There are about a dozen swing states in play in Tuesday’s election, but not all are created equal.
Of the three that broke Hillary Clinton’s heart in 2016, Michigan and Wisconsin seem to be comfortably in Joe Biden’s column this time around. The latest polling averages have Michigan at about +7 for Biden and +8.5 in Wisconsin – large enough leads to withstand the sort of polling error that put both states in the Donald Trump column back in 2016.
Pennsylvania, however, remains tighter – somewhere between 5 and 7 points for Biden. And “tighter” is not just about the poll numbers. It’s about what’s at stake: Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes, is seen as a virtual must-win state for both candidates, the state most likely to decide who wins the Electoral College and, therefore, the election.
It’s so important that Trump, who won the state by 45,000 votes, planned on making four stops there on Saturday. Biden, meanwhile, planned a major speech for Sunday in Philadelphia—the city where 55 prominent men gathered in the summer of 1787 to argue, drink and bargain over what became the U.S. Constitution. Be certain Biden will make a connection between those days and what’s at stake now.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, one of the original 13 colonies, is a study in very stark contrasts. It’s bracketed by two large cities – Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west. The rest of the state is a vast rural expanse – “Alabama without the blacks,” in the biting construct of Bill Clinton’s political guru James Carville.
Before tilting to Trump, Pennsylvania had voted Democratic in every presidential race since 1988. The Democratic strategy was, and remains, pretty simple: run up the numbers in the cities and their surrounding suburbs, and hope to offset the overwhelming GOP vote in the rest of the state. (By way of example, Pennsy’s Democratic former governor recently noted that he’d won election with only 15 of the state’s 67 counties voting in his favor.)
When Clinton lost here in 2016, it was thought she had failed to turn out Philly’s African-American voters who had gone to the polls for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. In fact, according to the Washington Post, she did well quite among those voters. But it was white women and the suburbs that failed to support her, along with some non-college-educated voters who had backed Obama and switched to Trump. In the old union-voting strongholds in the northeast of the state where Obama had done well, Trump trounced Clinton.
While Trump remains strong – and possibly stronger – in rural areas, the Philly and Pittsburgh suburbs shifted strongly to the Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. Trump’s numbers with women nationwide are terrible; if suburban women move away from him, his razor-thin margins from 2016 will be impossible to repeat.
Still, people worry about poll numbers, about African-American turnout, about voter suppression from Republican operatives. Democrats are sending thousands of poll watchers into the state to ensure against any voting irregularities on Tuesday. After 2016, not only are they taking nothing for granted, they’re not trusting the numbers.
I was in Philly on Election Day 2016, canvassing door-to-door for Hillary with my then 17-year-old daughter. She was too young to vote but wanted to be part of history, working to elect the first woman president. Pennsylvania was safe, we thought. Hillary will do well here.
It was a glorious fall day splashed in sunshine. We climbed the rickety wooden porches in a working class neighborhood, knocking on doors with only an occasional response, consulting our clipboards before moving on to another block.
This is how you win, we thought.
That evening, we went to a polling station at a local Catholic church. It was dark now, and the sense of excitement about the impending results was palpable. The church was busy, but not too crowded. I had a moment of worry about the short lines, but I let it pass. I didn’t want to spoil anyone’s mood.
On the way back to Manhattan, my daughter slept. I listened to the radio. By midnight, now awake, she was weeping.
So I can understand why Democrats are distrustful of numbers this time, why phone bank volunteers are calling Pennsylvania Democrats again and again, pleading with them to turn out Tuesday.
Biden and the Democrats may hope for splashy wins in Texas and Arizona, but the hard work of victory is still in places like Pennsylvania. Here, as in Florida, nothing can be taken for granted. And until that last vote is counted, Pennsylvania is still the state to watch.
Larry Hackett is the former editor-in-chief of People magazine, and a contributor to the US morning television news program Good Morning America