Trump is in trouble in Pennsylvania, but ‘he’s been way behind before’

By Trip Gabriel

In political speeches for 40 years, Joe Biden has evoked his scrappy childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He kicked off his presidential run last year in Pittsburgh, and as he takes tentative steps out of home confinement in Wilmington, Delaware, the campaign trail has often led to the state next door.

Yet surprisingly, Biden is enjoying no special boost in his native Pennsylvania.

A New York Times/Siena College poll of six battleground states released last week showed that the former vice president’s net approval in Pennsylvania was largely the same as elsewhere: 50% of registered voters viewed him positively and 48% saw him negatively.

President Donald Trump, mired in the lowest point of his presidency, was viewed favorably by just 43% of voters in the six battlegrounds. It helped explain why he trailed Biden in all six states and by 10 percentage points in Pennsylvania, a dire picture of the president’s chances of reelection.

Still, with four months to go until Election Day, Trump could well become competitive again. Leaders of his campaign in Pennsylvania, seizing on Biden’s failure to shine as a favorite son, have sketched out a comeback path for Trump. Its steps include the Republican Party’s advantage in new voter registrations; a return to in-person organizing while Biden’s ground game remains virtual; and a range of issues — including energy policy, reopening the economy and defunding the police — that Republicans believe will peel away swing voters in a state Trump narrowly won in 2016.

“The 10 points doesn’t bother me,” said Lawrence Tabas, chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, referring to Trump’s deficit in the Times poll. “He’s an incumbent president, there’s a crisis and people get angry. It’s a snapshot. He’s been way behind before.”

A spokesperson for the Biden campaign, Emma Riley, said the former vice president considered Pennsylvania crucial to his 2020 chances.

“What’s become clear is that Pennsylvanians have outright rejected the Trump administration’s failed record of leadership, reckless trade wars and corruption that’s favored corporations and their wealthy CEOs ahead of everyday Americans,” Riley said.

Pennsylvania Democrats cautioned that the president’s base of rural and exurban voters, who delivered him the state in 2016 in a startling upset, were still largely supportive.

“Pennsylvania is a swing state. It’s not the Democratic state that a lot of people think it is, not anymore,” said Ryan Bizzarro, a Democratic state representative from Erie County.

Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania by a mere 44,000 votes, out of more than 6 million cast, was a result of sweeping defections by white residents who once voted Democratic, largely in western and northeastern Pennsylvania.

In the 2018 midterm elections and in 2019 local races, Democrats came roaring back as a blue wave swept the Philadelphia suburbs. At the same time, Republicans seized control in blue-collar union counties outside Pittsburgh.

With both parties predicting higher turnout this year than in 2016, winning statewide depends on some delicate dial-twisting: Will the Republican surge in rural counties outweigh the rejection of Trump by suburban voters, especially independents and women?

And will turnout by Black voters in Philadelphia return to near 2012 levels and offset the inroads Trump made in the city in 2016?

“The Republican base is very strong outside southeast Pennsylvania,” said Rob Gleason, a former chairman of the state GOP, who lives in Johnstown, a city in central Pennsylvania. “It’s immovable. Whenever there’s any type of controversy about his administration, more Trump signs go up and flags get raised.”

In Cambria County, which includes Johnstown, Democrats have lost 7,000 registered voters since 2016, while Republicans have gained 3,700. Statewide, Democrats retain a historical registration advantage, but the last four years have brought bad news for the party: Republicans have closed the gap on Democrats by 121,000 since November 2016, a measure of enthusiasm that favors the GOP.

Trump, unlike previous incumbents, has done little to reach beyond his core supporters. Since the killing of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis, the president has played to white voters with racist and inflammatory messages about protesters, Civil War monuments and crime.

Bernadette Comfort, the chair of Trump’s campaign in Pennsylvania, disputed that he was running a base-only strategy.

“The president in fact appeals to the single mom in suburbia, the president appeals to the working-class Republican, Democrat, whatever,” Comfort said. “We will go after independents, Democrats, after those folks who did not come out in 2016.”

Nonetheless, the Times poll showed erosion in the president’s base. Trump was favored by 86% of Pennsylvanians who said they voted for him in 2016, down from 92% in a Times poll in October.

In contrast to western Pennsylvania, the growing and racially diversifying counties outside Philadelphia have moved in the opposite direction. Four years ago, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than 18,000 in Chester County. Today, Democrats have an edge of about 1,000.

Shivani Jain, a bank analyst in Chester County, is among the 47% of Pennsylvanians with a “very unfavorable” view of Trump, leaving him a very narrow path to win the state. Jain, 25, has participated in recent protests.

“As a person of color myself, I find the last few years has been heartbreaking,” she said. “I’m hoping with what I’m seeing with the Black Lives Matter movement and how many of my generation have come out, people take that energy to the voting booth.”

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