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How Joe Biden won Pennsylvania — and what comes next

The result doesn’t change how deeply divided Pennsylvania is. If anything, it only highlights those divisions.

Joe Biden, now the President-elect of the United States, in FDR Park in Philadelphia on Nov. 1.
Joe Biden, now the President-elect of the United States, in FDR Park in Philadelphia on Nov. 1.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

To cover how Pennsylvania is shaping the 2020 election, The Philadelphia Inquirer has launched a new email newsletter. Every Wednesday, you’ll get reporting from counties across the state, insight into issues that impact you, fact checks on what candidates are saying, and more. You can sign up to get it in your inbox here. You can also view the web version of this email.

What a week. What a year. We started this newsletter because we knew how important this state would be. And Pennsylvania being called is what ultimately tipped the race to Joe Biden (even if we’re not technically the "tipping-point state).

The result doesn’t change how deeply divided Pennsylvania is. If anything, it only highlights those divisions. President Donald Trump got more votes than he did last time, and Republicans had huge success down-ballot.

We’ll break down how Biden won in Pennsylvania. We’ll also provide a primer on Trump’s attempts to challenge the results — despite what you may be reading elsewhere, there is simply no evidence of widespread fraud — and we’ll talk about what the heck happened with polling, again.

This newsletter was always meant to run through the 2020 election. And we want to thank you for sticking with us. With that over now, we’re thinking about ways to keep you informed about what’s happening politically across the state. There’s a Scranton native soon to be president, races for Governor and Senate around the corner, and lots of political stories to tell.

After this week, we’ll be asking for your feedback and taking a brief break from sending this newsletter weekly. In the meantime, you can sign up to get The Inquirer’s morning newsletter, which has our best political reporting and analysis, as well as coverage of sports, entertainment, and other news. And sign up for our Clout newsletter, which covers people, power, and politics.

— Julia Terruso, Andrew Seidman (@jterruso, @andrewseidman,

The keys to Biden’s win in Pennsylvania

Suburbs. Suburbs. Suburbs. Biden racked up huge numbers in the already Democratic Philly suburbs. Consider: Biden was beating Trump by more than 283,000 votes there as of Saturday — a 50% increase over Hillary Clinton’s 188,000-vote edge in 2016 and double President Barack Obama’s margin in 2012. Philadelphia’s four collar counties and strong performances in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and Harrisburg were decisive.

One reason Biden did so well in the suburbs was because of Republican voters who just couldn’t stand Trump. Some Biden voters we interviewed said they split their ticket, and down-ballot losses for Democrats made that clear. GOP congressmen representing districts outside Philadelphia and Harrisburg held onto seats Democrats thought they could flip. Despite a huge spending advantage on the airwaves, Democrats fell well short of taking the state House.

Just enough white working class support. In many ways, it felt like the entire race for Pennsylvania was waged in places like Johnstown and Scranton. Both campaigns targeted their messages to white working class voters. Trump wanted to grow his support in these areas, while Biden wanted to win back just enough voters there to cut his losing margins compared to Clinton and win the state overall.

Both things happened. Trump got more votes than he did last time, but Biden also turned out white working class voters in much higher numbers than Clinton did. Voters who sat out 2016 but voted this time were likely a big difference.

Of the three counties that twice backed Obama before flipping to Trump, two — Erie and Northampton — swung back by just a hair. Trump still won the third county, Luzerne, but not by as much. Voters there said Biden’s roots in nearby Scranton and his blue collar appeal helped him.

“He was far more empathetic,” said Richard Brown, 66, a retired Teamster and Biden supporter from Luzerne.  “Just the way he presented the campaign. Trump was yelling and screaming and calling names.”


The turnout story in Pennsylvania’s largest city is still unfolding. While Democratic revelers across the country on Saturday were thanking Philadelphia for pushing the election from a waiting game into a called race, it was Trump who modestly improved his performance in Philadelphia.

The majority-minority city remains a key pillar of the Democratic coalition in the state, with Biden winning more than 550,000 votes here. When all the ballots are counted, he will likely surpass Clinton’s total. But barely, even as Democratic turnout surged elsewhere. And he’ll likely leave the city with a smaller margin of victory than Clinton did.

That could be a warning sign for Democrats going forward.

What to know about Trump’s lawsuits in Pa.

Despite Biden’s win, Trump has refused to concede has continued to make baseless claims about voter fraud. His campaign is moving forward with lawsuits.

Our colleague Jeremy Roebuck has a thorough breakdown of the lawsuits in Pennsylvania, where they stand, and the potential impact of the litigation. We urge you to read the whole piece, but here is a key takeaway:

“The campaign and its lawyers have yet to make even a single allegation in court of any vote being deliberately cast illegally. Instead, the suits have sought to raise suspicions surrounding Pennsylvania’s process for voting and tallying the results — much of it governed by laws passed by the state’s Republican-held Legislature.”

Biden led by more than 47,500 votes as of Wednesday, exceeding Trump’s 2016 margin of victory. “It’s unlikely any individual case will impact enough votes to make a difference unless GOP lawyers are able to convince the judge hearing their latest suit that, taken together, all of them are enough to undermine public confidence in the results,” Jeremy writes.

The lack of any actual evidence of widespread fraud hasn’t stopped Pennsylvania Republicans from parroting Trump’s false claims. The race to defend the president is shaping up as a purity test for any Republican who has aspirations for higher office.

What we’re paying attention to

Overheard on the campaign trail

“Everybody gets mixed up. There’s multiple Four Seasons. Four Seasons Hotel, there’s two Four Seasons Landscaping. We’re ‘Total;’ the other one, I think it’s just Landscaping.”

— Kevin Moran, a foreman at the landscaping firm where Trump’s campaign held a now-infamous news conference Saturday.

What happened with the polls? Some theories

After a second consecutive presidential election in which public opinion surveys significantly understated Trump’s support, pollsters are grappling with what went wrong. Is the issue specific to Trump? Can their work accurately gauge the pulse of the country, even beyond elections?

Some theories so far, from our colleague Jonathan Tamari:

Shy Trump voters? For years, some Republicans have argued that polls understate support for the president because Trump backers were reluctant to talk to pollsters, or admit their support. There was little hard data to support this idea, though, and many other more concrete explanations for the 2016 polling misses, so the theory was often dismissed. Now, there’s some consideration that it might be right.

Distrust in polls. Trump’s attack on the very idea of polling, like his barrages against many institutions, may also have influenced the results, Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said. Trump’s tactic “actually discourages his supporters from participating,” Newhouse said. “There’s simply a decent chunk who believe that all polls are fake and are used by the media to make their case. They just won’t respond.”

Read moreSo what the heck happened with the polls in Pennsylvania? Here are some theories.