Pennsylvania was supposed to be a dogfight in this year’s presidential race.
Decided by less than 1 percentage point in 2016 and crucial to the electoral math for both President Donald Trump and Joe Biden, both parties began the year prepared for a scrap to the finish. But 99 days from Election Day, public polls suggest that, at the moment, Biden isn’t just winning. He’s winning big.
In fact, the presumptive Democratic nominee has never looked better positioned to win back the state and the White House.
“It’s shifted in Biden’s favor from 18 months ago,” said Bradley Beychok, president of American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC that has focused on eroding Trump’s support in the so-called Blue Wall states where Trump shocked Democrats in 2016: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
“Now Biden is the clear favorite in all three,” Beychok said.
A Fox News poll of Pennsylvania released Thursday was the latest evidence. It found Biden with an 11- percentage point lead as Trump sinks under the weight of his flailing response to the coronavirus, a cratered economy, and his stoking of racial animosity in the face of protests demanding equality. Recent Pennsylvania surveys from Monmouth University and the New York Times/Siena College also showed Biden ahead by 13 and 10 points, respectively, both findings in line with national polls that also show him opening a large and steady lead.
By comparison, in July 2016 Hillary Clinton led Trump by about 3 percentage points in Pennsylvania, according to an average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics, though her lead grew to about 9 points as late as October before collapsing.
Interviews with almost two dozen elected officials, party leaders, voters, and political operatives, along with numerous public polls, paint a picture of tentative optimism from Democrats as Trump struggles with America’s crises. But people in both parties say Pennsylvania remains a hotly contested battleground that could still end up as another close call on Election Day.
“I am very optimistic and confident about winning Pennsylvania and winning nationally,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat and early Biden supporter. “Donald Trump has shown himself clearly incapable of leading us during a crisis. I think most Americans’ minds are made up on that score and right now it’s the most important issue, and it’ll remain the most important issue until we’re beyond this crisis.”
Most other Democrats were more tentative, but often portrayed their biggest concern as potential complacency, rather than Trump’s strength.
“Our message ... [to allies] is we cannot take a single vote for granted,” said Steve Pierce, a spokesperson for Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC investing heavily in Pennsylvania. “We cannot take our foot off the gas for a single moment.”
And as the coronavirus death toll nears 150,000 and economic pain continues, even some Republicans say Trump will struggle to turn attention anywhere else, especially if current trends continue.
“The question moving forward I think in everyone’s mind is very simple, and that is: Is the spread slowing?” said former Republican Congressman Ryan Costello, of Chester County, who has been critical of Trump’s conduct. “Are kids going to be able to go back to schools safely? Is my job secure? Are we going to get back to normalization sometime in the foreseeable future? And has the president provided leadership and clarity when it comes to those issues? I don’t think that at this point he has improved his political situation over the last four or five months.”
Other Pennsylvania Republicans say that Trump’s 2016 upset win shows public polls can’t be trusted, and they argue that Biden will wilt under scrutiny.
“When you get Joe Biden out of his basement and having to actually speak his own words rather than reading other people’s, you’re gong to see a very, very different dynamic in this campaign,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist from Harrisburg who is supporting Trump.
Despite creeping optimism, most Democrats are wary of putting too much stock in this one moment.
“All Democrats have PTSD from 2016,” said Pierce, of Priorities USA.
Indeed, while the Monmouth survey found Biden with a strong lead, a majority of those polled also believed “secret Trump voters” could ultimately swing the November election.
Jon Cutler, of Flourtown, tries to ignore the happy somersaults in his stomach when polls show Trump plummeting.
“We saw what happened in 2016,” said Cutler, a rabbi and member of the national group Republicans Against Trump. “Am I confident? Absolutely not. I’m scared.”
Recent polls point to an erosion in two groups that were critical to Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania: white working-class voters and seniors. The two demographics helped him win Rust Belt swing states that are whiter and older than the country as a whole, allowing him to clinch an Electoral College victory despite losing the popular vote.
The Monmouth poll found Trump with a 16-point advantage among white Pennsylvanians without a college degree. That’s half his margin from four years ago. Among those over the age of 65, who are especially endangered by the coronavirus, Biden led by 10 percentage points — a reversal from when Trump won the group by 10.
James Perry, a 28-year-old digital marketing manager from Pittsburgh, added his testimonial to the Republicans Against Trump website. Perry voted for Trump in 2016 but now backs Biden. He’s persuaded his mother, an aunt, and an uncle to make the same switch.
“I don’t want to get my hopes up just to be thrown down,” Perry said in an interview. “But it’s really encouraging to me the amount of people who have messaged me saying they’re in the same boat. It’s not just me.”
Those shifts are on top of the continuing energy Democrats see in suburbs, where college-educated women have driven major gains the last three years. The Fox poll showed Trump with 28% approval among suburban women in Pennsylvania, and 71% disapproval.
“There’s a general sense of optimism,” said Matthew Munsey, Democratic chair of Northampton County, which Trump flipped last election. “I think there have been times when people felt like Trump’s base was un-crackable and regardless of what lows he sunk to, that they were going to stick with him — and I think people are now seeing an upswing the other way.”
Trump has alienated some of his voters with his response to the nationwide protests, Munsey thinks. His region’s biggest cities, Allentown and Bethlehem, had demonstrations, but so did smaller towns that hadn’t seen that kind of activism before. “It’s awakened a deep sense of moral responsibility for our communities where people would have never expected it before,” Munsey said.
That, compounded by Trump’s handling of the virus, he thinks, will cost him votes, even if the situation improves by November.
“Can things get better? Sure they can,” Munsey said. “But it doesn’t change that he allowed them to get this bad.”
“People want competent leadership again,” said Brendan McPhillips, Biden’s Pennsylvania state director. “I think that’s the overriding theme.”
No matter what polls show, both parties still expect the race to tighten, and are continuing to invest millions of dollars in advertising and staffing — and campaign time — in the state.
A Priorities USA chart ranking the states by their political leanings and electoral impact still rates Pennsylvania as the “tipping point” most likely to decide who wins. Even as some Democrats dream of a landslide that sweeps up Texas or Georgia, Priorities officials said they plan to continue focusing on Pennsylvania and five other core battlegrounds.
Republicans dream of again delivering an Election Day gut punch to Trump’s optimistic opponents.
“When it comes to the president and polling, I look back to what everyone was saying in 2016 and then I put this on top of it,” said Rep. Fred Keller, a central Pennsylvania Republican who says he hears intense support for the president in his more rural district. “This is what people believe: The person best able to lead the great American comeback is our president because he did it before.”
Jackie Kulback, the GOP chair in Cambria County, doesn’t believe polls because she doesn’t think Trump supporters are inclined to answer.
“You get called racist. You get called xenophobic. People don’t want that so they just have their opinions and keep them to themselves,” Kulback said.
Kulback, a former CFO at Gautier Steel, said Biden’s environmental plans are not playing well with people who work in coal-fired electric plants and manufacturing in the area. Republicans say those views will also hurt the former vice president in Western Pennsylvania, where fracking is a major industry.
“He’s making it quite clear he would support a carbon tax and that would hurt every heavy industry in our region.”
She said there’s a fervor for Trump that feels the way it did in 2016. A recent concert on a lake in Somerset County unexpectedly became a Trump boat parade.
Republicans also argue that Biden will fumble in televised debates with the pugilistic president, and Trump sees recent protests, and his pledges of law and order as a way to win back suburban voters. The Trump campaign says it is far ahead of Biden when it comes to staffing, with 100 paid organizers who were in Pennsylvania months before Biden’s team got set. Voter registrations are also moving in the GOP’s direction.
“The state of the race is good,” said Ted Christian, senior adviser to the Trump campaign in Pennsylvania. “We really made an unprecedented investment and have an organization that’s unparalleled. As someone that was around four years ago, I can definitely vouch for that.”
He expects to improve the president’s performance in the suburbs and hopes to also do even better in postindustrial areas, such as Northeast Pennsylvania, that swung hard in Trump’s favor in 2016.
But as Trump aims to drag down Biden, Costello said the attacks could backfire.
“I think a lot of voters will look at that and feel that the president isn’t prioritizing what matters most, which is the safety of their family and the security of their job,” he said.
The conventional wisdom holds that, eventually, Pennsylvania will almost always be tight. But in such an unpredictable moment, Costello said, it’s also possible the trends get worse for the president — especially if schools don’t reopen in September.