5 questions that will help decide the presidential race in Pennsylvania

©The Philadelphia Inquirer

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference at the North Portico of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 7, 2020. - Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — When a major Democratic political group presented a chart last week projecting each party’s path to victory in the presidential race, Pennsylvania sat dead center: the state most likely to decide the winner, and one of the most competitive.

It’s so closely balanced that it’s impossible to name just one key to winning. Any number of factors meshing in a variety of ways could decide the result and determine whether President Donald Trump or Democrat Joe Biden wins the White House.

“We expect a tight race, we expect the race to remain relatively stable, we expect the map to remain relatively narrow,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, which created the chart and rates Pennsylvania as the most likely “tipping point” state. Priorities sees just six core battlegrounds: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina.

In 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes out of more than six million cast, less than 1% — so even small movements could alter the outcome.

Like several other swing states, Pennsylvania leans slightly more toward Pennsylvania leans slightly more toward Trump than the country overall. So even though Biden, strategists in both parties expect the state to remain competitive and contested to the end. Its importance was demonstrated last week when Biden, Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence all visited in a four-day span. Biden was back in the state Monday with stops in Harrisburg and Lancaster, and Pence is due back Wednesday.

As the post-Labor Day sprint begins, here’s a look at five questions whose answers could sway the outcome.

HOW TRUMP IS ‘TRUMP COUNTRY’?

Rural and small-city Pennsylvania had already been trending toward Republicans — but in 2016 Trump put that into overdrive, winning those areas with eye-popping margins that helped him overcome big Democratic numbers in the big cities and suburbs.

Trump is aiming for even more this time: There’s a reason he was in Westmoreland County in Southwest Pennsylvania on Thursday, two days after Pence went to Luzerne County in the state’s Northeast. “It’s Trump country now,” Pence said.

From opposite corners of the state, voters in Luzerne and Westmoreland embody the core of Trump’s support: largely white, working-class voters whose union ties once tethered them to Democrats, but who have shifted toward the GOP as the parties became more rigidly divided on issues like gun control, same-sex marriage, and abortion rights. In Trump, many saw a fighter for people who felt left behind by a global economy, worried about a changing country, and disrespected by coastal elites.

Trump’s path to winning Pa. runs through small Rust Belt towns — like one near Biden’s hometown”We fully intend to not only do what we did four years ago, but to squeeze a little bit more out of those regions,” said Ted Christian, a top Trump campaign adviser in Pennsylvania. To that end, Trump and his allies have falsely attacked Biden on fracking, saying he would ban the controversial drilling technique. Biden has repeatedly said he would not do so, and reiterated that position in Pittsburgh last week.

Polls, voter registration trends, and interviews with dozens of voters over the last month suggest few people in these areas are returning to the Democrats.

Still, Democrats note that some of their candidates, including Sen. Bob Casey and Gov. Tom Wolf, fared better in those regions in 2018.

And Biden aides argue that the former vice president can reach some of those voters. He has Scranton roots and is more popular than Hillary Clinton was.

“Voters there know who he is,” said Brendan McPhillips, Biden’s Pennsylvania state director. “They look at Joe Biden and they see someone who’s a good, decent man, and understands and shares in their pain.”

While it’s unlikely Biden can win back these places, even a small dip for Trump could prove devastating, since the president has done little to broaden his appeal elsewhere.

If Trump can boost his supporters’ turnout figures, though, that would put more pressure on Biden to rack up big gains in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and the suburbs.

HOW BLUE ARE THE SUBURBS?

For the suburbs, reverse everything we just wrote.

Places like Chester and Delaware Counties that had been trending Democratic ran away from Trump in 2016 and have kept running.

Most of the Democratic gains in the 2018 midterm elections came from affluent suburban areas where voters — driven by newly energized and politically active women — revolted against Trump and the GOP. Many were disgusted by the president’s conduct and abrasive style. (That’s probably why Trump’s daughter Ivanka and daughter-in-law Lara headlined events in Chester and Bucks Counties, respectively, last week.)

Democrats hope (and Republicans worry) the trend could keep going. Of the five Pennsylvania media markets Trump won in 2016, four have lost population, said Republican strategist Christopher Nicholas. (The Harrisburg market is the exception). Meanwhile, Democratic areas like Southeastern Pennsylvania are growing.

“Was 2018 the high-water mark for Democrats … or was it just part of the arc?” Nicholas wondered.

And it’s not just the Philadelphia suburbs: Democrats have also scored victories outside Pittsburgh, and are gaining voters (though more slowly) around Harrisburg.

Trump has tried to win back some of these voters with his “law-and-order” focus, arguing that Democrats would bring crime and destruction to the suburbs. Biden used his visit to Pittsburgh last week to condemn rioting and looting, and began using the speech in television ads.

It’s not clear the issue has gained Trump any advantage. A CNN poll released last week found Biden leading Trump by 6 percentage points on the question of who will better keep Americans safe. And an ABC/Ipsos survey found that 55% think Trump’s rhetoric is making the unrest worse, while just 13% said he’s making it better.

WILL PHILLY TURN OUT?

Pennsylvania’s two biggest cities are the foundation of Democratic support in the state. While key swing-state cities like Detroit and Milwaukee saw steep voting declines in 2016, costing Democrats in states that Clinton narrowly lost, the dip in Philadelphia was negligible. Clinton got more than 99% of the vote total Barack Obama had in 2012.

Democrats are still hoping to pull even more this time around, banking on antipathy toward Trump from progressives and voters of color.

The Biden campaign hopes California Sen. Kamala Harris, the first woman of color on a major-party presidential ticket, can help energize nonwhite voters, and they featured her in a new ad promising police reform.

Priorities USA said increasing turnout from people of color is one of its main focuses for the homestretch.

“Voters of color are the heart of the Democratic Party,” said Cecil, the group’s chair.

Yet even in Philadelphia, there are pockets of opportunity for Trump, who won two largely white working-class wards in 2016, in Northeast and South Philadelphia.

WHAT DOES COVID SAY ABOUT IT?

It has been the dominant factor in American life for six months, killing almost 200,000 and putting millions out of work.

Some surveys suggest the coronavirus has faded in importance at the moment, even as it kills about 1,000 people in the United States every day. But an even greater surge in cases and deaths, or, conversely, an easing of the pandemic, could shape voters’ moods.

And while doctors and scientists say it’s highly unlikely, Trump has hyped the possibility of having a vaccine before Election Day. That would be a major development, if enough people trust it’s safe and not rushed for political advantage.

So much flows from the effects of the virus. An economic recovery is likely to hinge on the pandemic’s course. The question of whether schools reopen safely, and stay open, looms large.

Even less tangible parts of life could weigh on the election atmosphere. If the World Series is canceled, or the NFL season starts and stops, it could be an ominous reminder of a health crisis.

There’s probably a reason Trump has pushed the Big Ten to reconsider its decision to postpone fall sports. The conference includes flagship sports programs in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Minnesota.

WHOSE VOTES WILL GET COUNTED?

There’s never been so much uncertainty in recent memory about the foundation of any election: voting.

Pennsylvania is expecting a deluge of mail ballots unlike anything in its history, as many voters try to avoid the potential health risks of crowded polling places. The U.S. Postal Service has warned that ballots requested and mailed close to Election Day might not be delivered fast enough to meet Pennsylvania’s deadline.

If voters in certain regions or demographic groups struggle to use mail ballots, face long lines, or stay away from polls because of virus concerns, it could make a difference.

Even the rules are still in flux with multiple lawsuits challenging things like mail ballot deadlines and the use of drop boxes, while lawmakers in Harrisburg disagree on legislative changes.

So far, even huge developments have done little to change the dynamics of the race. But if Pennsylvania is as close as last time, it won’t take much to affect the outcome.

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(Staff writers Andrew Seidman and Julia Terruso contributed to this article.)

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer