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Trump held his own in Bucks County in 2016. But it might be slipping away in 2020.

Bucks County is a perennial battleground, and demographically, it hews closer to Trump’s electoral strengths. But even Republicans see signs his support has slipped.

Part of a Trump caravan of trucks, cars, and bikes in Bucks County on Saturday. The rally drove from Newtown to Doylestown, Pa., in a critical county where Trump held his own in 2016 but where his support may be slipping.
Part of a Trump caravan of trucks, cars, and bikes in Bucks County on Saturday. The rally drove from Newtown to Doylestown, Pa., in a critical county where Trump held his own in 2016 but where his support may be slipping.Read moreNancy Rokos / Bucks County Courier Times

It looked like a scene from Trump Country: more than a thousand trucks, bikes, and cars draped in Trump flags, parading across highways and through downtown areas for hours on Saturday.

But this particular caravan wasn’t in rural Pennsylvania. It took place from Newtown to Doylestown.

The grassroots rally served as a reminder that while President Donald Trump is deeply unpopular in much of the Philadelphia suburbs, he does retain some appeal — especially in Bucks County.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by about 188,000 votes, or 14 percentage points, in Philadelphia’s four collar counties. But Trump held his own in Bucks, losing by less than 1 percentage point as he went on to carry the crucial swing state by a similarly narrow margin.

Bucks County has been a perennial battleground in presidential races, and demographically, it hews closer to Trump’s electoral strengths: It’s the whitest of the four counties, and it has the second-smallest share of residents who graduated from college, after Delaware County.

And while Democrats have made historic gains across the region since 2017, the Bucks County GOP has fared better than its counterparts in the other suburban counties, managing to hold onto a number of legislative seats and other offices.

Yet, for all the public enthusiasm for Trump, some Republicans see signs that the president’s support has slipped even in Bucks.

In July, Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s campaign released the results of an internal poll showing he had a double-digit lead over Democrat Christina Finello — even as Trump trailed Joe Biden by 9 points. Fitzpatrick represents the 1st Congressional District, which spans all of Bucks County and a small slice of Montgomery County. Fitzpatrick has said he won’t decide who to support for president until he votes.

And two surveys commissioned by Democrats this month found Biden leading Trump by double-digits in the district, which Clinton carried by 2 points, with Fitzpatrick and Finello locked in a dead heat.

As the pro-Trump caravan arrived in Doylestown on Saturday, there were also more than 100 Biden supporters participating there in a women’s march.

But Bucks County GOP leaders said enthusiasm for Trump remains strong. And they noted polls of Pennsylvania voters four years ago were slightly off base. (That was largely because of an underweighting of white voters without college degrees, a methodology error most pollsters have since addressed.)

“I’ve never seen anything like this, probably since the reelection of Ronald Reagan,” said Dave Breidinger, the GOP chairman in Northampton Township, just west of Newtown. He said he had personally handed out 600 Trump signs in the past month.

Democrats are hoping a strong showing by Biden will help lift candidates down-ballot, as they try to oust Fitzpatrick, a longtime target who has held his seat by pitching himself as a moderate, and flip a few state House seats. Democrats need a net gain of nine seats to win control of the chamber. The stakes are high, as the next General Assembly will draw new congressional and legislative maps in accordance with decennial redistricting.

» READ MORE: White women are ditching Trump, and it could cost him Pennsylvania

Democrats are targeting GOP-held districts in largely upscale communities in Central Bucks, where Trump beat Clinton but got fewer votes than GOP nominee Mitt Romney did in 2012.

At the center of the political fight is Northampton Township, a historically Republican suburb of 39,200 people 45 minutes north of Center City. It may well be a bellwether both in the campaign for the White House and for state legislative races.

It’s whiter than Bucks as a whole — 91.2% identify as non-Hispanic white, compared with 84.5% countywide. Median household income ($116,590) and the share of residents 25 or older who have a bachelor’s degree (53%) are both significantly higher than the countywide figures, according to census estimates.

While polls show Trump generally does better than Biden among white voters, Biden has the advantage among college-educated voters and those with annual incomes greater than $100,000.

“All the things you’re seeing in the news media and the polls about Republican women and squishiness for the president clearly are going to be debunked based on the results you’ll see coming out of Northampton Township on election night,” said Breidinger, who is also the campaign manager for Republican State Rep. Wendi Thomas in the 178th House District. “As goes Bucks County, so goes the state for Trump.”

Trump won Northampton Township in 2016, but by a smaller margin than Romney carried it four years earlier. And in 2018, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Gov. Tom Wolf, both Democrats, won the township.

Northampton accounts for about two-thirds of the population in the 178th House District, which also spans Wrightstown, Upper Makefield, Solebury, and New Hope. Republicans held the seat for 34 years until 2018, when Democrat Helen Tai won a special election. The GOP got it back a few months later when Thomas beat Tai in the November election.

Thomas, who didn’t return requests for comment, is now running for a second term.

Opposing Thomas, 59, is Ann Marie Mitchell, 55, a lawyer for a metal recycling company. Mitchell is also a founding member of Orange Wave for Gun Safety, an anti-gun violence group established in 2018 that grew out of Moms Demand Action. Her mother was the victim of domestic violence and gun violence, and her daughter got involved in activism after the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

“That really motivated me,” Mitchell said in an interview. “The more people that I met, the more I realized there was not enough being done at the state level.”

Mitchell ran unsuccessfully for township supervisor last year. The GOP maintained its 4-1 majority on the board of supervisors, even as Democrats took the county board of commissioners for the first time since 1983 and made gains in other municipal races.

» READ MORE: A Bucks County election sparks a familiar question: Is Brian Fitzpatrick a moderate?

Her campaign and an outside Democratic group have spent a combined $446,000 on cable television ads, while Thomas’ campaign has spent $107,000, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

Last Thursday, Mitchell dropped by Rosa Kuty’s house to thank her for writing postcards for her campaign. As a homemade Biden-Harris banner hung from her house, Kuty, a 67-year-old retired professor, said she had ordered official campaign signs, but that they “were slow in coming.”

“I need to make kind of a statement while I wait,” said Kuty, a Democrat. She described Biden as “an honest man who’s going to work for us.”

“I trust him,” she said.

Rachael Hauben, 39, a first-grade teacher and mother of four, has been teaching virtually from home. A babysitter has been caring for her 3-year-old twins outside her home so she can continue teaching.

Hauben told Mitchell she’s worried her district might soon require teachers to begin full-time in-person instruction. She’s fortunate, she said, that her husband will be able to work from home to watch their children while she’s at school.

“As a human race, there is a lot at stake” in the election, Hauben said. She described a “huge downturn in compassion and empathy” over the last four years, and said she hoped Biden could help change that.

Trump retains support here, even if some voters are more comfortable with traditional Republican politicians. Roy Britton, 70, lives around the block. Signs on his front lawn show support for Fitzpatrick and Thomas. Another says: “We Support Northampton Police.”

“I can’t say I’m thrilled with Trump’s behavior, but I think what he’s doing is right,” Britton said. “I don’t care for Biden. He’s a liar. He’s been caught plagiarizing.” And he said he didn’t believe Biden would keep his pledge to raise taxes only on those making $400,000 or more.

» READ MORE: Welcome to the two neighborhoods in deep-blue Philly where Trump can win again

Barbara Loftus, 46, voted for Trump last time and has been happy with his presidency. Democrats, she said, are “terrorizing the streets” and trying to defund the police.

But Loftus, who was watching her kids at a playground, is considering voting for the Libertarian candidate, Jo Jorgenson. “Most people want to be left alone, live their lives,” she said.

And some Northampton residents who voted for Trump in 2016 say they have had enough.

Rich Maybaum, 52, said his vote for Trump “was more a vote against Clinton.”

He said Trump has “done a lot of good for Israel,” but added that he can’t countenance the president’s “inability to talk against white supremacy” and policies like separating immigrant children from their families.

Maybaum worked in social services for 27 years but retired a few years ago because of a spinal disease. He started driving for Uber but has stopped during the pandemic. The gym where his wife is an aquatics director recently closed, so she’s out of work, too.

He’s been frustrated by both parties’ inability to reach a deal on another round of pandemic relief in Washington.

He’s planning to vote against all incumbents on the ballot. But he’s not fond of Biden, either.

“He’s just a typical politician: lying, cheating, and everything. But he’s not as bad,” Maybaum said. “He actually seems to care about people, will have a steadier hand, and not let his emotions drive him.”

It will be good, he said, “to get back to when the lies aren’t so obvious.”