With Pennsylvania’s coronavirus caseload surging, President Donald Trump asserted in Erie Tuesday that the pandemic is almost over, again attempting to defy reality on an issue that has hobbled his campaign and shadowed the country.
"We’re rounding the turn on the pandemic,” Trump said as he rallied cheering supporters in one of the most hotly contested and symbolically weighted parts of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania, in fact, has averaged 1,460 new cases a day over the past seven days, according to an Inquirer analysis, the highest since mid-April. Experts are widely warning about a potential fall and winter surge of the virus, which has killed more than 220,000 people in the U.S..
Trump has been asserting that the country is “rounding the turn” on the pandemic for nearly two months, at least. He used the same phrase during a Sept. 3 rally in Latrobe, and has continued to do so since, even after contracting it himself.
First Lady Melania Trump, who was scheduled to travel with the president Tuesday, still had a lingering cough after her bout with the virus and did not attend out of an abundance of caution, according to her aides.
Erie County, with a proud but diminished manufacturing tradition in the state’s northwest corner, has been a nationally watched bellwether ever since it swung sharply in 2016, shifting from its solidly Democratic past to narrowly favor Trump.
Now, both parties are looking to Erie to gauge how strongly Trump has held onto the disaffected Democrats who supported him last election — or if some have slipped away. Democrat Joe Biden campaigned there earlier this month.
The president’s speech Tuesday, including his false assertion on the virus, struck to a mostly familiar script two weeks before Election Day, as his window for a comeback narrowed and polls suggest that he’s still behind Biden in Pennsylvania and nationally.
Needing to change the trajectory of a race that has held steady for months, according to public surveys, Trump mostly rehashed attacks on Biden and the news media while returning to promises of an economic recovery and strong support for police. He hit many of the same notes as he did at a rally last week in Johnstown. He added a specific line about 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl, who had recorded an interview with him.
“You have to watch what we’re going to do to 60 Minutes," Trump said, in a statement that played to his base’s disdain for the media, but seemed unlikely to move the average voter. "Leslie Stahl’s not going to be happy.”
But Trump, as he has throughout his presidency, stuck to the defiant tone that has won him fervent support from some, but left him in a struggle for reelection.
U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, a Republican who represents Erie, briefly joined Trump on stage and, referring to the president’s bout with the coronavirus, said, "There’s no flu that’s gonna keep this man down!” Kelly contracted the virus himself, saying earlier this year that he lost 30 pounds while sickened.
Majorities of voters have consistently given Trump poor marks for his handling of the virus, and said they trust Biden more to lead the country out of the pandemic. The rally, like most Trump events, packed huge numbers of people close together, without social distancing.
Trump spoke as voting is already well underway in Pennsylvania, a state both parties believe could decide the election. Just over 1 million Pennsylvanians had returned mail ballots as of Tuesday afternoon, out of 2.8 million mailed to voters so far. Democrats have requested the majority — 64% — of those ballots.
Former President Barack Obama is scheduled to campaign in Philadelphia on Wednesday, further signaling the importance of a state that both parties believe could decide the election.
“If we win Pennsylvania, we win the whole thing,” Trump said.
He also asserted that the media would be too bored if Biden won: “If you had sleepy Joe nobody’s going to be interested in politics anymore.”
The Erie County swing from Obama to Trump — 21,000 votes in all — was one of the biggest in Pennsylvania and crystallized Trump’s appeal to white, working class voters who had seen their economic fortunes sag. It helped power Trump to narrow but decisive victories in the industrial Midwest, including a razor-thin 44,000 vote victory in Pennsylvania.
At one point Tuesday, Trump joked that he wouldn’t have returned the county if the virus hadn’t struck and put him into a competitive race.
Trump has placed a heavy emphasis on consolidating his blue collar base.
“If Biden wins, China wins, if Biden wins, China will own the USA," he said Tuesday night.
Erie County Democratic leaders said the president failed to deliver the economic rebound he promised, even before the pandemic. They said Erie has had some of the slowest economic growth in the nation, citing a 2018 study from WalletHub, a personal finance website. And they said that despite Trump touting Opportunity Zones that receive tax credits for development, most in Erie had seen little private investment.
“We have areas of high need, high poverty that are being ignored and the people there are being ignored,” said State Rep. Bob Merski, who represents the county. “When you get down to the ground level and you talk to people and folks in our community, this economy’s not working for them.”
Just last week Wabtec, one of the county’s largest employers, announced another 150 layoffs at the locomotive-building facility there. The company blamed the economic effects of the pandemic.
Trump’s visit to the critical battleground within the critical swing state came just two days before a scheduled presidential debate widely seen as his last, best chance to change the trajectory of a race he has consistently trailed.
And it came a day before former Obama was scheduled to hold a drive-in rally at Citizens Bank Park.
Other indicators aside from the mail ballot requests point to voters being highly motivated in an election that people in both parties see in almost apocalyptic terms. Pennsylvania surpassed 9 million registered voters, reaching what the Department of State said is a record high. There are now 4.2 million registered Democrats in the state, 3.5 million Republicans, and 1.3 million registered as independent or with third parties.
Republicans have narrowed the registration gap, though it’s unclear if that reflects new voters siding with Trump, or existing supporters changing their party affiliation to match their votes.
“The president can only see the world from Park Avenue,” Biden said during his stop. “I see it from Scranton. … You all know what I’m talking about. You all see it from Erie.”
Trump’s rally comes as his campaign has pulled back advertising in some key battlegrounds, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio, but has kept pouring resources and time in Pennsylvania — which his campaign sees as a key piece of his path to reelection.
Biden has held a steady, roughly 5 to 8 percentage point lead in public polling in Pennsylvania, one that’s narrow enough for even a small shift to make for a tight finish.