'Disgusted' voters in the Philly suburbs could help Biden offset Trump's gains in Pennsylvania

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Brian Vance outside his home in Havertown, Pennsylvania. A Republican who didn't vote for Trump in 2016, Vance is leaning toward supporting the president this year. - JOSE F. MORENO/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — Sandy Arnell used to work for Republican lawmakers in Washington and in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital. She considered herself to be liberal on issues like abortion but conservative when it came to fiscal issues. She didn’t always vote Republican. But she identified as one, and voted in GOP primaries.

Arnell, of Downingtown, had already been drifting from conservative politics before Donald Trump was elected president. But she reached a breaking point with what she called the “hatred and negativity” of his presidency and became a Democrat.

“I was holding on to my Republican card, literally and metaphorically, with a firm grasp,” said Arnell, 48. “And I just sat down at the computer one day and I just went on the Chester County website and that’s it.

“I’m done,” she said. “I’m disgusted.”

Arnell represents the political transformation of Philadelphia’s suburbs, now largely Democratic and mobilizing against Trump in the final six weeks before the election. While Trump narrowly won America’s suburbs in 2016, Hillary Clinton swept Philadelphia’s four collar counties. It wasn’t enough to stop Trump from narrowly winning the state, and with it the White House. But people like Arnell who had been slowly walking away from the party in these onetime Republican strongholds broke into a sprint after 2016, and they haven’t looked back.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in all four counties, and by wide margins in two. Democrats won all but one suburban congressional seat in 2018. And they won control of all four county governments last year — in one case for the first time since the Civil War.

There’s little doubt that Democratic nominee Joe Biden will defeat Trump in the Philadelphia suburbs. The question is whether he’ll do so with big enough margins. Voter registration trends and interviews with dozens of voters over the last two months suggest Trump retains strong political support in the longtime Democratic bastions in small Rust Belt towns throughout Northeastern and Southwestern Pennsylvania that he won in 2016.

That means Biden’s path to victory, in a state increasingly seen as one of the most critical 2020 battlegrounds, relies on racking up big wins in the populous southeast. About 21% of Pennsylvania’s registered voters live in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties.

“To win the state he has to do better than” Clinton did in the suburbs, said J.J. Balaban, a Democratic consultant in Philadelphia. “It is certainly possible, if not likely, that Biden will do worse than Hillary in certain rural parts of Pennsylvania. … Doing better in the suburbs does not guarantee victory statewide.”

Trump has tried to draw back suburban voters by arguing in often apocalyptic language that Biden will “destroy” the suburbs. He has warned the looting in American cities could come to suburban cul-de-sacs, made appeals to racist fears of expanded affordable housing, and tweeted that “suburban housewives” will vote for him.

“I saved the suburbs,” Trump said at a rally last week in Wisconsin, referring to his calls for the National Guard and federal law enforcement to confront protesters.

But interviews with nearly 20 voters outside Philadelphia over the last two weeks found that Trump’s fear campaign isn’t resonating for suburban voters who weren’t already inclined to vote for him. Only 11% of suburban whites nationally call being “tough on crime” and civil unrest the most important factor in their vote, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week.

Ryan Costello, a former Republican congressman from Chester County, said suburban voters have been drawn to Democrats because of their support for tougher gun laws and fighting climate change — policies Trump often rails against.

“Suburban America looks at the gun issue and doesn’t think about using guns for their own protection as much as they worry about a school shooting,” Costello said.

Democrats surpassed Republicans in voter registration in Chester County only earlier this year. The wealthiest county in the state, which Clinton won in 2016, it has emerged as a new hotbed of the liberal activism often driven by women during Trump’s presidency.

Montgomery County is both the most populous and the most Democratic of the four counties. A powerful Republican machine long dominated local government and politics in Delaware County, the least wealthy and most diverse of the four — but the county last voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 1988.

If Trump has opportunity for gains anywhere in the Philadelphia suburbs, it would likely be in Bucks County. Clinton won the county in 2016 by fewer than 3,000 votes, and it’s the only place in the region still represented by a Republican congressman.

“Even when the Philadelphia suburbs were more traditionally Republican they were not Freedom Caucus Republicans,” Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant Mark Nevins said, referring to the far-right congressional group. “They were … socially moderate, fiscally conservative. Even then, a candidate like Donald Trump would not have appealed to them.”

Many Biden supporters, several of whom said the former vice president wasn’t their top choice in the Democratic primary, cited removing Trump from office as a singular priority.

Ted Robb, of Middletown Township in Delaware County, said he switched from Republican to independent because he doesn’t support Trump. He said he thinks Biden “is well-equipped to do a reasonable job” and would try to heal the country.

“The most important issue to me is not having the president reelected,” said Robb, 76. “That makes all others pale in significance.”

Luanne Spencer, of Delaware County, said she’s a lifelong Republican who voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again. She touted Trump’s record on the economy before the coronavirus pandemic and said she worries Biden would make the suburbs less safe.

“I’m a suburban housewife. I live in a row house in Eddystone, so it’s not like I have a white picket fence,” Spencer, 60, said of her town about six miles south of Philadelphia International Airport. “But I have a nice little home, and my community is decent. I want it to stay that way. I want to feel safe to take a walk after dinner.”

Georgia Canty, a Bucks County Republican who supports Trump, echoed the sentiment.

“It’s a disgrace,” said Canty, 67, of Croydon. “All these riots and protests. All I do is pray President Trump gets reelected.”

But Molly Aichele, 38, a lifelong Democrat in Berwyn, said she laughs when Trump refers to “suburban housewives.” Aichele — who has two young children, works part time as a lawyer, and is enrolled in graduate classes — is voting for Biden.

“If your definition of the suburbs is ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ then yes, Joe Biden will destroy those suburbs,” she said, referring to the 1950s sitcom. “His policies will make it easier for more cultures and more people with different experiences to move in, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s a very, very good thing for my kids.”

There are signs the Trump campaign and allied Republican groups may see his message on civil unrest gaining little traction with suburban voters here. Recent TV ads on the subject aired in Pennsylvania by Trump and GOP super PACs — including one that calls Biden “too weak to stop the radicals from tearing down America” — are barely playing in the Philadelphia market compared with other areas, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

Republican ads airing more heavily in Greater Philadelphia tout Trump’s economic record and warn that Biden would raise taxes.

“It’s a clear sign that the Trump campaign doesn’t think that dog is going to hunt here,” said Balaban, the Democratic ad-maker and media strategist. “Not in the suburbs of Philadelphia.”

Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who has worked on Pennsylvania campaigns, said the proliferation of protests against police brutality and racial inequality even in the suburbs underscores Trump’s misunderstanding of such communities.

“Early in the George Floyd protests, the number of the marches, even in lily-white suburbs, was really remarkable,” she said.

“If you ask people … if you think Trump is keeping you safe, the majority of people say no,” Greenberg added. “You might be worried about protests or violence, but you don’t necessarily think Trump is going to solve it.”

Gwen Bretz, of Ridley Park in Delaware County, said she hasn’t decided how to vote. Bretz, 58, is a registered Republican but voted for Clinton in 2016. She said she hadn’t heard Trump’s warnings about Biden and the suburbs, but does worry about looting and violence.

“The Democratic cities are a mess,” she said.

Bretz is a nurse and said she’s equally worried about the pandemic. She said she may vote for Trump if there’s a successful COVID-19 vaccine before the election — something that public health experts say is highly unlikely but that Trump has promised is coming soon.

“Trump has made a mess, too, with all his comments,” she said. “There is no good choice.”

Karthik Balasubramanian, of Malvern in Chester County, said he voted for Republican presidential candidates until 2008. As an Asian Indian, he said, he is “100% supportive” of protests for racial equality. “The violence, not so much,” he said.

A 41-year-old engineer and registered Democrat, he said he’s happy his two children have more classmates who look like them than he did growing up in Montgomery County. Balasubramanian said Trump’s response to the coronavirus has showed the president’s distrust of science.

“I’ve always liked Joe Biden,” he said. “I like his policies. They’re fairly moderate. I think the biggest thing was he’s not Trump.”

Trump is winning back at least some disaffected Republicans. Brian Vance, of Havertown, who voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in 2016, said he doesn’t like Trump but will likely back him this year.

Vance, 65 and a lawyer, said he likely would have voted for Biden if he ran in 2016, but thinks Democrats went too far in investigating Trump over the last four years. He’s wary of what he called the party’s move toward socialism and is pleased by Trump’s tax cuts and Supreme Court picks.

He said that Trump’s response to protests and civil unrest has been “unnecessarily provocative” but also that the suburbs aren’t immune from violence.

“A lot of people now with the Black Lives Matter and the ‘Hate Has No Home Here’ signs on their yards … if the violence came to the suburbs, those signs would be the first thing that went,” Vance said.

But most suburbanites who once identified with the GOP — or still do but are wary of Trump — don’t seem as if they’re coming back, at least not for him. In recent conversations of The Inquirer’s Election 2020 Roundtable, a group of 24 voters from across Pennsylvania, Republicans from the suburbs who didn’t vote for him in 2016 said Biden’s convention speech last month made them more likely to back the Democrat.

“He’s never been a great orator and he delivered a statesman’s speech,” said Scott Young, 51, of Bucks County.

Arnell, the former Republican in Downingtown, lost her job as a project manager for a commercial furniture company when the pandemic began and recently started working in retail. She worries about the coronavirus the environment, and health care. She has a hard time keeping up with the news without getting upset.

“I put my faith in my friends and the people who I know who are scientists,” she said. “I don’t need this fearmongering or turning a blind eye.”

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(Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this report.)

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Molly Aichele, 38, outside her home in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. - JOSE F. MORENO/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS