Malvern, Pennsylvania – It is an election year when United States voters have been dealing with a once-in-a-century pandemic and its economic fallout as well as a national debate over racial justice. Amid all of this, voters in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania seem to be split on whether to give Donald Trump another term as president or to replace him with former Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden has a slim lead in Pennsylvania polls but experts say that doesn’t mean Trump can’t win the likely tipping-point state. Trump won the state by only 44,292 votes in 2016, turning it red for the first time since 1988.
Yet-to-be decided legal questions about which votes will be counted could be a determining factor.
Polls show Pennsylvania’s top issues are the economy, COVID-19 and healthcare. In the final week of the election, the number of coronavirus cases in the state hit a record high, Philadelphia police shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr, who was Black, sparking protests and looting, and residents struggled to find work amid a high unemployment rate caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
In the final two weeks of the campaign, Trump and Biden each held campaign events in Pennsylvania on four separate days, and Biden also sent former President Barack Obama to campaign for him in Philadelphia. Both campaigns have bombarded the state with TV and social media ads. The president has talked up his economic record while claiming Biden would ruin the economy. Biden pointed to Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic and his failure to enact healthcare reforms.
As of November 2, nearly 2.4 million people had returned mail-in ballots — the majority of them Democrats (1.6 million). This year’s number of mail ballots equals about 38 percent of the state’s total overall turnout in 2016. While that’s a major increase over the 300,000 or so mail ballots cast in 2016, it’s still much lower than most other battleground states this year, meaning a huge number of Pennsylvania voters will likely cast ballots in person on Election Day. Surveys suggest the majority of those voters will be Republicans.
The Trump campaign is fighting in court against counting mail ballots that arrive after Election Day, knowing they are more likely to be votes for Biden. Amid unresolved legal questions, Pennsylvania is segregating mail ballots that arrive after the polls close on November 3. Some counties have decided to delay counting all mail ballots until after they count in-person votes. These factors all together mean the state could see a “red mirage” in which votes for Trump are more likely to be counted first, followed by votes for Biden, with results possibly taking days to finalise.
Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, said the Pennsylvania race is “largely baked in”. The issue that keeps him up at night is the ballot count. “The biggest concern is the legal issues involving how mail-in ballots will be counted, and whether the courts will intervene and stop the count of ballots received after Tuesday,” he explained. “The biggest question now is who gets counted and who doesn’t.”
Christopher Borick, director of the Pennsylvania-based Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, released a new poll on Saturday showing Biden with a five-point lead over Trump (49 percent to 44 percent) with a margin of error of 5.5 percent. “It’s in the margin of error, but in line with lots of evidence that Biden has held a modest lead in the state for most of the election,” Borick said. “Modest, but not by any means insurmountable.” There are no strong third-party candidates this election, and only about four percent of voters are undecided, explaining the stability in the polls, he said.
High-quality polls over the past couple of days from Monmouth University, The New York Times/Siena College and The Washington Post/ABC News had similar findings to Muhlenberg College’s survey. Polls give an estimate, Borick explained, and while they’re leaning slightly toward Biden, Pennsylvania is still competitive. “Do I think there’s more evidence supporting Biden winning here? Yes,” he said. “Is it evidence that leaves no doubt? Absolutely not.”
A Quinnipiac University poll conducted between October 23 and 27 showed Biden with a seven-point lead, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 points. Quinnipiac polling analyst Mary Snow said the university’s polls have had Biden with a slight lead since September, apart from an extra bump in the polls for the Democratic candidate after the first debate and Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis.
Whether voters like a candidate can indicate the direction of the race. In 2016, voters had an equal distaste for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Then-FBI Director James Comey’s late October announcement that Clinton’s emails were again under investigation was credited for tipping the scales enough that most last-minute deciders, choosing between what they saw as two bad options, picked Trump.
This year is different; record numbers of voters have already cast their ballots, there are fewer undecided voters, and the candidates are not equally disliked.
“The bottom line is that voters like Joe Biden more than they do Donald Trump,” Snow said.
Trump’s favourability rating in Pennsylvania has gone up since 2016, Borick noted, but there are still more people who view him unfavourably than favourably. The big difference is that voters like Biden more than they liked Clinton, he said. Most Pennsylvanians have a neutral or positive view of Biden. “So you have many more voters this year that might not have a negative view of Trump’s opponent.”
“You’ll probably have more voters this time that can go with an option they actually like rather than choose between two negative [choices],” he said.
Brittany Smalls, Pennsylvania state coordinator for Black Voters Matter, says African-American voters stayed home in larger numbers in 2016 because there was little outreach from Clinton’s campaign. But in her experience, Black voters in Pennsylvania are more engaged this election. Philadelphia is 42 percent African American, and this year more than 90 percent of eligible voters in the city are registered. That’s 1.1 million registered voters — the highest number since 1984, she pointed out.
“Most people I talk to are very engaged in the process,” Smalls said over the phone Friday. “They are very excited to participate in this election cycle. We have some people who are still not sure who they are going to vote for, but we are excited to know that they still want to participate.”
After the police shooting of Wallace Jr on October 26, she says, “I’m just hearing ‘enough is enough.’”
“Our safety is highly at risk,” she said. “The anxiety is high, PTSD is high. There are a lot of mental and physical concerns for our folks. For example, we had one of our community leaders try to de-escalate the riots, and he was brutally attacked by police.”
But it’s not only police violence that is motivating Black voters; Smalls is hearing from many people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, or can not access online education for their children. She knows a family with four children but only one laptop. And there is an encampment in the middle of Philadelphia where people are living in tents while she says there are abandoned houses all across the city.
“There’s an awakening and an enlightenment that’s happening and people are really tired and frustrated about this systematic racism and lack of essential needs … And when you don’t have your essential needs met, it frustrates you.”
She said people are motivated to fight back by voting.