It’s now official: President-elect Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by 80,555 votes, significantly larger than the 44,292-vote margin that helped carry President Donald Trump to the White House in 2016.
Digging into the numbers, it’s a story of the suburbs delivering in overwhelming fashion for Biden, giving him margins that swamped Trump’s fervent support in more rural and postindustrial areas of the state.
But there are other, smaller shifts that also made a difference in a state once again decided by about 1 percentage point.
Some defied expectations.
Biden, for example, boosted the Democratic vote in Philadelphia — but Trump did much better in the city than he did four years ago. In fact, when comparing year-on-year margins, Philadelphia was the Pennsylvania county that, more than any, moved rightward.
Trump, meanwhile, once again roused voters in deep-red parts of the state, but Biden was able to win votes there, too, so Trump’s gains weren’t as big as he might have hoped.
Here are some key factors now that we know the final tally:
People were ready for this election.
Voters in every single Pennsylvania county cast more presidential votes this year than in 2016. And in every county, Biden received more votes than Hillary Clinton did, while Trump received more votes than he did four years ago.
“That’s exceptional, that really is,” said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College and pollster who heads its Institute of Public Opinion. “And I hate hyperbole, but it really is an exceptional performance.”
Statewide, voters cast 13% more presidential votes this year, and 64 out of 67 counties saw increases of more than 10%. Leading the pack were Pike County, with 24.7% more votes, and Monroe County, with a 20.2% increase.
The smallest increases came from Centre County (1.8%), Philadelphia (4.8%), and Indiana County (9.1%), all likely affected by large numbers of college students absent from campus due to the coronavirus.
If we had told Democrats that Biden would get more votes in Philadelphia than Barack Obama did in 2008, they would have done back flips — up the Art Museum steps.
And that happened: Biden got 603,790 votes from the city, surpassing the 595,980 Obama won in what was then a landslide. That’s remarkable considering the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy and the pandemic, which this year hampered campaigning and disrupted so many lives.
Yet despite his gains, Philadelphia actually provided fewer net votes for Biden than for any Democrat since John Kerry in 2004.
Biden got about 3% more Philadelphia votes than Clinton in 2016. Trump increased his city total by 22%.
Overall, Biden won the city by 471,050 votes, or 4,227 fewer than Clinton did. Trump’s improvement was his largest gain in net votes in any county.
“Biden, let’s not forget, set an all-time record for the number of votes won in the city. However, it does stand out as the one place where Trump really did boost his vote share in a large county,” said David Wasserman, an elections analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
As expected, Trump did well in the city’s more conservative areas, such as parts of the Northeast and South Philly, but Wasserman said his performance “also speaks to the larger Hispanic surge for Trump, which played out on a smaller scale in Philadelphia.”
Trump made big gains in some heavily Latino wards, and smaller ones in many majority-Black wards. Black and Latino voters still heavily favored Biden overall, as did Philadelphians across the ethnic, racial, and economic spectrum.
So while the vast majority of the city clearly supported Biden, and he won huge shares of voters, Trump lost by less than before in Democrats’ biggest stronghold.
The pandemic also likely played a role, Wasserman said, both because Philadelphia has a sizable college-student population and because Democrats weren’t able to do the same kind of massive door-to-door organizing campaigns that usually accompany presidential elections in the city.
The parts of the city that trended most dramatically against Trump in many ways resembled the suburbs that also turned out so forcefully against him. The biggest leftward shifts from 2016 to 2020 came from some of the city’s wealthiest and most-educated neighborhoods, including the majority-white wards that encompass the heart of Center City and one that covers Roxborough and Manayunk.
If you’re looking for what changed compared with 2016, nowhere comes close to the suburbs.
The four collar counties around Philadelphia all saw the Democratic margin increase by five digits — from a 14,646-vote gain for Biden in Bucks County to a net gain of 40,700 votes in Montgomery County.
“If Philly didn’t perform up to all expectations for Democrats, the suburbs did,” Borick said.
Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh and its suburbs, also saw a five-digit increase in the Democrats’ margin.
No other counties came close for either Democratic or Republican gains.
Taken together, Philadelphia’s four collar counties alone gave Biden a cushion of 293,094 votes — an increase of 104,741 compared with Clinton’s take in 2016.
In a state decided by fewer than 100,000 votes, the impact is obvious.
“There’s no doubt about it — the suburbs powered Biden to victory, not just in Southeast Pennsylvania but also Allegheny County,” Wasserman said. “The Biden campaign’s approach all along was to hold down Trump’s margins in rural and small-town Pennsylvania and then run up the score in the suburbs.”
There were Democratic gains in some other places with growing suburbs as well. The next three biggest shifts in net votes were in areas that are already suburban, or growing more so: Dauphin and Cumberland Counties, outside Harrisburg, and Northampton County, in the Lehigh Valley.
There are a lot of ways to slice the election results (Thanksgiving pie metaphor coming).
You can look at the raw votes each candidate won. You can look at the percentage each got. You can look at the net difference between candidates’ votes.
Biden got a larger percentage of votes in many of Pennsylvania’s smaller, largely white rural counties than Clinton did, but in many of them, Trump actually received more net votes this year than in 2016. The counties were a little less red — but Trump still received a boost from them.
Consider your favorite Thanksgiving pie, and how you slice it. If you bought a much larger pie this year, even a smaller slice of it can be much more pie than you had last year.
So in Cambria County in Southwest Pennsylvania, where Trump held a mid-October rally, his share of the two-party vote dipped ever so slightly, from 69.1% to 68.89%, but he still picked up 2,964 votes.
That’s a small increase, but similar small increases, added together across the state’s many rural areas, kept Trump competitive.
The problem for the president was he needed to run up the score even more in these places. Instead, by boosting the Democratic share of the vote, Biden prevented Trump from running away with even greater margins in rural and small-town Pennsylvania.
“Chipping away at it,” as Shippensburg University political science professor Alison Dagnes said.
In Franklin County, where Dagnes lives, there was no way Biden was going to win — but he brought down Trump’s share of the two-party vote from 74% to 71.9%. Trump increased his net votes by 2,520 this year, but Biden kept it from going higher.
“Trump did lose a little better than two-ish points, and that matters,” Dagnes said. Every vote adds up.
There were only 10 counties where Trump both increased his percentage of the vote and his net vote. There were 19 where Biden did both. And there were 38 where Trump got more net votes, but Biden increased the percentage going to Democrats, preventing those places from turning into even bigger gains for Trump.
In a close election, losing by less can matter as much as winning by more.
Many of the patterns in the results followed long-term changes in Pennsylvania’s votes, such as the two-decade Democratic drift in the Philadelphia suburbs. One place where there was an asterisk: The Northeast.
Some parts, including Monroe, Pike, and Wayne Counties, saw the impact of demographic changes as people move from New York and New Jersey into Pennsylvania. In others, it appears the hometown factor made the difference.
When Biden campaigned in largely white working-class areas that broke hard for Trump in 2016, he leaned on his childhood roots in just such a place, Scranton.
And it’s there the pitch seems to have worked best. In Lackawanna County, Scranton’s home, Biden turned Clinton’s narrow win four years ago — by 3,599 votes — into a still tight but more substantial victory this year of 9,657. In neighboring Luzerne County, Trump won by 22,056 votes, but that was 4,181 fewer than in 2016.