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Oct. 25, 2020, 1:58 p.m. EDT

Trump and Biden final debate performances fail to make impact on these Pennsylvania voters

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Chris Matthews

DELAWARE COUNTY, Pa. (MarketWatch) — President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off in the final televised debate of the 2020 presidential race Thursday night, with both candidates keenly aware that Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes, could well determine the victor of the Nov. 3 contest.

Despite a more civil and at times substantive discussion of important issues for voters in the Keystone State than in the first debate earlier this month, voters here told MarketWatch that the televised proceedings did little to change their minds, coming just 12 days from Election Day.

“The debate wasn’t going to change my views of the candidates,” said Tom Learn of Verona, outside Pittsburgh. Learn has been a Democrat since 1989, voting for every Democratic presidential candidate until 2016, when he cast his vote for Donald Trump.

Learn, who installs and services elevators and is a member of the Local International Union of Elevator Constructors, said he feels betrayed by the Democratic Party. “Unions and labor are on the back burner for Democrats,” he told MarketWatch. “Their big concerns are rights for illegal immigrants, minorities and LGBTQ” Americans. “I’m sticking with Trump,” he said.

Polls show that an unusually small share of the Pennsylvania electorate remains undecided about the presidential election. About 4% of voters in the state say they have not made up their minds, according to an average of recent polls, compared with 2016, when 13% of voters said they were undecided on Election Day, according to poll aggregator FiveThirtyEight.

This dynamic benefits Biden, given that polls on average show the former vice president with a solid lead of between 6.1 percentage points and 5.1 percentage points in Pennsylvania, as of Friday.

In 2016, Pennsylvania polls on average missed the actual election results by a margin of 3.8 percentage points , leading to a narrow, surprise victory for Trump in the state. An error of similar magnitude this time around would not be enough to carry the president to victory, nor is there reason to expect that a polling miss is more likely to benefit one candidate than another.

Issues of identity, character and perceptions of corruption matter to Pennsylvania voters much more than policy positions in 2020, Larry DeMarco, a 51-year-old lawyer from the Philadelphia suburb of Wallingford and founder of a nonprofit news collective called the PA Voter Information Network , told MarketWatch.

“The issues don’t cut through to voters,” in the 2020 election he said. In his Facebook group, “More than 90% of the discussion is about scandals, corruption and dirt,” he said. “There are some intelligent people who are trying to get discussions going about policy, but there’s no engagement.”

And voters who oppose Trump do so largely for reasons related to his personality, DeMarco, a Democrat, said. “In four years, you don’t need the mainstream media to know that Trump is big with patronage, very selfish, only cares about himself and doesn’t care about the people he claims to care about,” he added.

Jackie Erickson, an 83-year-old retired educator from Philadelphia said that character was a motivation for him to vote for Biden, only the second time in his life that he’s voted for a major-party candidate for president.

After voting for the Green Party’s Jill Stein in 2016, he decided to vote for Biden this year because “at least he has some human qualities that Trump lacks.” He cited the Trump administration’s policy of separating the children of migrant families from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, when they attempted to cross into the United States, as particularly troubling, and an issue the president didn’t adequately address during the debate.

One issue in the debate that did interest some Pennsylvania voters was regulation of the the oil-and-gas industry. The state was the site of energy-industry employment gains last decade as a result of new innovations in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method for extracting oil and gas from shale rock.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, oil-and-gas extraction and supporting industries account for roughly 20,000 jobs in Pennsylvania, less than a 1% of total jobs in the state, though studies conducted by the industry itself have concluded that upwards of 5% of Pennsylvania workers are employed in the industry.

Charles Chambers, 69, of Greene County in the southwest portion of the state, told MarketWatch that Joe Biden’s promise Thursday night to “transition from the oil industry” to fight climate change was disturbing.

“Fracking is huge. I’m standing in my backyard right now and looking at a well on the hill over from my house,” the retired steel-mill maintenance supervisor said. “A lot of jobs, well-paying, living [wage] jobs are because of fracking, and we need those in this area since Obama and Biden eliminated the coal mines.”

Trump appeared eager to hit Biden on his long-range plan for the industry at the debate, saying, “That’s the biggest statement because basically what he’s saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania?”

Biden said that the fossil-fuel industry needs to be “replaced by renewable energy over time, over time,”  and that electricity generation should be done with net-zero carbon emissions by 2035.

But DeMarco said voters in the populous Philadelphia suburbs are just as likely to be focused on the environmental costs of fracking as its economic benefits. “It’s a divided issue in Pennsylvania,” he said, noting that safety and environmental concerns recently forced regulators to temporarily shut down the Mariner East Pipeline that transports natural gas from western Pennsylvania and terminates in his county.

Whether they support Biden or Trump, Pennsylvanians expressed significant fatigue over the election, given the barrage of TV ads and mailers even as so few voters remain undecided. Erickson of Philadelphia, who only begrudgingly supports Biden, was not particularly impressed by either candidate’s debate performance.

Referencing the winged insect that became a social-media phenomenon after it landed on Mike Pence’s head during the vice presidential debate, Erickson said, “The only good thing about last night’s debate, I thought, was that the fly showed remarkable restraint this time.”

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