In campaign's final stretch, Democrats claw their way back in Pennsylvania

UNION CITY, Pa. — Four years ago, it took Keith Hanlin three trips to the Democratic headquarters in the city of Erie before he could get any Hillary Clinton signs. Hanlin, a retired teacher, said there weren’t many signs in the area at all, telling Yahoo News, “We had nothing here.”

But last month, Democrats took a step to correct one of their mistakes of 2016 and opened an office in Union City, near the southern border of Erie County. After President Trump won the state by running up numbers in smaller counties and flipping larger ones, Democrats have expanded their attention beyond their urban strongholds in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Rival campaign offices
Rival campaign offices in Union City, Pa. (Christopher Wilson/Yahoo News)

“I think we took people by surprise,” Hanlin said of the office opening. “I was surprised, I didn’t know it was coming. I saw the Biden signs in the window and thought somebody was just doing it on their own. I left a note on the door with my phone number that I’d be willing to volunteer and they got a hold of me.”

Outside the Union City office, the grandchildren of a volunteer are holding Biden signs as cars drive by late on a Saturday morning. There are some supportive honks and waves and plenty of people going on with their day, but there’s also the woman who shouted “Go away!” as her car passed by. In the surrounding area, it’s mostly Trump signs, but every so often there’ll be yards with Biden signs next to those of his rival.

Kelly Chelton is the volunteer turned scheduler turned de facto office manager in the Union City location, and she arrived early on Saturday as a small team worked to assemble packets of campaign literature to leave hanging on doors in an area President Trump won by a more than 2-to-1 margin. The office also registers voters, hosts phone banking and other events, although they’ve yet to do door-to-door canvassing.

Shortly after the Democratic office opened, a Trump campaign office opened up next door, leading to some tension — the Biden office closed early on the evening of their counterpart’s opening — a sign of the times in a town of 3,000 people in a swing county in a swing state.

“We’ve got more Trump supporters than Democrats here, but a lot of people were just really excited to see us here. We have given out literally thousands of signs from this office and we have people coming in here daily,” Chelton told Yahoo News. “We just try to mind our own business. We’ve had a few little run-ins but nothing major.”

In 2016, Trump won the state by 44,292 votes, the first time a Republican presidential candidate had been victorious since 1988. Along with Wisconsin and Michigan, the upset win in the Keystone State propelled Trump to the White House, and his reelection chances may well hinge on holding on to the state in November. Trump won Erie County with 48.5 percent of the vote in the last election, a big shift from the 57 percent Barack Obama got in 2012.

Donald Trump
President-elect Donald Trump at his election night rally in New York City, Nov. 9, 2016. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

That prompted a reassessment from the state’s Democrats, who saw a surge in interest from both new volunteers and first-time candidates in the 2018 midterms. They were largely successful: Democratic incumbents Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey won by double digits in their reelection bids while the party clawed back some of the Republican majority in the state’s legislative chambers.

Now with Trump back on the ballot, they hope to maintain their edge by reaching beyond the state’s two metropolitan centers in an attempt to win big across the state.

The Union City office offers an assortment of signs attempting to cater to the area’s Biden voters, including farmers, women, LGBTQ people, veterans and military families. (A Democrat in the Harrisburg area told Yahoo News that they were having difficulty keeping Republicans for Biden signs in the stock.) The office has also printed out copies of the endorsement of Biden by former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, who represented the Erie area in the House for over a decade.

People drive from as far as Oil City and Warren — both roughly 40 miles away — to pick up signs, as the Union City office serves as a blue outpost at the edge of predominantly red territory. They’ve also had a few volunteers come across the New York state line to help out.

Jim Wertz, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, said that part of their 2020 plan was to take stock of where Democrats in the county were and to “take the campaign to them.”

“The offices have done exactly what we hoped they would do: Giving folks who are not normally inclined to be in downtown Erie an opportunity to engage and interact with the campaign closer to home,” Wertz said. “It’s been inspiring to see the commitment from Democrats out in the rural party of the county. I can’t overstate how important that has been for us.”

The Biden campaign is attempting to correct what many Pennsylvania Democrats believe to be the biggest error of the Clinton campaign: Paying too much attention to the state’s two largest cities and not enough everywhere else.

“They made the fatal mistake of thinking Pennsylvania is just Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and it’s not,” Lt. Gov. John Fetterman told Yahoo News.

“What a lot of people don’t realize, who live in the bigger cities, is how difficult it can be to be a small-town, red-county Democrat. You can literally lose friends and be ostracized and have your yard signs stolen on the regular — you’re a true believer. It’s not the colors on the maps, it’s the margins, and they are often the unsung heroes of our party and I always try to bring attention to that.”

John Fetterman
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, D-Pa. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Fetterman was with Biden last week in Johnstown, one of the stops on a train tour the Democratic nominee took through some of the state’s mid-size cities. Johnstown is located in Cambria County, which saw its share of the Republican vote shift from 48 percent in 2008, when Obama defeated John McCain there, to 58 in 2012 and 66 in 2016. Biden, a Scranton native, also can play the hometown card in Lackawanna County, which saw Clinton win with just under 50 percent of the vote after the Obama-Biden ticket took 63 percent in both of its runs.

“I can’t tell you what it meant for folks to see the vice president in counties where they feel like they don’t have a voice, where it doesn’t matter,” Fetterman said. “It’s very easy to have a media outlet tar you as elite or stuck up when all you do is have fundraisers in urban areas, but when you’re actually out there in these small counties, it really matters and it helps energize and inspire Democrats, not just those otherwise malleable folks. “

After polling showed the race in Pennsylvania tightening around Labor Day, the latest round of surveys have begun to show Biden with consistent leads averaging around 5 points. Trump has begun lagging badly with senior citizens, an obstacle in Pennsylvania, which is one of the oldest populations in the nation.

The worst news for Trump came on Tuesday, when Monmouth University released a survey showing him down 12 points among registered voters after showing only a 4-point margin in August. The Monmouth poll also found that Biden has essentially pulled even with Trump among white voters and had expanded on Clinton’s margins in a number of counties, as well as with voters of color.

Trump has also seen dismal numbers in the suburbs, particularly among women, and with such a slim margin of victory in 2016, even a few percentage points toward Biden in populous Philadelphia and Allegheny (where Pittsburgh is located) counties could be enough to flip the results in the unlikely event there are no turnout changes or major shifts elsewhere in the state.

It’s impossible to determine exactly what the change in polling fortunes is tied to, but the Biden campaign massively outspent its opponent in television advertising over that stretch. From Sept. 8 through the end of the month, the Biden campaign spent $20.7 million in the Keystone State, versus $4.6 million from Trump, according to analysis from NBC News. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence did make multiple campaign stops across the state during that period, and Trump told Fox News on Thursday night he hoped to hold a rally in Pennsylvania on Sunday, less than a week after his release from the hospital. In conjunction with Trump’s poor debate performance and his insistence that COVID-19 is like the flu after contracting it, Democrats are skeptical he can regain traction, barring a major October surprise.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden campaigning in Johnstown, Pa., last month. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Looking at all the areas that have to hold for him to repeat his victory, the math quickly starts to look bad for Trump, but he can withstand some of those losses by turning out more of the voters who tend to support to him — such as whites without college degrees — who didn’t vote in 2016 and therefore wouldn’t show up in surveys of likely voters.

The Trump campaign says it’s made 9 million voter contacts this year, between door-knocking and phone calls and has had thousands turn out for “MAGA Meet-Ups.” They point to the USMCA, the trade deal Trump signed into law in January, as a key policy plank that will drive support for the incumbent. They have also attacked Biden for wanting to ban fracking, an important industry in the state, which the former vice president has said he would not do.

“Joe Biden’s campaign is sounding the alarm in Pennsylvania after the organic enthusiasm for President Trump has led Republicans to close the registration gap to the lowest margin in 20 years, proving voters support President Trump’s successful first term and want to see his America First agenda implemented for four more years,” Samantha Zager, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, told Yahoo News in a statement.

Pat Poprik, Republican chairwoman for the Philadelphia-adjacent Bucks County, told Yahoo News she’s seen a “mind-blowing” amount of excitement and that GOP voter registrations are up. They started masked, socially distant door-knocking in June, and Poprik said it’s been a success because people are home and happy to have someone to talk to, although they’re hesitant to take handouts like campaign literature.

“I’ve been doing this about 40 years,” Poprik said. “I’ve done numerous presidential campaigns and I can tell you the enthusiasm this year is far more than 2016 and more than I’ve seen in the past. When I tell you signs and bumper stickers, they want stuff, they want to come in, they want to volunteer — it’s crazy, I’m just stunned by the people from all walks of life. Literally, a man came in in work boots and a union jacket and two minutes later there will be a guy with a three-piece suit.”

Poprik attributes Democratic success in the midterms to Trump voters being more loyal to him than the Republican Party as a whole, with an increase in interest following Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and the opening of the Supreme Court seat last month. She added that people are more energized due to anger about how Trump has been treated in office.

Makeshift memorial for Ruth Bader Ginsburg
A makeshift memorial for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“There are people that are 100 percent Trump voters,” Poprik continued. “They will come out for him. They came out in 2016, they’re coming out in 2020, they’re not coming out in-between. They’re very much Trump voters and I think they’re stronger this time.”

In response to polling that showed Trump doing poorly with suburban women, Poprik says that that lines up with her previous experience, even though most of her volunteers are women.

“The men all like him, he’s high with the men,” Poprik said, “but the women in the central part of the county are offended by him and I don’t think he could do much to change that. It’s very visceral, it’s almost like a hate. They glare at you if you have a Trump sign, but other women, like me, love him. Some of the things he says you might cringe, but I love what he’s doing for the country.”

Poprik also believes Republicans in the district could get a bump from the presence of incumbent Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, the last remaining GOP congressman in the Philadelphia area. Fitzpatrick survived the 2018 midterm wave and his race is currently rated “Lean Republican” by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

But Democrats feel that a combination of Trump being a known quantity and fatigue from the chaos of the last four years will be enough to swing the state back blue. They express concern about voter suppression and the general sowing of chaos, as Trump’s Justice Department attempted to portray a clerical error that led to the discarding of nine ballots as a malicious attempt at voter fraud. However, Trump’s statement during the first presidential debate that “bad things happen in Philadelphia” may not work to his benefit, and managed to inspire a number of T-shirts in the eastern section of the state.

In addition to Trump’s comments attempting to undermine the credibility of the election, the Republican-controlled state legislature has refused to pass a bill allowing vote counting to start prior to election, meaning a race call could take days if margins are tight. Republicans sued, unsuccessfully, to ban the use of secure drop boxes for ballot returns and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a decision by state courts that would allow ballots to be counted as long as they’re received within three days of election day. The GOP also proposed creating an Election Integrity Commission, which Democratic leaders have called “a dangerous threat to our democracy.”

Sample voting ballots
Sample voting ballots at the Board of Elections in Doylestown, Pa. (Rachel Wisniewski/Bloomberg via Getty images)

This is also the first time many Pennsylvanians will be voting by mail after new legislation was passed last fall, which could in turn lead to confusion among voters who opt for that method. After concerns about “naked ballots” — ballots returned without a second “secrecy” envelope— not being counted, there has been a loud push to make sure those not voting in person follow the proper protocols. An analysis by NPR estimated that about 37,000 ballots were rejected from Pennsylvania’s June primary. And one Philadelphia election official estimated that as many as 100,000 general election ballots could be thrown out due to similar errors.

In the end, Fetterman sees three major advantages for Biden that Clinton didn’t have in 2016. The first is that he’s likely to do much better in the northeast of the state due to his familial roots. (A recent poll of a congressional district in an area of the state that Clinton won by 1 percent showed Biden up by 7.) The second is the absence of a Green Party candidate on the ballot after Jill Stein won nearly 50,000 votes in the last presidential election. The third is that Fetterman, who endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016, is less concerned about buy-in from the progressive wing of the party after four years of Trump.

“I spent my time on the campaign trail trying to make the case for Secretary Clinton, and it was a hard sell,” Fetterman said. “I tried to contrast Trump to her and was labeled a sellout. I’m like ‘Are you crazy?’ And now you don’t have anybody out there saying ‘What’s the difference, they’re the same.’ That was quite common four years ago.”

There is bipartisan consensus in the state on a couple points. The first is that everyone is ignoring the polls. Republicans cite Trump’s victory four years ago after polling showed Clinton leading by two or three points in the final average. For Democrats, they’re taking nothing for granted until the final result is in.

“My message is, run like you’re five points down, I don’t care what the polls say,” Fetterman said. “Donald Trump is unique in his ability to energize those that would otherwise not be voting and he is absolutely formidable. Anyone who tells you he’s not popular in Pennsylvania doesn’t understand Pennsylvania.”

A Trump campaign office
The Trump campaign office in Union City, Pa. (Christopher Wilson/Yahoo News)

There’s also agreement that yard signs are a poor way to measure enthusiasm, even though, depending on what part of the state you’re in, you’ll see plenty of them for both candidates, with Trump supporters showing a particular fondness for flags this time around. Both sides believe there are “shy” or secret voters ready to cast a ballot in areas where they’re outnumbered by neighbors on the other side.

“I think there are a lot,” Chelton said of secret Biden voters. “I’ve had several people come into the office and they’ll tell me they’re going to vote for Biden but they’re not going to put a sign in their yard or bumper sticker on their car because they’re afraid. They just don’t want the repercussions of what could happen.”

“I know it’s a thing,” Poprik said of secret Trump voters. “I know someone who’s a dear friend of mine, I knew she was a big Trump supporter so I asked if we could put a Trump sign. She said ‘Oh no, no, I don’t want anyone to know,’ and then she runs into the house and hands me five plastic straws with Trump on them. She’s rabid Trump, she has plastic straws from when they made them go paper. She gave them to me and said you can use them but she wouldn’t put a sign up because she’s terrified. It’s not an idea, it’s a fact.”

In such a polarized and emotional political climate, there is concern about what may happen after the votes are tallied.

“There are so many neighborhoods that are fractured now, is it ever going to return or even after the election, is that division going to continue?” Hanlin wondered. “I don’t know, I don’t have the answer to that. But that’s one of my main questions: What’s going to happen when all this settles down, will it ever go back to community?

“That’s one reason some aren’t putting signs up: They don’t want to create enemies with their neighbors.”


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