot­ing in a year when reg­is­trars ex­pect some 3 mil­lion mail-in bal­lots from vot­ers who pre­fer not to risk con­tract­ing COVID at polling places on Elec­tion Day.

Al­ready, the Democrats have lost a bat­tle to count so-called “naked” bal­lots, or mail-in bal­lots that are not sheathed prop­erly in the se­cu­rity en­ve­lope when they’re re­turned. Mean­while, the GOP lost a case in which the state’s high­est court ruled that county elec­tion boards can count mail-in bal­lots post­marked by Novem­ber 3 that ar­rive by Novem­ber 6. In yet an­other mat­ter, Repub­li­cans are su­ing in fed­eral court to over­turn Penn­syl­va­nia Sec­re­tary of State Kathy Boock­var’s de­ci­sion to al­low bal­lots to be counted even if sig­na­tures are in­con­sis­tent.

The le­gal at­tack on mail-in bal­lots is an ex­ten­sion of Trump’s re­peated false claims that they are sub­ject to wide­spread fraud. “They’re go­ing to try to steal the elec­tion,” Trump groused at his Har­ris­burg rally last month. “The only way they can win in Penn­syl­va­nia, frankly, is to cheat on the bal­lots.” At the de­bate with Bi­den, he also brought up an in­ci­dent in which a hand­ful of mil­i­tary bal­lots were found in the garbage in Luzerne County and an­other in which Trump sup­port­ers were not per­mit­ted to be poll-watch­ers in a Philadelph­ia precinct. There isn’t any ev­i­dence of il­le­gal­ity in ei­ther case, but he none­the­less mem­o­rably pro­claimed that night: “Bad things hap­pen in Philadelph­ia.”

Mcphillips says the Bi­den camp has “the largest voter pro­tec­tion team that a na­tional cam­paign has ever had in the state” in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a flurry of law­suits aimed at throw­ing bal­lots out in Demo­cratic stronghold­s. Mean­while, Buck­iso wishes her party would fo­cus more on en­cour­ag­ing mail-in vot­ing than lit­i­gat­ing over it. Of 2.4 mil­lion mail-in bal­lot re­quests in Penn­syl­va­nia through Septem­ber, 66 per­cent came from Democrats ver­sus 24 per­cent for Repub­li­cans.

Both sides say the pub­lic should brace for a slow count and no clear win­ner on Novem­ber 3 due to the moun­tain of mail-in bal­lots that can­not be pro­cessed un­til polls open on Elec­tion Day. And if, as so many prog­nos­ti­ca­tors be­lieve, the fate of the pres­i­dency hinges on the Key­stone State, the re­sult of all this ha­rangu­ing could be a pro­tracted le­gal fight that keeps Amer­i­cans in sus­pense.

“If it winds up be­ing a de­ci­sive state, we’ve al­ready had con­cerns raised about the abil­ity of state elec­tion of­fi­cials to ad­min­is­ter this elec­tion,” O’con­nell says. “I worry about Penn­syl­va­nia in 2020 be­com­ing Florida in 2000. What a mess that would be.”

NOW OR LATER? Early vot­ing started in Penn­syl­va­nia on Septem­ber 14. Bal­lots will be ac­cepted un­til Novem­ber 6 as long as they are post­marked by Elec­tion Day, Novem­ber 3.

RALLY ON So­cial dis­tanc­ing wasn’t a pri­or­ity for the crowds who came to see Don­ald Trump at a cam­paign event at Penn­syl­va­nia’s Har­ris­burg In­ter­na­tional Air­port on Septem­ber 26.

KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON Clock­wise, from top: Elec­tion work­ers prac­tice safe han­dling while sort­ing mail-in bal­lots; Bi­den, back on the cam­paign trail this fall, at events in La­trobe and Get­tys­burg.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.