James Dobrich, a 60-year-old electric motor mechanic, has one of the only Donald Trump signs in an Erie, Pennsylvania neighbourhood filled with placards that display Joe Biden’s name. Head outside town and Trump signs populate rural Erie County, he said. Erie is a lakeside manufacturing town in the rust belt that has seen better days. With the decline of industry, the town has shrunk by 10,000 people in the last decade.
Dobrich said business from the steel mills that contract out to his company slowed during Barack Obama’s presidency. In 2016, Dobrich did not like either presidential candidate, but Trump seemed serious about cracking down on immigration. “Immigration was just part of it. I mean, he really wanted to bring jobs back.” He voted for Trump.
Erie County, reliably Democratic since the 1980s, is one of three blue counties in Pennsylvania that took a chance on Trump in 2016 and voted Republican. Erie County is 87 percent white and solidly working class; about 27 percent of people 25 or older have a college degree. It is a vote-dense county with nearly 200,000 people registered — about 98,000 of them Democrats, and the county went back to blue in the 2018 midterms. But Republicans have added about 4,800 registered voters in the county since 2016, increasing their count to 72,000, while Democrats have only added 170 registered voters since the last presidential election.
After Trump was elected, Dobrich said the steel mills started sending his company more work. He believes Trump kept his promise about bringing jobs back. Since the pandemic hit, however, he has seen a drop in business. “I was making a tonne of overtime and I’m not really getting it right now.” If Trump is re-elected, he thinks work will pick up.
Before the pandemic, manufacturing jobs were on the rise in Pennsylvania, and Erie had the lowest unemployment rate in 18 years — 4.4 percent. But when COVID-19 hit, businesses closed and Erie County’s unemployment rate hit 16.8 percent in April, recovering to 11 percent in August.
Pennsylvania, with 20 Electoral College votes, is among the most crucial battleground states this election. Until Trump won in 2016 by only 0.7 percent, or 44,292 votes, it had not voted Republican in a presidential election since 1988. Now, polls show Biden, who spent part of his childhood in Pennsylvania, has a chance to win it back along with other blue-wall states that Trump won in 2016.
To win Pennsylvania, Biden must persuade some of the white working-class voters who supported Trump in the last election. Biden visited Erie in mid-October, name-dropping his childhood home of Scranton, Pennsylvania to socially distanced supporters, “The president can only see the world from Park Avenue. I see it from Scranton and Claymont. Y’all see it from Erie.” Biden also visited other red counties, hoping to reduce the flow of votes to his rival.
In 2016, turnout in Pennsylvania was higher than expected — about 300,000 more people came out for both candidates. Hillary Clinton did well in urban centres but Trump over-performed, especially in the state’s northeastern and northwestern industrial areas, galvanising older white voters who stayed home in past elections. Voters did not like either candidate, but many saw Trump as the lesser of two evils — a political outsider who could change things. Trump resonated with white, blue-collar voters who were fed up with the Democratic Party and believed he would suppress immigration and bring back jobs.
There is a belief among Trump’s base that he turned the economy around since 2016. In fact, as the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out in its endorsement of Biden, Trump inherited a growing economy from Obama. In the first three years of Obama’s second term, Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate dropped by 2.6 percent, the Inquirer wrote. In the three years after Trump was elected, the unemployment rate dropped an additional 0.6 percent.
This election, while Trump’s handling of COVID-19 is dragging down his approval rating, the economy is still the biggest concern in Pennsylvania; 33 percent say it is their top issue compared with 19 percent who picked pandemic response as their number one election topic, according to a poll by Emerson College.
“That’s why Trump is still competitive in these states,” explained Spencer Kimball, director of Emerson College Polling. “Because a lot of voters do look at the Trump economy of 2018 and 2019 as being strong, and they’re saying, ‘Well, look what he was able to do. If we get past this, he can bring it back to what we were producing a couple of years ago.’” Those voters, including Dobrich, believe the pandemic will be short-term and do not think COVID-19 is a huge threat. A new survey found 48 percent of Republicans versus 25 percent of Democrats say COVID-19 is no worse than the flu.
Other factors tip the scale in Biden’s favour. Immigration is not an election issue this year, so Trump has lost one of his main topics. And in 2016, Trump was supportive of fracking, a large industry in Pennsylvania, while Clinton was against it. This election, Biden has clearly stated he will not ban fracking, but Trump has attempted to falsely paint Biden as anti-fracking.
Biden is more popular than Clinton among Democratic voters in rural Pennsylvania, and more relatable to swing voters in the northeast of the state “in part because he comes from there and he speaks their language”, explained Patrick Murray, founding director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “You got those two things put together and he’s a comfortable alternative to Trump, who they definitely don’t want to see re-elected.”
Biden is also trying to reverse the drop in Black turnout that plagued Clinton in Pennsylvania and other key states. Obama, as he did in 2016 for Clinton, is hitting the trail for Biden in Philadelphia, where African Americans make up 41 percent of the population.
If the Pennsylvania race is close, it is unlikely to be decided on election night. By mid-October, a record 2.6 million voters had requested mail ballots, but they can not be counted until Election Day. Michigan and Wisconsin have the same rule, meaning it could take days to know the outcome in these battleground states.
A Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in September will allow mail ballots received up to three days after election day to be counted. Mail ballots were an issue in the state’s June primary — the swing county of Luzerne took two extra days to count them.
Ballots are counted centrally with industrialised extraction desks, a faster process, but mail ballots take longer to count because they must be removed from two envelopes — a regular envelope and a secrecy envelope — before verifying and scanning.
Voting-rights activists worry that the secrecy envelopes may disenfranchise voters: the state Supreme Court ruled that mail ballots that arrive without the secrecy envelope will be rejected. This rule prompted a social media campaign with nude celebrities spreading awareness about the so-called “naked ballots”.
Philadelphia’s chair of city commissioners Lisa Deeley warned in a letter that as many as 30,000 to 40,000 ballots could be thrown out in her city, and up to 100,000 ballots could be rejected state-wide. “When you consider that the 2016 Presidential Election in Pennsylvania was decided by just over 44,000 votes, you can see why I am concerned,” she wrote, calling the secrecy envelopes “a means to disenfranchise well-intentioned Pennsylvania voters”.
In mid-October, a court struck down a Trump campaign lawsuit that claimed the president was threatened by voter fraud. The lawsuit sought to cancel drop boxes for absentee ballots that were not surveilled at all times, and wanted election officials to more easily reject mail ballots if the signature did not match past records. The judge disagreed that Trump’s chance of re-election would be impacted by voter fraud.
Dobrich believes Trump will win Erie County because his support is more visible; Trump supporters held a boat parade while Biden’s events had low turnout. He still dislikes Trump — he does not like Trump’s tweets or how he behaves. But he thinks the president has done “a good job”.