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6 takeaways from Biden’s win over Trump in Pennsylvania

Here’s what changed from last time, and made the difference in the state that put Biden over the top and won him the White House.

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

It took longer than usual, but now we know: Joe Biden won Pennsylvania, returning it to the Democratic column after Donald Trump’s major upset in 2016.

In a state that was decided by less than 1% of the vote in 2016, and by a similarly tight margin this year, any movement could make the difference. Here’s what happened in the state that ultimately lifted Biden to the presidency.

The Philly suburbs came through for Biden — big

We knew Biden would do well in the Philadelphia suburbs, where anti-Trump enthusiasm had helped Democrats make sweeping gains in federal, state, and local races since 2017. But we didn’t know just how big Biden’s advantage in the region would be.

It turns out, it was huge.

Hillary Clinton did great in Philadelphia’s four collar counties, beating Trump by 14 percentage points, 188,000 votes of some 1.3 million cast. That was a pretty solid margin, better than President Barack Obama’s in 2012. But it wasn’t enough to win Pennsylvania.

Biden did even better, carrying the four counties by 19 points, with about a 283,000-vote advantage as of early Saturday. That’s a nearly 95,000-vote increase in the Democratic margin — 50% bigger than Clinton’s.

For perspective, as of Saturday morning, Biden was leading the state by just 28,000 votes total.

Another way to think about it: In 2012 Obama won the four counties by 123,000 votes. In just two elections, the Democratic margin has more than doubled.

Turnout was bigger this year, too: Suburbanites cast more than 1.5 million ballots in the four counties this year, up 13% from 2016.

In Montgomery County, a Democratic stronghold, Biden beat Trump by about 131,000 votes. His margin of victory in that county alone eclipsed Clinton’s by 38,000 votes — a sizable increase in a state Trump won in 2016 by 44,000.

Biden also surged in Chester County, which Mitt Romney narrowly carried in 2012 and where Republicans had dominated local politics since the Civil War until the Trump era. Biden won the county by 17 percentage points, up from Clinton’s 10-point margin. He roughly doubled Clinton’s 26,000-vote victory.

Biden won the Scranton campaign

Biden’s hometown ties came through for him.

Trump shocked Democrats in 2016 by making big inroads in postindustrial Northeastern Pennsylvania, where the party’s affiliation with organized labor had historically appealed to white working-class voters. Luzerne and neighboring Lackawanna Counties saw the largest pro-Trump swings in the state.

So a central part of Biden’s pitch to Democratic primary voters was this: As a Scranton native with a working-class upbringing at the core of his political biography, he could win back those voters — and others in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

Trump tried to blunt that message. Hours before Biden accepted his party’s nomination in August, the president held a rally outside Scranton and declared Biden had “abandoned” his childhood hometown (Biden’s family moved to Delaware when he was 10).

» READ MORE: Fact-checking Trump’s frequent claim that Joe Biden ‘abandoned Scranton’

But it didn’t seem to work. In Lackawanna County, home to Scranton, Biden led Trump, 54% to 45%, as of Saturday morning. Clinton won the county by just 3 points.

In Luzerne County — one of three in the state that voted twice for Obama before flipping to Trump — Biden still lost but outperformed Clinton. Trump led Biden by 15 points on Thursday, down from his 20-point margin in 2016.

Combined, that meant Trump was leading in the two counties by only 12,000 votes as of Saturday — compared with 23,000 in 2016.

Biden didn’t necessarily win back the Obama-Trump voters that became something of a global fascination — Trump won more votes in Luzerne this year than he did last time — but he cut into Trump’s edge.

Sometimes, losing by less is good enough.

Trump got more votes in Republican areas — but didn’t expand his margins

Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 in large part because he got more votes in rural counties and small towns than most Republicans thought possible. Reliably conservative areas became even more Republican for Trump.

In 2020, he aimed to rouse even more of those mostly white working-class voters. And the president did rack up more votes in red counties this time. But in many of these areas, Biden either chipped away at Trump’s margins or kept pace with Trump’s gains.

In Westmoreland County, a rural area southeast of Pittsburgh that has moved rapidly to the GOP in recent years, Trump got 128,000 votes — up 12,000 from 2016. But Biden won at least 11,000 more votes than Clinton. Biden’s gains nearly canceled out Trump’s.

» READ MORE: A Pennsylvania town once known as ‘communism on the prairie’ is all about Trump now

This played out in counties big and small. In central Pennsylvania’s Potter County, population 17,000, Trump’s share of the vote stayed flat at about 80% — while Biden improved 2 points to 19%.

York County, in the south-central part of the state, delivered Trump his biggest win of any Pennsylvania county in 2016: a 60,000-vote margin. And he did even better this year, winning about 15,000 more votes in York. But Biden more than kept pace: He got 37% of the vote in York — up from Clinton’s 33%.

Despite all the added votes for Trump, his margin in York was down by about 2,000 as of Saturday.

Trump did see some gains. That’s why he was able to stay close, despite Biden’s suburban surge. The president energized his supporters. But he also energized his opponents.

Fewer third-party votes meant more for Biden

Last election saw a significant bump for third-party votes, as many Americans turned away from both Trump and Clinton. There were 218,000 votes for third-party candidates.

But that changed this year. There were only 77,000 third-party votes as of Thursday. Instead of accounting for about 3.5% of the vote, it was down to about 1%.

That seemed to benefit Biden.

Take Lancaster County, which provided Trump some of his biggest numbers in 2016. Trump, as of Saturday, was winning 57% of the vote there, the same as last time. But in the state’s sixth-largest county, Biden’s share jumped to 41%, up from Clinton’s 38%.

Trump’s margin fell by more than 2,000 votes.

A boost in Allegheny County while Philly stays steady

Home to Pittsburgh and affluent suburbs, Allegheny had a big share of the kind of voters Biden was counting on. It came through. Biden improved on Clinton’s margin here by 30,000 votes — a 28% bump, with votes still being counted Saturday.

That addition alone equaled more than half of the 44,000 statewide margin that carried Trump in the last election.

Philadelphia, however, did not appear to provide a major bump for Biden compared with 2016 (though the remaining mail and provisional ballots might change the picture).

As of Saturday morning, the city had delivered more than 550,000 votes for Biden, some 16% of his total, but Trump was actually doing slightly better compared with 2016. He had won 18% of the city’s vote, up from 15%.

Philly’s Democratic vote total was at a fairly high level in 2016, but Biden doesn’t appear to have pushed it higher.

A charged electorate, for both candidates

Biden didn’t just beat Trump: He won an extraordinary level of support.

As of Saturday morning he had won more than 3.3 million votes in Pennsylvania (and counting), narrowly passing even the number that Barack Obama won in the state in his barrier-breaking 2008 win.

In one way, the turnout could be read as a rejection of Trump. It’s rare for an incumbent president to lose, and we saw voters in all corners of the state make a point to back Biden.

But there was also a measure of affirmation for Trump. His vote total jumped from 2016, too, growing from a little less than 3 million to over 3.3 million this year — the second most, after Biden, of any presidential candidate since at least 2000.

» READ MORE: The Divided States of Pennsylvania: How one state embodies America's political discord

Many analysts saw Trump’s 2016 victory more as a rejection of Clinton and the political status quo, or as reflecting a desire for an outsider to shake things up — or just a brick thrown through the window of the media and political elite.

But this year, voters had seen Trump in action. He was no longer an unknown or new figure. He had four years as the country’s leader, dominating America’s attention, conversations, and Twitter feeds.

And while millions of Pennsylvanians wanted nothing more than to rebuke him, millions of others saw him and wanted more. The race was fairly close in the end, despite a deadly pandemic and an economic collapse weighing on the incumbent.

For all of the opposition Trump stirred, millions in this state remained loyal to him. And that will be a challenge for Biden, Democrats, and even Republicans who now need to look ahead to Senate and gubernatorial races in two years.