Pennsylvania is a target for both Trump and Biden. But what do voters want?
The result of the 2020 presidential election could come down to families in South Philadelphia, Puerto Rican voters in Reading and Allentown, and blue-collar workers in a string of communities hugging the Appalachian Mountains.
President Donald Trump knows it. So does Joe Biden.
Flipping Pennsylvania may have been Trump's biggest victory in 2016. On Monday, he is holding a rally in a county where he won 60 percent of the vote.
In the days after Biden launched his campaign, he courted union workers in Pittsburgh and schmoozed donors in Philadelphia. On Saturday, he is holding a kickoff rally in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“Quite frankly, folks," Biden said at a Pittsburgh union hall, "If I’m going to be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it’s going to happen here."
The News Journal spoke to more than 40 voters in Pennsylvania counties where Trump won more votes than recent Republicans. Polling experts say many of these counties are key to winning in 2020.
The question: Can Trump keep that advantage or can Biden flip it back?
Some voters simply want the president out of the White House. Others are unflinching Trump supporters. Then there are those who teeter in their support for Trump, calling Biden "a good guy," while dismissing other Democrats.
The former vice president is using that appeal, in part, to build a political brand that is polling well in Pennsylvania.
A recent Quinnipiac Poll of Pennsylvania voters showed Biden with 39 percent of support from Democrats who are likely to vote in next year's primaries. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders came in second with 13 percent.
In a hypothetical general election contest against Trump, Biden collected 53 percent support versus Trump's 42 percent, according to the poll. Also topping Trump in head to head polling were Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
A News Journal analysis of the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections show Trump gained the most Pennsylvania votes in the Scranton, Erie, York, Reading and Pottsville areas, as well as in Philadelphia.
While many voters say they are uncertain about who they will back next year, some said they are unsure if they will even vote. One woman in Biden's hometown of Scranton said she couldn't pick the former vice president out of a lineup.
In a quiet Scranton diner, where “The Andy Griffith Show” played on the single TV, Wendy Brogan took a deep breath before talking about the 2020 presidential election.
“I just want to see Trump out of the White House,” said the 68-year-old.
“Put me down for that too,” said her friend, sitting across from her.
“I wish Biden was 10 years younger,” Brogan said. “But if he makes it, I would vote for him.”
Boulevard Diner is less than a mile from Biden’s childhood home. Although Biden spent most of his life in Delaware, Scranton residents still remember his parents, Jean and Joseph, Brogan said.
In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton narrowly won Lackawanna County, where Scranton is the largest city, by a margin of about 3,500 votes.In 2012, President Barack Obama won the county by 26,500 votes.
Many people here, she said, identify Biden as one of their own and appreciate his values.
Wy Gowell, 77, still remembers playing Little League baseball with Biden as a boy. The retired Air Force colonel described him as a “feisty guy.”
Today, Gowell, who lives in Clarks Summit, describes himself as a “staunch” progressive Democrat. But he feels Biden, who is running for president for the third time, has missed his moment.
“I like Biden,” Gowell said. “I don’t think it’s his time. I feel bad saying that.”
Gowell believes the important political issues are bringing “honesty and transparency” to government, combating climate change and making health care more affordable.
He likes Sanders, the Vermont senator, as a presidential candidate because of his “good ideas.” He would also like to see a female president.
When University of Scranton nursing student Sarah Robinson, 20, learned of Biden running for president, she remembers thinking “Oh, thank god.”
The college sophomore thinks of Biden as “such a cool guy” and “loves his pictures with Obama.”
“He’s the only one for sure who can get the president out of office,” she said.
A dimly lit bar in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where patrons smoked cigarettes and ate hot butter garlic wings, is one of the few non-chain restaurants open on Monday night.
Other diners and bars in the surrounding area are out of business, boarded up and marked by graffiti.
Luzerne County, which touches the Appalachians, has faced economic hardship for years, with the decline of the coal industry and thousands of manufacturing jobs disappearing.
In this county, where Wilkes-Barre is the biggest city, Obama won by about 6,000 votes in 2012. Hillary Clinton lost the county by 26,000 votes in 2016.
Three of the six customers at the 4th Street Pub supported the president and planned to vote for him again in 2020. They like that Trump is not a career politician. He’s a businessman who, they believe, will put more money in their bank account.
They don’t care about the news reported about him, including the “stuff about the taxes.”
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Mike Stola, 49, who works at a plastics plant in Hazleton, plans to once again vote for Trump. He believes the president has followed through on what he campaigned on in 2016, specifically with immigration. Stolla added that Biden’s career as a senator doesn’t impress him.
“If he’s sitting right here,” Stolla said. “I’d tell him he’s an a--hole.”
The last Republican presidential candidate to win Erie County was Ronald Reagan in 1984.In 2016, Trump beat Clinton by a margin of 1,957 votes.
Jim Wertz, president of the Erie Democrats, said no presidential candidate has won Pennsylvania without winning Erie. Looking back, Wertz recognizes why Democrats lost. Four years earlier, Obama won the county by about 18,000 votes.
There wasn’t much outreach by the Clinton campaign, Wertz said. Clinton never visited the area. Trump, on the other hand, held an arena rally that drew thousands of people.
Wertz said he’s already had conversations with several, major presidential campaigns about candidates visiting Erie, though he declined to say who.
He noted that there’s a faction of “very staunch Biden supporters” in parts of the county. But added that there’s also been interest in Sanders, California Senator Kamala Harris and O’Rourke among voters.
Nancy Robertson, 82, did not like Trump when he was running for president – and dislikes him even more now.
Trump overwhelmingly won York County in 2016, garnering more than 60 percent of the vote. Yet registered Republicans like Robertson and Peggy Vernon do not plan to vote for the president in 2020.
“I don’t think we need to put up with this stuff in this day and age,” Vernon said of Trump’s behavior, “and I just don’t think he’s that smart.”
Robertson said she thinks she’ll vote for Biden, since he’s “such a good man.” Vernon isn’t sure what Democratic candidate she wants to vote for.
Mike Vernon, Peggy’s husband, is interested in Buttigieg. The 63-year-old office manager and Democrat finds the millennial candidate to be progressive. The York resident isn’t so sure about Biden at this point.
“He would have to prove himself,” Mike Vernon said.
Nick Tioma, 26, and a registered Democrat, is also unsure about Biden as the party’s nominee. He doesn’t support one candidate quite yet, he’s still waiting for a candidate to “emerge.”
“I want someone different,” Tioma said.
In many sections of Reading, the seat of Berks County, Spanish is more common than English, as large communities with origins in Puerto Rico and South America form its backbone.
Many who spoke with The News Journal said they didn't vote in 2016. What good does it do when the political class pays them little attention, they said.
“I don’t follow politics because, all of them, it’s the same thing,” said Daniel Serrano, a Reading-area resident.
The sentiment likely helped fuel Democrats' 4,500-vote loss in the county from 2012 to 2016. Republicans gained nearly 12,000.
Voter turnout in the city historically has been low, said Rick Olmos, chief operating officer of Centro Hispano of Reading and Berks County. That trend reversed in a recent citywide election after his group held a candidates forum in both English and Spanish, he said
Asked if he expects higher turnout to continue into the 2020 general election, Olmos said it "remains to be seen."
There should be greater number of voters overall in Reading and in Philadelphia, he said, because of a recent influx of thousands of people who had fled hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
Twenty miles and a culture away from Reading is the village of Morgantown, also in Berks County. Along the traditional main street is Morgantown Market, a shop with a strict no politics rule.
Whereas Reading is a traditional Democratic stronghold, Morgantown is where many have switched party allegiances and consequently, it has seen its share of cruel political sniping.
Stacey Thompson, owner of the market, said she just wants to "be inclusive to everyone." Political discussions in recent years have boiled over into name calling and hurt feelings, she said.
“Civil discussion,” she said, “it just can’t occur anymore.”
In the big city, there seems to be little fear of offending someone, politically. Whether on Market Street in West Philadelphia or the Penrose Diner in South Philly, residents enjoy boldly declaring their political allegiances.
John Flocco, a retired demolition worker, said it's because when Philadelphians decide they like you, "you're good."
“I think this country needs a president that don’t take no guff,” said Flocco, a Trump supporter who says Biden is a "good guy" and is "mostly honest."
The city saw a 17,000-vote swing in favor of Republicans in Philadelphia between 2012 and 2016, though it remains solidly Democratic.
Malyk Brice, a market researcher from West Philadelphia, said the next Democratic presidential candidate is likely to win back many of those voters. Clinton lost Pennsylvania, he said, after her debate performance against Trump.
“It was like, ‘you’re being petty like he’s being petty, and you’re kind of turning me off,” he said.
Brice doesn’t believe Biden would suffer from a similar slide in popularity, because he expects him to campaign on the streets of cities and towns that matter.
Still, he isn’t certain if Biden will be his choice among the more than 20 Democrats. Sanders and Harris also are appealing.
“Anybody else is better than Trump,” he said.
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