A few weeks ago, Joe Biden rolled out his 2020 presidential campaign in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, in a fitting venue: a Teamsters hall packed with card-carrying union workers. For Biden, Pittsburgh (population 302,407) represents “the cities and towns that make up hard-working, middle-class Americans who are the backbone of this nation.” He declared: “If I’m going to be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it’s going to happen here.”
Biden’s political destiny runs through Pennsylvania and its 20 Electoral College votes. In 2016, the state delivered Trump’s presidential victory, with the anthracite coal region fueling his winning margin. Biden, then vice president, understood the Democrats’ disadvantage when viewing footage of a Trump rally in Wilkes-Barre. “Son of a gun. We may lose this election,” Biden recounted to the Los Angeles Times. Trump won by 44,000 votes.
Now a free agent, Biden hopes to establish himself as the front-runner, one capable of returning Pennsylvania, along with Michigan and Wisconsin, to the Democratic fold. A relentless primary schedule looms, with the Keystone State standing as Biden’s ultimate prize. Facing a wide-ranging cast of primary opponents, Biden alone claims Pennsylvania roots. Born in Scranton, Biden, now 76, spent his early childhood in the Green Ridge neighborhood. His family, facing temporary financial hardship, lived with Biden’s maternal grandparents in a bungalow near Marywood University, once an all-girls Catholic college. The eldest child, Biden inherited the family political gene—his maternal-great-grandfather, Edward Francis Blewitt, was a state senator and one of the first Irish Catholics to hold public office in Pennsylvania. Though the family moved to his father’s native Wilmington by 1952, Biden has spent his public career referencing Scranton, his own working-class Eden.
Will voters buy Biden’s “Middle-Class Joe” presentation? At the kickoff rally, Biden proclaimed himself “a union man” and discussed the dignity of work. In looking ahead to a battle with Trump and fashioning himself as the presumed Democratic nominee — seeking a message of unity, rather than division — he might be forgetting how Trump’s description of working-class “carnage” resonated with heartland voters. For now, Biden engages in a 2020 version of Democratic triangulation — he hopes to secure suburban moderates, inspire urban voters, and return blue-collar Trump supporters to their former political home.
An examination of Biden’s nearly half-century-long political career casts doubt on this strategy. On social-media platforms, the Democrats’ aggrieved digital base censures Biden for his Senate record, which includes taking tough positions on crime and expressing reservations about Anita Hill’s testimony. His primary opponents, meantime, question Biden’s delicate balance of corporate interests with middle-class causes. Biden is busy trying to make amends for everything from his allegedly unfair treatment of Hill to his overly affectionate personal style. Yet his first major fundraiser, hosted by Philadelphia’s bipartisan power brokers, suggests that his contrition will only go so far.
In Pennsylvania, though, such establishment support, combined with the Democrats’ 900,000-voter advantage, creates an opening for Biden. His statewide base, historically working class, now resides mostly in Philadelphia’s suburbs. According to The Inquirer, the number of registered Democrats in the city’s four “collar counties” has increased by 75 percent since 1998. In last year’s midterms, Sen. Bob Casey won reelection, and the party picked up five House seats — four from Montgomery County and Delaware County, both former Republican strongholds. At the state level, incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf prevailed, and in the Philadelphia area, statehouse Democrats flipped 14 seats — the most since 1974. An affluent suburban population — fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and formerly Republican — carried the night.
Republicans understand that the state party is in critical condition — last week, the Trump campaign’s senior advisers met with top GOP officials in Harrisburg. In 2016, the party benefited from disaffected Democrats in the state’s northeast, southwest, northwest, and Lehigh Valley. Trump won Luzerne County by 20 points, and he barely lost neighboring Lackawanna County, home to Scranton. (In 2012, Barack Obama won the county by over 27 points.) The region’s voters, while loyal to Trump, still vote Democratic at the state and local level, as a recent special House election showed. This working-class, semi-urban population — fiscally liberal, socially conservative, and still Democratic — constitutes an unreliable voting base. Biden aims to win them back.
In 1948, Harry S. Truman became the last Democratic presidential candidate to win the general election and lose Pennsylvania. Biden was enjoying his idyllic youth in Scranton back then. He lived among New Deal Democrats — voters hopeful for their future, secure in their employment, and proud of their communities. Does the same description apply to their descendants? Biden believes that he can secure their support, but nostalgia is a fleeting political strategy, and voters may reject his “Middle-Class Joe” image as contrived. It remains to be seen whether the Democrats’ second-oldest candidate is a herald for a better America or a tone-deaf anachronism.
Charles F. McElwee is the assistant editor of City Journal, where this piece originally appeared.