President Donald Trump famously said during the presidential debate that “bad things happen in Philadelphia.”
But some good things happen for Trump here, too.
He defeated Hillary Clinton in two of the city’s 66 wards in 2016, besting Mitt Romney’s performance from four years earlier by winning areas of South and Northeast Philadelphia. Clinton still won the overwhelmingly Democratic city by 67 percentage points, but the extra votes for Trump were significant in a state he won by less than 1 point.
Another good thing for Trump? Even the Democratic leaders of the 26th and 66th Wards see potential for Trump to win there again.
Ron Donatucci, the 26th Ward Democratic leader, said Trump remains strong in neighborhoods south of Passyunk Avenue and west of Broad Street, like Packer Park, Girard Estates, and the Reserve.
“They’re big Trump people,” Donatucci said of residents who swarmed to protect the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza over the summer. “They’re law and order fans. No matter what I do, there’s no stopping their sentiment for the president.”
John Florio, a Democrat-turned-Republican in the 26th Ward, said his neighbors are concerned about crime and racial strife in the city, and don’t think Trump gets fair treatment from the news media. He’s sticking with his man.
“Right now, everybody’s upside down,” said Florio, a 44-year-old who owns a contracting business. “They’re scared. If Biden wins, we are in trouble for real, every one of us.”
The 66th Ward, north of Grant Avenue and east of Roosevelt Boulevard, is so large the Democratic City Committee splits it into two. John Del Ricci, the leader of Ward 66B, noted that his area is home to many police officers and firefighters who support Trump. Del Ricci has seen Democrats who are willing to vote Republican or even change their party registration.
“It just seems the far Northeast always votes Republican in presidential races,” he said. “That tells me this could be a dogfight up here.”
Del Ricci hopes Biden will prove a more “likable” candidate than Clinton, calling him a “normal, day-to-day guy.”
Shawn Dillon, leader of Ward 66A, sees a difference from four years ago, when fewer people in his area were public about their support for Trump. That has changed, and it has taken on an angry tone, he said.
“We’re a neighborhood of middle-class, hardworking people who believe in law and order, and they’re upset up there about the things that are going on in our city,” Dillon said. “I’m hoping there is a Biden undercurrent, people keeping their mouths shut, not looking to get into any arguments with their neighbors.”
Jim Lonergan, a 75-year-old retired Philadelphia firefighter, said he has admired Biden as “a true and sincere individual” for years, but thinks the former vice president sold out his moderate principles to win the nomination. Lonergan, a Republican who supported Trump four years ago, still likes the president’s “aggressiveness.”
“I think Trump came along for me personally at a time when I had nearly given up on politics,” Lonergan said. “Here was someone who said, ‘all is not done, there’s a fresh way of looking at this.’ ”
With the exception of a televised ABC town hall last month that drew hundreds of protesters and a much smaller band of supporters, Trump has not campaigned in Philadelphia this year. His visits to Pennsylvania have mostly focused on blue-collar areas of Northeastern and Southwestern Pennsylvania, like Scranton and Johnstown.
Vice President Mike Pence visited Philadelphia’s police union hall in July, drawing hundreds of supporters and protesters to the Fraternal Order of Police’s Lodge 5 headquarters in the 66th Ward. That event provoked scrutiny for the FOP and some of its members, who mingled with members of the alt-right group “Proud Boys,” a self-described “western chauvinist” group that backs Trump and that the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as a hate group.
Local Republican leaders were reluctant to discuss the race. State Rep. Martina White, chair of the Republican City Committee, did not respond to requests for comment. White’s district includes parts of the 66th Ward.
White is being challenged in the Nov. 3 election by Democrat Mike Doyle, who lost to her by more than 15 percentage points in 2018.
While registered Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one citywide, that advantage drops to just two to one in White’s district. White won a 2015 special election for the 170th State House district seat, replacing Brendan Boyle, who had won a seat in the U.S. House. Boyle, first elected in the 170th District in 2008, is the only Democrat to have held the seat.
Boyle noted that Clinton underperformed in blue-collar, working-class areas of Pennsylvania, from his old district all the way to Erie County in the opposite corner of the state. He sees reversing that as key to a Biden victory. Like Trump, Biden has mostly campaigned in white, working-class areas of the state, including ones that flipped from Obama to Trump.
“By performance, this has always been a seat that leans Republican at the local level,” Boyle said. “There are a lot of swing voters here and the natural default in the far Northeast at the local level is toward the Republican side over the Democratic side.”
It has not helped that Democratic elected officials and ward leaders have been engaged for years in a bitter contest for control of this large swath of Northeast Philadelphia — a battle that benefits Republicans.
Theresa Dintino, Republican leader of the 26th Ward in South Philadelphia, declined to discuss Trump’s campaign in her area. “It’s a very divisive issue and I’d rather avoid talking about it,” she said.
Rachel Lee, a spokesperson for Trump Victory, the combined effort of the president’s campaign and the Republican National Committee, said in a statement her group has “continued to increase and amplify our presence in Philadelphia.”
"We are reaching Philadelphia voters every day through our permanent, data drive ground game, as well as connecting with voters at our Black Voices for Trump and Latino Voices for Trump offices in Philadelphia,” Lee said.
Republicans have gained ground when it comes to voter registration in both wards since 2016. Republicans have increased their share of registered voters from 23% to 31% in the 26th Ward, and from about 34% to 36% in the 66th Ward. The number of registered Democrats has stayed largely flat in both wards over the last four years.
Sincerè Harris, a senior adviser for the Biden campaign in Pennsylvania, said Democratic voter outreach is citywide and not focused on any particular ward.
“The city of Philadelphia has always been a key base for us,” she said. “It is crucial for any statewide turnout. That’s no different for this campaign.”
Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this report.