FORKS TOWNSHIP, Pa. —When Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016, three counties encapsulated the shifts that powered his surprise victory.

Erie in the state’s northwest corner, Northampton in the Lehigh Valley, and Luzerne in the northeast had all voted for Barack Obama twice. Then Trump won majorities in each of them — largely with white working-class voters — as he narrowly carried the state.

This year, Erie and Northampton tipped back to Joe Biden. But barely. As of Saturday, Biden was leading Trump in Erie County by about 1,500 votes, about a percentage point. His edge was even narrower in Northampton.

In that way, they mirror the state overall: After a dramatic swing to Trump in 2016, Pennsylvania shifted back to Democrats this year, even if only by a small margin.

The changes were driven, interviews suggest, by voters troubled by the president’s handling of the coronavirus and tired of the constant turmoil and his stoking of racial divisions. Some voters who didn’t turn out in 2016 were motivated to defeat Trump.

One of them is Deanna Baurkot, 41, who said she was too preoccupied with a new baby to vote in 2016 and wasn’t enthused by Clinton. Baurkot lives in Forks Township, a Northampton County enclave of about 15,000 people just north of Easton.

“When he won I figured, OK, I’ll give Trump a chance,” she said. “But he has been a complete flop.”

Northampton, sitting in the Lehigh Valley at the gateway to the state’s postindustrial northeast, is a mix of rural and suburban areas. In some ways, it has more in common with Philadelphia’s increasingly Democratic suburbs than with the two other so-called Obama-Trump counties, which became a subject of political fascination, much like Obama-Trump voters.

After Trump took office, Baurkot was troubled by what she called nepotism in his family, corruption in his administration, and the president’s attempts to divide the country. After she put a Biden-Harris sign on her front lawn, someone spray-painted it red, she said.

“He’s engaging his followers in the wrong way,” Baurkot said.

She said her parents, immigrants from Syria, have been dismayed by the turmoil of the last four years.

“This is not the country they came to,” she said.

A few blocks from Baurkot, in the same cul-de-sac, 62-year-old Eugene Connolly voted for Trump twice. Concerns over violence in cities recently prompted him to buy a gun for the first time, he said.

“I like things exactly the way they are, I just don’t want my life to change,” he said. “I’m just glad Republicans held the Senate so they can’t shove anything down our throats.

The shifts weren’t huge. Democrats didn’t fully restore their previous standing. But added up across the map, inch-by-inch gains helped Biden win back a state that analysts long forecast as the electoral “tipping point.” With its 20 Electoral College votes putting him over the top, Biden won the presidency.

Trump won postindustrial Luzerne County again, but by a smaller margin this time. His margin fell from roughly 26,000 votes in 2016 to less than 22,000.

Richard Brown, 66, a retired forklift operator in Luzerne who voted for Biden, said he thinks this time around “a silent majority” came out for the Democrat.

“Maybe they didn’t vote in 2016, but they weren’t missing this one and I think COVID had a lot to do with it,” Brown said.

Biden supporter Tom Bindus, 63, down the road from where Vice President Mike Pence held a September campaign in Exeter, Luzerne County.
STEVEN M. FALK / MCT
Biden supporter Tom Bindus, 63, down the road from where Vice President Mike Pence held a September campaign in Exeter, Luzerne County.

Winning a county, of course, isn’t an official measure and doesn’t count for any electoral votes. Biden enjoyed far larger margins in big cities and suburban counties that were already blue, and benefited from losing some places by less — even if, like in Luzerne, they didn’t change colors on the political map.

But counties do provide a measuring stick, a rough way to gauge how different parts of the state react to the candidates. And the three Obama-Trump counties provide snapshots of how one piece of the Pennsylvania vote changed from 2016 to 2020. All three of the swing counties have a mix of midsize cities, rural stretches, and small towns. Democrats worked the changing demographics.

“We hit this harder than I think anyone has in a presidential election in Luzerne in a long time,” said Kathy Bozinski, the Democratic chair in the county.

She said Trump’s support in the region had only grown, which meant Democrats had to find new voters. And that meant pushing mail-in ballots heavily and reaching out to Black and Latino voters in cities like Hazleton.

Biden did particularly well in Democratic-friendly Wilkes-Barre, but also won in traditionally Republican suburbs like Kingston and Forty-Fort. That “said a lot about the work we did here in the Wyoming Valley,” Bozinski said.

Lynette Villano, a Trump supporter in West Pittston, said: “Democrats played the game better than we did as far as mail-in ballots. I think we didn’t trust mail-ins and it cost us.”

Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat who lives in Scranton, in neighboring Lackawanna County, said Biden’s own Scranton roots — and a campaign that focused so heavily on them — “resonated” in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

“Usually, messaging is most effective when it’s both authentic and strategic," Casey said.

The Democratic and Republican offices in Union City, Erie County, are only a storefront apart.
ROBERT FRANK
The Democratic and Republican offices in Union City, Erie County, are only a storefront apart.

In Erie, a largely blue-collar and rural county where Pennsylvania intersects with Ohio and western New York, Trump expanded the support that fueled him in 2016.

But there was also a stronger backlash, said Carl Anderson, a Democratic county councilman.

“Those committed to the president were active and vocal and mobilized," he said. "But I think equally, if not more this time, there was an abundance of active and committed and involved people on behalf of Joe Biden.”

That included rural areas that Erie locals refer to as “the county.”

“That was particularly noticeable out into the county where it would be traditionally Republican areas and was really, and I mean these are observations of mine, you know, very quiet four years ago for Hillary Clinton, people out there were very active for Joe Biden,” Anderson said.

He said Biden’s blue-collar upbringing, beginning in Scranton, resonated in an area with a proud manufacturing legacy, while some people who supported Trump were repelled by his abrasive style.

“My IRA shows what he has done,” said Jo Wilcko, 60, as she voted in a Trump mask and hoodie in the city of Erie. “He’s for the American people. He’s for the hardworking person.”

You don’t choose doctors for their personal style, Wilcko said, and the same goes with the president.

“You’re not paying for his personality,” she said.

But for others, Trump’s persona weighed heavily.

Catherine Shimek voted for Trump in 2016 and liked the tax cuts he signed into law, but was torn about his reelection.

“It’s so hard to listen to the ignorance,” she said. She declined to say whom she supported.

“They say that ultimately we vote because of our pocketbook. But I think that Americans also, you know, took notice to the attitude and behavior,” said Anderson, the county councilman. “Many people gave him a shot for four years and now they’ve seen what he has or hasn’t done. And so some people are satisfied that others are looking for a change.”

In Erie, and in Pennsylvania, those looking for change outweighed the ones who were satisfied, even if only narrowly.