One debate down, and it wasn’t pretty.

Joe Biden left Cleveland this morning using his signature mode of transportation — an Amtrak train car — to campaign through Western Pennsylvania. He’s starting in Pittsburgh but then cutting through a swath of what’s become Trump Country in the state. It’s also an area where some polls show him cutting into the president’s support among white working class voters — something that could prove politically fatal for Trump if it doesn’t change.

For all the instability of 2020, and the vitriol last night, one thing has been remarkably stable: this presidential race. Biden enters the homestretch with a national lead largely unchanged from before the pandemic — and with a sizable edge in Pennsylvania, which is increasingly seen a must-win for Trump.

Meanwhile, a new kind of early voting started in Philadelphia. But that wasn’t pretty either. We’ll explain what happened — and what Trump got wrong about it. And we’re hearing from voters on our Election 2020 Roundtable about the future of the Supreme Court.

— Julia Terruso, Andrew Seidman (@JuliaTerruso@AndrewSeidmanelection@inquirer.com)

Then-Vice President Joe Biden at the controls of a new Cities Sprinter locomotive at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station in 2014.
Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
Then-Vice President Joe Biden at the controls of a new Cities Sprinter locomotive at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station in 2014.

Amtrak Joe rides into Trump Country

Biden’s campaign trail hits the rails today, with an Amtrak “whistle stop tour” that stops in Pittsburgh, Greensburg, New Alexandria, Latrobe, and ends with a socially-distanced drive-in rally in Johnstown.

Biden is going straight into the heart of Trump’s support in Pennsylvania. Some  towns on his itinerary are in counties that voted for Trump by double digits in 2016, and where Republicans have made voter registration gains since. But there are signs of a slight erosion in Trump’s support in the southwest, driven in part by white working class voters who are more open to Biden than they were to Hillary Clinton. Even a slight drop-off could be a big deal. We spent a few days in and around Johnstown earlier this month and will be back today, so more on that coming soon.

Southwestern Pennsylvania has been a frequent destination for Trump, too. He held airport rallies in Pittsburgh and Latrobe this month. Westmoreland County saw the state’s largest net increase in registered Republicans in the last four years, adding about 10,000 voters to GOP ranks. In Cambria County, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by almost 15,000 voters in 2016. Now it’s almost evenly split.

Why can’t Trump afford to lose ground here? Because Biden appears to be blowing him out in the state’s suburbs, including some gains even in more traditionally Republican ones like outside Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Biden is beating Trump among white working class women, and he’s eaten slightly into Trump’s support among white working class men. Put it all together, and that’s how you get two widely respected pollsters showing Biden up by 9 points in the state.

He’s gotten here partly by centering his campaign around appeals to these voters (he’s going from the debate to Johnstown, not Philly). Biden calls the election a battle between “Scranton and Park Avenue,” and now he’s got revelations about Trump paying just $750 in federal income taxes to add to the pile. Biden touted his everyman credentials at a town hall this month outside Scranton, saying guys like Trump look down on people who went to state school – like Biden.

Now he’s back on Amtrak, which he famously used to take the train from Washington to Delaware every day to be home for his two young sons. He kept that habit up for 36 years and 2 million miles.

Today, he’ll try to ride it a few stops closer to the White House.

Priscilla Bennett prepares to cast her mail ballot at a new satellite elections office on Tuesday in Philadelphia.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Priscilla Bennett prepares to cast her mail ballot at a new satellite elections office on Tuesday in Philadelphia.

Trump says ‘bad things happen in Philadelphia.’ Here’s what actually happened.

Trump closed out last night’s debate by repeating his false claim that poll watchers had been blocked from observing the first day of in-person early mail voting in Philadelphia. Here’s what you need to know.

Philadelphia opened the first of 15 new satellite elections offices yesterday, where voters can request, receive, fill out, and submit mail ballots in one stop. Technical issues led to frustrations and wait times.

So it’s like early voting in other states?

Not really. It’s basically mail voting without using the mail. You’re not voting on a machine like you would at a polling place. This is all through the state’s new election law enacted last year, which greatly expanded mail voting. Other counties are setting up similar satellite offices.

What did Trump say?

“In Philadelphia they went in to watch,” he said last night. “They’re called poll watchers. A very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia.”

Is that true?

No, and here’s why. The Trump campaign has no poll watchers approved to work in Philadelphia at the moment. And there are no actual polling places open in the city right now.

It’s true that voters were casting ballots, but the locations where they were doing so are just elections offices, and poll watchers don’t have the same rights there that they do at traditional polling places on Election Day.

Al Schmidt, a Republican and one of the city commissioners, who run elections, put it succinctly: “We don’t give someone a poll watcher certificate to… watch somebody fill out their ballot at their kitchen table.”

-Ellie Rushing, Chris Brennan, and Jonathan Lai

What we’re paying attention to

Overheard on the campaign trail

“When you are doing outreach to moderate suburban white folks and minimal campaigning in Black disenfranchised communities, that’s problematic if you want to win. I feel like they’re leaving votes on the table.”

— Philadelphia City Councilmember Kendra Brooks on what she called a lack of Biden campaign outreach to progressive voters.

Our voter Roundtable on the Supreme Court fight

The GOP-controlled Senate is moving forward with confirmation hearings, while Democrats assail Republicans for not following the standard they set in 2016 when they cited an election that was months away in refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee.

Here are a few highlights from our recent discussion. We’ll be posting a fuller recap soon, so check out the Roundtable page. And we’re talking to them about the debate next.

“The Democrats, if they were in the same boat that the Republicans are in today, they would be doing the same thing,” said Lauren Jessop, a 62-year-old Republican in Northampton County.

Melissa Robbins, a 47-year-old Philadelphia Democrat, said: “It’s about power. It’s always been about power. It’s always been about white men dominating, making the rules, changing the rules. It completely delegitimizes our democracy.”

Scott Young, a 51-year-old Bucks County Republican, said he was uneasy with “the optics of taking something that should be a purely apolitical position and centering it around an election deadline.”

David Graham, a 66-year-old Republican from Johnstown, blamed Democrats for their treatment of Brett Kavanaugh during his 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. But Graham also said he didn’t like how the GOP handled Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland in 2016. “The federal government is broken,” he said.

—with Lauren Aguirre

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