Berwyn, United States – Kathy Jones’ green eyes lit up as she heard Melania Trump stumble through her speech. Trump, who will become first lady if her husband Donald pulls off an upset in the US presidential election on Tuesday, was addressing an audience of about 2,000 this small Pennsylvania town in the Philadelphia suburbs.
“We must find better ways to honour and support the basic goodness of our children, especially in social media,” Trump said, striking a considerably softer tone than her husband has in his campaign.
Jones nodded in agreement, lowering her chin to let her silver hair drop on her forehead.
“I connected to her speech in a myriad of ways,” Jones, a 55 stay-at-home mum and a former engineer from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, says.
“There are all these dangers our children face – not just on the internet, but also out there … on the street. I fear for them and the world we are leaving them.”
However, statistics show otherwise: violent crime has been on the decline for decades in the United States, particularly in suburban areas.
Still, Donald Trump’s presidential run has brought the issue back to the forefront of the political debate.
In Pennsylvania, a state that voted Democrat in the past six presidential elections, the November 8 vote will be a test on whether Trump’s incendiary rhetoric will sway voters in the direction of the Republican Party.
With the polls tightening in the Keystone state, Melania Trump’s unexpected visit can be read as a pitch to a group that could prove decisive in determining who carries the state’s 20 electoral college votes: suburban women like Jones.
Pennsylvania is a deeply divided state. It votes Democrat in presidential elections, but tends to elect Republican governors and mayors.
While most of the state’s white population in rural areas is reliably Republican, the two major cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, vote overwhelmingly Democrat. It is the suburbs around both cities, particularly Philadelphia, that could swing the polls.
“Two out of every five votes cast [in the state] come from the Philadelphia suburbs,” says Terry Madonna, a pollster and the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.
Madonna points out the suburbs are more affluent than recession-hit Philadelphia, as well as increasingly autonomous economically. More and more people do not commute to the city to work, but work in the financial and pharmaceutical corporations that have been established in the area.
They tend to be white, affluent, registered Republicans, who nevertheless qualify as the “swing voters” Trump must persuade to win the election.
Margot McKee corroborates that analysis. An octogenarian real estate agent with rosy cheeks and an easy smile, McKee grew up in Manhattan but moved back to her native Chester County in Pennsylvania when her parents passed away in the 1990s. She now makes a living selling homes to those trading the eclectic urban grit for life in the suburbs.
“People who move here are really looking to establish themselves,” she said as she drove around the suburb of Paoli, about 30 minutes south of Philadelphia, on Friday. “They want to pay little taxes and be left alone.”
McKee, a registered Republican who nevertheless voted for Bill Clinton in the 1990s, will be supporting Donald Trump on Tuesday.
“I think she’s taken advantage of the system to enrich herself and her family,” she said of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. “I don’t find her attractive. She has no class,” she added.
Back at the rally in Berwyn, Lynn Stone also professed her approval of Melania Trump’s message.
“[Donald Trump] started a movement,” the engineer, who traded life in suburban Long Island, New York, to homeschool her children in the quieter western Pennsylvania area two decades ago, said.
Stone has been volunteering to make phone calls to undecided voters on behalf of Trump’s campaign for months. She credits former Libertarian presidential candidate, Ron Paul, with planting the seeds of what she sees as a reawakening in the American right.
“Our constitution is being trashed – trashed,” she said, her blue gaze intense as she speaks. “Government is out of control. I’ve known it for years, and I’m just delighted that other people are finally waking up to this. We have to return to our constitution and obey it, period.”
In some ways, the Philadelphia suburbs have ceased to be a wealthier extension of the city, becoming a sociological – and political – entity of their own. Halfway between the rural, devotedly Christian part of the state and the economically depressed, culturally vibrant capital, they remain relatively immune to the state’s long-running economic decline, driven by de-industrialisation that has fuelled a lot of the support for Trump across the Rust Belt of once-booming mining towns.
The suburbs are increasingly populated by college-educated, professional white families, which in this election have been leaning towards Clinton and the Democrats in numbers much higher than four or eight years before.
A group that Trump has targeted in the eleventh-hour of his campaign, as an average of state polls give Clinton a lead at 46.0 to Trump’s 43.6, is the suburban women.
Madonna says there are far more women voters than there are men in the suburbs. “Women are a key constituency in this election, particularly in the suburbs,” he said.
Thirty minutes East of Berwyn, where Melania Trump spoke, yoga instructor Susan Sluk is not buying the Trump arguments.
“It’s not just the things he is said about women,” she said, sitting inside her yoga studio, which also serves as a cafe on the county capital’s main street. “Look at the policies, too,”
Sluk, 48, said she feared Trump’s announcement that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who intend to defund Plant Parenthood, or his son’s suggestions that women suffrage ought to be revoked, given Trump’s poor performance among women in the polls. “He wants to take take us back 50 years.”
Trump’s campaign seemed to flounder after video emerged of him bragging about sexually assaulting women three weeks ago, and a dozen women came out accusing him of making unwanted sexual advances on them. But, in suburban Philadelphia, many women seemed undisturbed by those allegations.
“I didn’t pay any attention,” said realtor Margot McKee. “Why would these women be coming out with these claims 10, 15, 20 years later, it doesn’t compute.”
Outside the rally, Courtney Reed, 28, wearing a “Christian 1st” sticker next to Trump’s name, spoke with delight about Melania Trump’s appeal to family values.
“I’m so impressed with her family,” she said. Reed, who owns a business designing custom-art to decorate mobile phones, said she was extremely distraught with the direction of the country, naming healthcare costs, insecurity and illegal immigration as her main concerns. “Donald wants to put law and order back, and make immigrants come in legally,” she said.
“Plus, he wants to bring jobs back, and he’s a proven businessman, so he can do it.”
Malka R, an Israeli-American financial adviser based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, agrees. “I’m an immigrant, but not a new immigrant,” she clarified.
Malka said she did not want to disclose her full last name because she feared the IRS, the government agency responsible for tax collection, would punish her and other Trump supporters if – “God forbid”- Clinton became president. She added she wanted Trump to “protect us from Iran, and secure the border”.
Malka wore a pin showing the Israeli and American flags to the rally. She spoke with fervour about Trump, whom she compared to Ronald Reagan, saying “the media also mocked him [Reagan] and didn’t want him to become president”.
Of Trump’s comments about his groping of women, she added, “I don’t think he has an attitude towards women, period. What he said is not so bad. He had money, he could get anybody…He’s what we call a blue-collar-billionaire, and he understands the people.”