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Rural Pennsylvania voters don’t hate Biden as much as they hated Clinton — and Trump may need them to

In the rural areas of Pennsylvania where Trump draws his strongest and most resilient support, his opponent this time simply isn’t loathed like last time.

The Miners Memorial in Nanty Glo, a small town in Pennsylvania's Cambria County. The county was one of dozens in rural Pennsylvania where Donald Trump won more votes in 2016 than previous Republican presidential candidates, helping fuel his razor-thin, 44,000-vote victory over Hillary Clinton. Even a marginally better performance by Biden could have big implications in a swing state that could decide the 2020 election.
The Miners Memorial in Nanty Glo, a small town in Pennsylvania's Cambria County. The county was one of dozens in rural Pennsylvania where Donald Trump won more votes in 2016 than previous Republican presidential candidates, helping fuel his razor-thin, 44,000-vote victory over Hillary Clinton. Even a marginally better performance by Biden could have big implications in a swing state that could decide the 2020 election.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Robert Pristas works part-time at a library outside Johnstown and does well for himself investing on the side. He says Joe Biden is “probably a decent guy.” But Pristas, 61, is voting for President Donald Trump because he fears Democrats will raise taxes.

Andy Szekeresh lives 20 miles north of Johnstown in Ebensburg, in the rolling hills of Cambria County. A retired maintenance worker, he supported Trump four years ago but now plans to vote for Biden. “The country wasn’t ready for a lady president like that,” Szekeresh, 71, said of Hillary Clinton.

And Biden? “He’s OK," Szekeresh said. “It’s just, we need a change and a new president, that’s all.”

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement. But the less-than-hostile attitude expressed by voters like Pristas, and the tepid support from voters like Szekeresh, point to a significant difference between 2016 and 2020: In the rural areas of Pennsylvania where Trump draws his strongest and most resilient support, his opponent this time simply isn’t loathed like last time.

And that could make all the difference for Biden in places like Cambria County, where Trump won more votes than any presidential candidate in decades. In doing so, he shattered longtime Pennsylvania GOP orthodoxy holding that the party needed to be reasonably competitive in areas like the Philadelphia suburbs to win statewide.

Polls and interviews with about 20 voters in Cambria County last month show Trump retains deep support in a region that was anchored for much of the 20th century by steel and coal industries but has struggled to find a postindustrial identity. The president’s supporters praise his forceful opposition to illegal immigration, his confrontation with China on trade, and his emphasis on “law and order.” They call him a fighter and express dismay about a future without him in the White House.

“Trump has to win," said Joseph Juretic, 69, a retired union electrical worker who lives in Johnstown. “Trump is holding the line as far as trade, the economy, the pandemic, all the riots."

“If Biden gets in," he added, "it’s all gonna fall apart.”

But Biden doesn’t generate the kind of intense, visceral opposition many voters held — and still hold — for Clinton.

Two polls of Pennsylvania voters last week showed Biden with almost a double-digit lead in the state, fueled partly by his strength in the suburbs. Trump is holding strong in central Pennsylvania. But he has lost some support among rural voters overall in the state, according to a New York Times poll. And both the Times survey and a Washington Post poll found that Trump’s advantage with white voters who didn’t go to college — especially women — has slipped.

Trump’s announcement Friday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus added new uncertainty to the race, and at a minimum was likely to keep the pandemic at the forefront of a campaign in which he’s tried to focus on just about anything else.

Analysts and strategists in both parties see Pennsylvania as the state most likely to decide the election. If Trump is to mount a comeback in the final 30 days of the race, he’ll likely need an even bigger landslide in the broad swath of Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh known in political parlance as “The T.”

Cambria County was already trending more Republican by 2016, but Trump accelerated the shift. Mitt Romney won 58% of the vote in 2012, and Trump’s share jumped to 67%. The population has been declining for decades, and the county is whiter, less affluent, and has a greater share of residents who didn’t go to college than Pennsylvania as a whole.

The same electoral pattern played out in dozens of rural counties and small towns across the state in 2016, totaling tens of thousands of votes Trump got that Romney and previous GOP nominees didn’t. Trump’s gains there, combined with his strong performance in traditionally Democratic areas like Northeast Pennsylvania, fueled his winning margin of just 44,000 votes.

Biden’s challenge in rural areas can be boiled down to this: Don’t get crushed as badly as Clinton did. He took an Amtrak train tour Wednesday through Trump-friendly parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania, ending with a drive-in rally in Johnstown, where he drew a parallel to his childhood hometown of Scranton: “I promise you this: I see you. I hear you. I respect you. I grew up with you.”

Many Democrats here doubt Biden can break Trump’s grip on the county. Biden supporters here see a region awash in Trump signs, a reliable bloc of antiabortion voters, and antipathy toward face-mask mandates.

“We’re so economically depressed here, and unfortunately racism has existed here just as it has in every part of the nation,” said Walt Wojnaroski, 69, a retired liquor-store manager. “And this fear that [Trump] relies upon is very productive for him.”

‘American carnage’

It wasn’t long ago that Democrats were still winning federal elections here. Barack Obama narrowly carried the county in 2008. The late U.S. Rep. John Murtha was known for steering defense spending to his Johnstown-area district, attracting contractors like Lockheed Martin.

After Murtha died in 2010, the city erected a seven-foot bronze statue of him downtown.

Democrats still control the Cambria County Board of Commissioners, but the national party’s appeal ebbed as its liberal positions on issues like abortion and gun control hardened and labor unions' influence waned. Trump, speaking in 2016 just steps from the Murtha statue, said the “political system failed the workers of Johnstown and gave your jobs to foreign producers.”

Registered Republicans surpassed Democrats this year.

Donald Bonk, an economic development consultant whose family owned a grocery store in the city for decades, remembers when some 12,000 people worked in Bethlehem Steel’s mills in the 1970s. But the industry was already in trouble when a major flood hit Johnstown in 1977. Bethlehem Steel left for good in 1992.

The poverty rate in this city of 19,800 is 38.7%, triple the statewide figure, according to the most recent census estimates.

“When he said 'American carnage,’ that hit me right in the belly,” Bonk, a Democrat who serves on Biden’s PA Rural Coalition, said of Trump’s inaugural address. “I felt it. It was real. It was carnage.”

As Bonk and other Democrats point out, Trump didn’t bring back the steel jobs. The unemployment rate in Cambria County fell slightly from 7.1% to 6.4% between January 2017, when Trump took office, and February 2020, before the onset of the pandemic. But that wasn’t driven by hiring: More people stopped looking for jobs and weren’t considered part of the workforce, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As of July, the unemployment rate had doubled to 13.1%.

‘They wanna burn our house down because I’m a Democrat'

If you turn on the radio these days in the Johnstown area, you’ll hear Biden fumbling his words as a narrator proclaims he’s too “weak” to be president. The message — pushed often by Trump but this time in an ad by a pro-Trump super PAC — resonates with some voters.

Chuck Voyda, 80, a retired public works director in Ebensburg, voted for Obama before supporting Trump in 2016. He’s sticking with the president.

“Biden has too many people pulling his strings,” Voyda said.

Like much of Cambria County, Ebensburg, a town of 3,200, is predominantly Catholic. The downtown area, which features dance studios, a farmers market, and a restaurant that serves craft beer, attracts thousands of visitors for its annual fall potato festival — canceled this year because of the pandemic.

Barbara Westrick, 69, a Biden supporter, doesn’t see much hope for him in the area. “We’re a rare commodity here,” she said.

Her husband, Mick, 70, suspects his pro-Trump neighbor has been stealing their Biden signs.

“They wanna burn our house down because I’m a Democrat,” said Mick Westrick, a retired Department of Corrections worker.

Sam Billetdeaux, 18, lives across the street. Billetdeaux, a high school senior, said he wants to go to trade school and might become a plumber. “I like being hands-on with the things I do,” he said outside his parents' house, where a Keep America Great banner hangs over the porch.

He’s casting his first vote for Trump. “He doesn’t put up with people’s BS,” Billetdeaux said.

‘Ready for fisticuffs’

Plenty of voters have little regard for Biden.

James Bender, 62, lives about 10 miles northeast of Ebensburg off Route 219, in a remote area on the outskirts of Loretto. Not far from his house, wind turbines tower over some 2,700 acres of farmland — one of several wind farms in the region. There are more small towns, miles of Trump signs, and others that declare, “All Lives Matter.”

On a Monday afternoon last month, Bender was drinking a Bud Light outside his garage. A truck driver who hauls coal and other freight, he had some time to relax until his next 300-mile haul at 3 a.m.

Two big flags welcome visitors out front: one showing Trump standing on a tank, and another in which Trump’s face is superimposed over Sylvester Stallone’s character in the movie Rambo, holding a machine gun.

“Four more years, he can get rid of that swamp there,” Bender said.

A former Democrat, he long ago stopped voting for the party’s presidential candidates — though he said Murtha “got a lot done for highways and everything around here.”

He chafed at Gov. Tom Wolf’s order to wear a face covering in public — “that ain’t never happening” — and lamented that Fox News had lost some of its punch.

He didn’t mince words about Biden: “I hated him with Obama and I hate the Clintons.”

Bender worries that undocumented immigrants and people on government assistance would get too much money under Biden. “The Lord said you live by the sweat of your brow,” he said.

» READ MORE: Women in Pittsburgh’s wealthy suburbs could help Biden beat Trump in Pennsylvania

Back in Ebensburg, Kathy Pettorini, a retired teacher, had been thinking about her Catholic faith. “God wants to turn back Roe v. Wade,” she recalled thinking after Trump won, referring to the Supreme Court’s landmark abortion ruling. She supports limited abortion rights and fears that outcome is even more likely after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

After the 2016 election, she taped a sign next to her front door that read “PROUD DEMOCRAT.”

To limit possible coronavirus exposure, Pettorini only leaves the house to go grocery shopping. As she sat down to talk about the election, she had a lot on her mind: About tyranny taking hold in the United States and nobody doing anything about it. The “super spreader” events across the street, where maskless neighbors gather for concerts. The “guilt and shame” she feels as she reads Caste, a new book about racism in America.

“I am so hot about this — you know what?” Pettorini said, pounding two books she’d fetched from her home. “I swear to God, I’m ready for fisticuffs!”

Every now and then, she sees a glimmer of hope. A woman new to the area recently stopped by to admire Pettorini’s plants.

Then, Pettorini recalled, the woman lowered her voice to a whisper to confess: “I like your sign.”