Trump campaign stalls in Pennsylvania

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PHILADELPHIA — For a few months, things were moving in the right direction for President Donald Trump in Pennsylvania.

Between July and September, he cut Joe Biden’s lead in half. But since then, Trump’s progress has stalled, even backslid: Biden is now up by 7 percentage points, according to polling averages.

To make matters worse, Trump has recently lost more voters here on the all-important question of which candidate can better manage the coronavirus pandemic. And Biden has cut into one of the president’s last remaining advantages in the race: his stewardship of the economy.

A few months ago, voters trusted Trump over Biden to handle the economy by double digits. Now, after millions of dollars’ worth of pro-Biden ads have bashed Trump, the two men are nearly tied on the issue.

Four years ago, when Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Pennsylvania since 1988, the state served as a key Rust Belt component of his coalition. This year, the state is just as critical: Both campaigns see Pennsylvania as the most likely tipping-point state in Electoral College.

Though the state polls were off in 2016 — Clinton was on top in almost every Pennsylvania survey that election cycle — Democrats say things feel differently on the ground this time.

“In 2016, like most people, I assumed Hillary Clinton would win. But I remember traveling to certain parts of Roxborough, and seeing some Trump activity. I thought to myself, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting,” said Rep. Dwight Evans, a top Biden ally in the state, referring to a neighborhood in his hometown of Philadelphia. “Democrats are far more organized now than four years ago. In my view, Joe Biden is much more fit for this state.”

In September, Biden’s campaign also got a boost from spending five times as much on TV, radio and digital ads as Trump, according to the firm Advertising Analytics.

Biden’s allies in the state believe that he will perform even more strongly than Clinton did in the Philadelphia suburbs, where she won all of the city’s collar counties. The Biden campaign is also looking to flip or make inroads in formerly Democratic counties in northeastern Pennsylvania that Trump took in 2016, as well as narrow Trump’s margins in the western part of the state.

“I think he’s probably 5 or 6 [points] ahead,” said former Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. “One, he’s running at maybe a little more than twice the margin that Hillary ran in the Philadelphia suburbs.”

Plus, he said, “Joe will do as well in the city as Hillary did … he’ll do better in Lackawanna [County] because he’s a hometown guy,” and “most of those rural counties, Joe will do better than Hillary — not dramatically better, but better.”

Trump’s campaign dismisses public polls, noting that they missed the mark in 2016. His aides think that he will boost turnout in Trump strongholds such as western Pennsylvania, as well as in the northeast. They point to the fact that the GOP has netted more registered voters than Democrats since 2016, including in those key regions where they predict Trump will grow his margin of victory.

“We’re working tirelessly here. Our committee has never been more organized,” said Gloria Lee Snover, chair of the Northampton County Republican Party. “I think it’s more energized than 2016. I can’t keep Trump signs in. People are fighting over them.”

Though recent surveys show Trump winning less support in Philadelphia and its suburbs than in 2016, city Republicans also believe he’ll perform at least as well there as he did that year.

“When I was running for city council last year, I knocked on the doors of 30,000 of our targeted voters,” said Matthew Wolfe, a GOP ward leader in Philadelphia. “I don’t feel the enthusiasm for Biden in the Bernie Sanders progressive community. They’re going to vote for him if they vote, but I think that the lack of enthusiasm will knock the vote down a peg or two. And I do see some anger. Every time a looter smashes a window on Chestnut Street, Trump picks up some votes.”

Despite Biden’s streak of good polling, both Democrats and Republicans still expect the race will be close, just like it was when Trump clinched victory by less than 1 percentage point here in 2016.

If it does end up being an incredibly tight race on Nov. 3, some Democrats worry about absentee ballots being thrown out for technical reasons since Biden voters are much more likely than Trump voters to vote by mail. One election official estimated that upwards of 100,000 mail ballots — a number that is twice Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton here in 2016 — could be tossed because they lacked the proper envelopes.

Democrats also fear voter intimidation, especially after Trump called on his supporters to “go into the polls” and “watch very carefully” during a September debate. And they’re nervous about the impact of Covid-19 on typical electioneering: Biden’s campaign, unlike Trump’s, only recently began door-knocking again after abandoning it for months in order to reduce the spread of the virus.

“Covid scares the daylights out of me because I don’t think that a lot of the traditional stuff Democrats do — I don’t know if we’re able to get it done to the degree that you did in ’08 and ’12 and ’16 when Republicans are doing everything they can statewide to still suppress the vote,” said Neil Oxman, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic admaker.

There has also been speculation that the GOP-controlled state legislature might try to directly appoint electors, using alleged fraud as a justification. But Republicans have denied it.

“I have had zero contact with the Trump administration, campaign or others about changing Pennsylvania’s long-standing tradition of appointing electors consistent with the popular vote,” Republican state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman told POLITICO.

Still, the possibility renewed Democrats’ calls to maximize turnout, especially in Philadelphia: The bigger Biden’s lead, they believe, the less likely a nightmare scenario will come to fruition.

“People on the ground who are working on this election can change the outcome in Pennsylvania based on how hard we work now and then,” said Ben Waxman, a Philadelphia-based progressive strategist. “If that work continues, then we’re in good shape. But if it doesn’t, then we won’t.”

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