JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Joe Biden capped a daylong train tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania on Wednesday by emphasizing his connection with middle-class America, forged over decades spent taking Amtrak from Washington home to Delaware every night to be with his children.
“I want to thank the good people of Amtrak who kept me moving today, and throughout my whole career,” Biden said at an evening drive-in rally here. The Democratic presidential nominee said Amtrak “brought me back to my home base every single night. ... I always remembered what and who really mattered.”
He recalled long rides looking out “at all those homes I’d pass, middle-class neighborhoods like I was raised in,” and talking to passengers about their hopes and needs, before contrasting that with President Donald Trump, whom he called a “self-serving, self-entitled president.”
“He doesn’t have a plan to help you or deliver relief to the people who need the most help,” Biden said of Trump.
Biden’s 10-hour “whistle-stop tour” started in Cleveland, the site of Tuesday’s presidential debate. Earlier in the day, Biden called the debate a “national embarrassment.” The acrimonious and chaotic nationally televised forum was marked by Trump’s repeatedly interrupting Biden, personal insults, and continuous cross-talk between the candidates and moderator Chris Wallace. That prompted the presidential debate commission to say Wednesday that it would make changes to the format to avoid a repeat.
Speaking Wednesday in Minnesota, Trump said he had done at the debate “what the corrupt media has refused to do.”
“I held Joe Biden accountable for his 47 years of lies, 47 years of betrayals, and 47 years of failure,” Trump said at a rally in Duluth.
The Pennsylvania leg of Biden’s tour started in Pittsburgh and was meant to drum up support from working-class voters in a Trump-friendly part of the state, with stops in Greensburg and Latrobe. He was greeted in Johnstown by a small tailgate awaiting him at the train station, and about 100 onlookers packed onto the nearby Walnut Street Bridge.
Biden spoke energetically about his blue-collar roots, at times having to yell over the roar of a cargo train rolling through behind him. “I see the world from where I grew up in Scranton,” Biden said. “You see it from Johnstown,” where people are “not worried about the stock market, they’re worried about putting food on the table every night.”
“If Trump and his Park Avenue pals start paying their fair share, we’ll have more than enough money to finally build an economy that works for everyone," Biden said. "So I promise you this, I see you. I hear you. I respect you. I grew up with you.”
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman introduced Biden by saying the former vice president “knows there’s a lot more to Pennsylvania than Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.” And the candidate’s wife, Jill, who grew up outside Philadelphia, joked with supporters that while she may not agree with them about football teams or the perennial convenience store war of Sheetz vs. Wawa, they could unite around her husband’s campaign.
Biden’s latest of many trips to Pennsylvania — a critical battleground state seen as increasingly likely to determine the winner between him and Trump — ventured into the heart of the state’s Trump Country. Some of the towns on his itinerary were 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 this part of the state, driven in part by white working-class voters who are more open to Biden than they were to Hillary Clinton.
Southwestern Pennsylvania has been a frequent destination for Trump, too. He held large airport rallies in Latrobe and Pittsburgh this month. Westmoreland County, home to Greensburg and Latrobe, 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, home to Johnstown, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by almost 15,000 voters in 2016. Now the county is almost evenly split.
Trump needs to hold his ground in the region, given that 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, according to polls over the last week, and he’s eaten slightly into Trump’s support among white working-class men. All three were factors in new surveys showing Biden up by nine points in the state.
He’s built that advantage partly by centering his campaign around appeals to these voters. Biden calls the election a battle between “Scranton and Park Avenue.” As he prepared to leave Johnstown, he was asked by NPR whether his trip was meant to win back some of the areas he visited outright or cut into Trump’s margins.
“Well I think some we can win back, others it’s about cutting the margin," Biden said. "Even if we just cut the margin, It makes a gigantic difference, a gigantic difference. A lot of white working-class Democrats thought we forgot them and didn’t pay attention. I want them to know... I hear them, I listen to them. ... I get it, I get their sense of being left behind.”
Janina Jolley, 64, traveled a couple of hours south from Clarion County to Johnstown. Biden’s stops in rural Pennsylvania will matter, she said.
“This is a statement,” Jolley said. “It’s a very important statement, because this is an area that has felt left behind.” A retired psychology professor, Jolley said she’s sensing energy in her very conservative county that wasn’t there in 2016. Given how competitive Pennsylvania is, she thinks it can make a difference.
“There’s no way Clarion County goes for Biden, but there’s a good chance we can get 200 votes” per precinct, Jolley said.
Alex Ciotti, 33, a labor organizer on leave from Cambria County’s health and human services department, said Biden’s visit gives “a little hope, because living here you can feel overwhelmed with all the hard-right conservative voices. There are liberal voices but they’re quiet. This turns the volume up.”
Cars were decorated in “Ridin' With Biden” and “Bye Don” signs. A screen played campaign videos to pump up the crowd ahead of Biden’s arrival, including one narrated by Scranton natives and another about Biden’s history with Amtrak.
That train affinity was on full display throughout the day. “I love being on the train," Biden told reporters onboard.
Former State Sen. John Wozniak, who represented the area for two decades, said Biden’s stop here was a necessity.
“He has to. ... This is the meat and potatoes of Pennsylvania, and Democrats lost it," Wozniak said, referring to Johnstown’s past as a Democratic stronghold. "We’ve watched it go from very blue to very, very red. ... It’s time to re-energize, and bring our roots back to where they belong. I think Joe Biden is the man to do it. He understands small-town problems and small-town people.”
Earlier in the day at the Greensburg train station, about 50 people lined up across from the platform to see Biden’s train pull in, holding up Biden-Harris signs and a few in “Make America Sane Again” red caps.
Deb Marchelleta, a retired nurse’s aide, waited with another friend from the area. Marchelleta’s dad was a steelworker and she was in the nurses' union, so being a Democrat runs in her blood, she said. But Marchelleta said this election is about more than party loyalty. She called Trump dangerous.
“If Biden doesn’t win this election, it’s the end of democracy and the republic is done, I really believe that,” she said. Marchelleta, 68, planned to travel to as many train stops as she could get to so she could try to catch glimpses of Biden: “He’s a good man and he’s our only hope.”