DURYEA, Pa. — Donna Zack had never voted in a presidential election. She just didn’t think it made much of a difference.
But this year, a few weeks before Election Day, she voted by mail for Joe Biden.
“I just never, until now, felt it was really, really that important,” Zack, a 66-year-old retired printer, said as she pulled weeds from her garden on an unseasonably warm fall day here in Northeastern Pennsylvania. “This pandemic has got to be taken care of seriously. We’re smart enough to handle the truth. [Trump] thinks Pennsylvanians, the country are — I dunno, kinda stupid.”
This small town in Luzerne County slightly favored President Donald Trump. But Biden won about 200 more votes in Duryea than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. It was a similar story in Luzerne as a whole — which Trump won again, but by a smaller margin — and in Rust Belt towns and Republican counties all over Northeastern, Central, and Southwestern Pennsylvania.
The biggest factor in Biden’s win in Pennsylvania was undoubtedly the surge of support he saw in large suburban counties. But Biden is poised to come out of Philadelphia with either the same margin Clinton did or maybe even a smaller one (the final ballots are still being counted). So his ability to cut into Trump’s advantage in rural and postindustrial counties where the president hoped to run up the score was a key ingredient in Biden’s success — in a state where he’s currently leading by only about 45,000 votes.
“We were a lot more cognizant of the difficulty of beating Donald Trump in Pennsylvania,” Sen. Bob Casey, a Biden ally from Scranton, said last week. “So you had to have a strategy that I think Joe Biden’s campaign implemented remarkably well that you’d run really hard in rural areas, cut the margin, and then do extremely well in your Democratic base.”
Trump’s support in these areas didn’t crumble. Far from it. In plenty of small and midsize counties — like Clinton, Jefferson, and Clearfield — Biden lost by the same percentage as Democrats did last time. But in more populated Republican areas — like Luzerne, Westmoreland, and Washington — he managed to shave off margins, losing by a few points less.
Those votes added up.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell said he had been hopeful Biden would do even better in those areas.
“Trump’s base stayed very strong and very loyal and came out in big numbers,” Rendell said.
In the run-up to Election Day, Biden visited places like Beaver in Western Pennsylvania and Dallas in the northeast, Republican towns in counties that backed Trump in 2016. His goal was to draw in enough white working-class votes to win. Early returns show he did just that — by a point here and a point there, and partly thanks to voters like Zack, who sat out in 2016.
“I’ve never liked him,” Zack said of Trump. She largely shrugged off “his antics” until she watched the death toll from the pandemic mount. A neighbor across the street lost her mother to the virus.
“Some of the comments he made, you know, they started to hit home a lot, because people were affected by this," she said. "It was time for a change.”
Trump won 66% of rural voters, down from 71% in 2016, according to exit polls. Republican victories in down-ballot races, however, suggest Democrats may have trouble replicating Biden’s success without Trump on the ballot.
The president still won white working-class voters in Pennsylvania, and in fact improved his raw vote total with that demographic. The president won 63% of white voters with no college degree, almost identical to 2016, but with higher turnout.
“I think a lot of people stuck with him,” said Joe Zbylicki, a retired Verizon technician from Duryea. “I think it’s an attitude. They like sticking with the incumbent. They don’t want to admit maybe they were wrong. And I just kinda think they like him. They like the pageantry.”
Zbylicki said he wasn’t surprised Biden did better here than Clinton, whom he backed in 2016.
“A woman running for president — I think a lot of older voters were like, ‘Whoa, I’m uncomfortable with that,’” Zbylicki said. “People are entrenched in their beliefs.”
Clinton’s campaign was criticized for not doing enough to win over moderate Democrats in more rural areas. Biden, on the other hand, targeted much of his message to places like this.
Military veteran and retired Postal Service worker Louis V. Mascherma lives in Latrobe, and said Biden’s demeanor was appealing to Westmoreland County voters.
“He has empathy for people, for a poor man,” said Mascherma, 58. “He’s going to get our allies back with us again.”
Joe Brahosky, a retired construction worker in nearby Greensburg, said he didn’t understand why so many in the region had turned to the Republican Party over the years given the GOP’s antagonism to organized labor.
“It beats me because I don’t know why any people would vote for someone who wants to take away our pensions and stuff,” Brahosky, 65, said while seated on his Harley-Davidson.
Trump took just under 64% of the vote in Westmoreland County, the same as he did in 2016. But Biden improved slightly on Clinton’s performance in the county east of Pittsburgh, winning a little more than 35% compared with her 33% — and turnout increased for both sides.
Brahosky said he knows his area has turned more Republican over the years, but believes there are plenty Democratic votes to be had in Western Pennsylvania.
“It seems like there was a lot more Trump signs out than Biden signs, but my point of view was everyone that didn’t have a sign was a Biden supporter,” he said.
For some, the pandemic transcended the long-term conservative shift of the region. Leni Kozinko, of Jeannette, said she usually votes for Democrats and couldn’t countenance casting a ballot for Trump after two of her aunts died from coronavirus infections.
“He did nothing about the coronavirus,” said Kozinko, 63. “He’s in denial.”
Biden’s gains in rural Pennsylvania weren’t just the result of voters with union ties coming back to their ancestral party. In parallel to the recent surge in support of left-wing candidates in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, nascent progressive movements have popped up in small towns around the state since Trump’s election.
Courtney Kubovcik, a Jeannette resident who helps lead the progressive group Voice of Westmoreland, grew up in a conservative family and said Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate she ever voted against.
“I identify as a Christian, and so I think that it’s very clear that we have to fight for those people who don’t have voices, and I began to recognize at that point that the Republican Party had deviated away from those types of values,” said Kubovcik, a social worker at a Greensburg hospital.
Biden did particularly well, according to exit polls, with college-educated white voters. Zbylicki, of Duryea, was the first in his family to go to college, breaking a streak of intergenerational coal mining. His father and grandfather worked in the mines, and his great-grandfather was killed in a mining accident.
When the Lackawanna River flooded Duryea in 2011, Biden, then vice president, paid a visit. People here weren’t necessarily impressed by the trip for the photo-op, Zbylicki said, but several were taken with what happened next. A few weeks after the visit, Biden called residents to see how they were doing and if they needed anything from Washington.
“He didn’t have to do that, and I always thought that showed a little bit of humanity,” Zyblicki said.
Despite the political divisions that remain, Zyblicki said that in small towns, people learn to get along. It’s harder to stay in a bubble.