Pennsylvania was among the key states that unexpectedly went for President Donald Trump in 2016. Once again, it has emerged as a top battleground in the 2020 presidential race that could determine the outcome of the presidential election.
Top pollsters contend that the Keystone State, which most polls have former vice president Joe Biden leading at the moment, carries a potential winning margin for either candidate due to its pockets of support for both.
Polling finds that Trump continues to draw strong support from blue collar and rural areas, while Biden’s backing is growing among suburban women — many who backed Trump last time — and more urban locations. Each camp has visited the state several times in recent weeks, with plans for more to come.
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They have also spent a combined $77 million in Pennsylvania ($44 million by Biden and $33.1 million by Trump), according to CNN’s review of federal election spending, the most in any battleground state.
Victory will pivot more on each side turning out their bases rather than convincing people in the middle who to vote for since the percentage of undecided voters is miniscule, according to experts.
“Pennsylvania continues to be the tipping point state,” said Patrick Murray, executive director of the Monmouth University Poll in West Long Branch, New Jersey. “It is probably the one that could be it to determine the outcome.”
Both campaigns know the impact Pennsylvania will have and they have put their valuable time in different sections of the state in recent weeks, with more planned visits through Election Day.
Experts said the mail-in voting will favor Biden, while Trump garners more from traditional Republicans who prefer in-person ballots. Turnout is expected to be strong and likely greater than 2016 given that many Clinton voters stayed home last time and Biden’s backers are expected to turnout more.
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“It’s one of the three states that gave Trump the presidency, along with Wisconsin and Michigan,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Poll at the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “The strategy for (both camps) has to center around Pennsylvania because of the (20) electoral votes and it is a certainty if the president were to hold Pennsylvania, it would be a big deal in forcing Biden to win somewhere else. If Biden were to win it, the expectation is that Michigan is easier for him. If he holds what Hillary Clinton carried, he only needs to win one other state.”
The winner needs to garner 270 of the Electoral College’s 538 votes to be elected.
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Nathaniel Rakich, an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.com — which tallies and analyzes polling based on the averages of many polls — stated on Monday that Pennsylvania appears to be “the single most important state of the 2020 election.”
“Pennsylvania is by far the likeliest state to provide either President Trump or Joe Biden with the decisive vote in the Electoral College: It has a 31 percent chance of being the tipping-point state. (That’s what happens when you take one of the most evenly divided states in the union and give it 20 electoral votes.)” he wrote on the website. “In fact, Pennsylvania is so important that our model gives Trump an 84 percent chance of winning the presidency if he carries the state — and it gives Biden a 96 percent chance of winning if Pennsylvania goes blue.”
Trump’s Pennsylvania victory was among the closest of the 2016 election, with the president taking 48.58% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 47.85%. That was a difference of 44,000 votes out of nearly 6 million cast.
Murray said Pennsylvania’s diverse electorate, with a strong rural and blue collar Republican field and Democrats in urban areas such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, has always made it a battleground, but this year’s race has highlighted the situation.
“It is close and for a number of reasons that were similar in 2016, we have different types of voters there who represent different segments of the election,” Murray explained. “Some of the same concerns in blue-collar working-class areas. We see a number of polls that says it is close or Biden has a bigger lead. The fact that the candidates are spending so much time there was another sign.”
The most recent Monmouth Poll on Sept. 4 reported Biden leading Trump 49% to 45% in Pennsylvania. The poll had a margin of error of +/- 4.9%.
Murray cites three things that will decide the race for Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes: Democratic votes in Philadelphia and Allegheny County, including Pittsburgh; Trump voter turnout in central and eastern Pennsylvania; and swing votes in the Northeast area from Reading to Scranton-Wilkes Barre.
“They have some concern, turning out those voters,” he said of the Trump strongholds of 2016. “These are the old mill towns, blue collar historically Democratic voters who went for Trump. It looks like they are up for grabs. If there is a movement for preferences, it will be in that area.”
Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said it was no accident that Trump appeared in Pennsylvania during the Democratic Convention and recently visited Westmoreland County in the western end, which he won nearly 2-to-1 in 2016. Biden also made a stop recently in Allegheny County.
“I think Pennsylvania is still competitive, it is complicated because of the nature of the contest in this state,” Madonna said. “Trump won in 2016 because he was able to win the rural and small towns in the central part of the state. The second one is the rust belt strategy that he developed. He went to southwest Pennsylvania and southeast Pennsylvania and said that the Democrats had walked away from the blue-collar worker.”
But Madonna said the 2018 mid-term elections showed that those Trump voters are not a given for him in 2020.
“Democrats won the suburbs in 2018 because of college-educated women and millennials,” he said. “The Trump campaign is employing a strategy of going after the Democrats on the violence … in the cities and arguing that it can go into the suburbs.”
The most recent Franklin and Marshall poll in mid-August had Biden leading Trump in Pennsylvania, 49% to 42%. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 5.2%.
Experts contend that the Philadelphia suburban voter may hold the biggest lift for Biden, with suburban women changing their allegiance, at least according to the 2018 results.
“After the 2016 election, we saw a significant shift in the Philadelphia suburbs toward Democrats and staying there,” Murray said. “The blue wave of 2018 changed a lot, moderate Republicans did not like the direction their party took under Trump.”
Miringoff at the Marist Poll echoed that view.
“It is the suburbs around Philadelphia that have attracted a lot of attention in recent elections because it is a moving area, if (Biden) holds on to that it makes a strong base for him,” Miringoff said. “The movement has been in the suburbs. If you look where the differences are it is around Philadelphia, suburban women are a group that dislikes Trump for a variety of reasons and Biden is doing better with them.”
He also said Biden is hoping to get a bigger turn out of the Black vote than Clinton and is doing a little better in the rural parts than Clinton did.
The latest Marist Poll, released on September 9, had Biden at 53% to Trump’s 44%.
Among the most significant factors in Pennsylvania may be the low number of undecided voters, pollsters said. Most surveys find the majority of the electorate has made up their minds, with those still deciding at less than 4% in most cases.
“There are significantly less undecided voters than four years ago,” Murray said. “It is not about issues at this point, it is about gut issues, it is a feeling about the candidate.
“We are talking tens of thousands of voters that candidates are trying to swing out of 5 or 6 million,” he added. “There were significantly more up for grabs four years ago, a lot of Clinton voters simply did not show up, we don’t see that this time around. Many (Clinton voters) did not think their vote was necessary.”
Added Miringoff: “This is all about the base, turning out the base. There is very little persuasion. Turn out the supporters and that is what Trump has been doing for three years, his base is a shrinking part of the electorate.”
Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and Monmouth County for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of two books, including Killing Journalism on the state of the news media, and an adjunct media professor at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Reach him at email@example.com and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: How Pennsylvania could swing the presidential election to Trump again