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Nov. 1, 2020, 7:36 a.m. EST

Trump needs to defend big margins in small-town Pennsylvania to win the state, experts say

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Chris Matthews

DELAWARE COUNTY, Pa. (MarketWatch) — Matt Shorraw, the 29-year-old Democratic mayor of Monessen, Pa., launched his political career by staging an anti–Donald Trump protest, when the then-candidate visited the former steel town in the state’s southwest in the summer of 2016.

Though the protest raised Shorraw’s profile among fellow residents, the mayor said that the visit was clearly a savvy political move for Trump, who racked up big margins in southwestern Pennsylvania on his way to winning the state by less than a percentage point.

“Trump’s visit made many people feel less forgotten, because he showed up,” Shorraw told MarketWatch. “A lot of people figured: He visited, so I’ll give him a chance.”

Monessen’s population of nearly 8,000 leans Democratic, Shorrow added, though Trump scored a more than 30-percentage-point margin of victory in 2016 in Westmoreland County, where the town is located.

Maintaining such large margins in southwestern Pennsylvania and other postindustrial areas of the state will be essential for the president to win Pennsylvania’s potentially pivotal 20 electoral votes, experts say, where polls show him trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden by 3.5 percentage points . According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, if he does not win Pennsylvania, Trump has just a 2% chance of winning a second term.

Whether Biden can blunt the president’s margins in red counties “will be the difference in the race here,” said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-area political consultant who managed Democrat Katie McGinty’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate run in 2016.

“Trump is going to win most of these counties in southwestern Pennsylvania,” Mikus added. “I can’t think of any that would flip, but Biden will get probably closer to what Barack Obama got in 2012, and right there is the margin Trump won in 2016.” The president won the state by just 44,000 votes out of more than 6 million cast.

The Trump campaign is nevertheless expressing confidence that it can increase that margin of victory. “President Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes in 2016, when there were over 916,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, and in the years since Republicans have cut that registration lead by over 215,000 voters,” Thea McDonald, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, told MarketWatch.

“The Trump campaign is making sure we’re connecting directly with every one of them, everyone who voted for him in 2016, and every blue-collar voter who has moved away from the radical left over the last four years because the president has delivered real results for the people of Pennsylvania,” she added.

The Biden campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Hillary Clinton spent much time in Pennsylvania four years ago, but mostly stuck to holding events in the state’s larger metropolitan areas, like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton. Former Vice President Biden appears to be taking a different approach, having made visits to small towns and cities across the state, including Latrobe and Greensburg in Westmoreland County.

“People have looked at it as either boost turnout in the cities and rely on suburban voters, or cut into Trump’s margin in smaller towns and rural areas,” Mikus said. “You can do both. Candidates had historically done both until 2016, where Clinton’s strategy was based solely in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and it didn’t work out.”

Polling at the congressional-district level shows that Biden’s strategy could be paying off, Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor at the Cook Political Report, told MarketWatch. “Polling across Pennsylvania is fairly consistent in the strength it shows for Biden,” he said.

Wasserman pointed to Pennsylvania’s 17th District, which  includes portions of Allegheny, Beaver and Butler counties in the west. Trump won the district by three points, and polls today show Biden up by nine, he said.

Meanwhile, Trump appears to be bleeding support from female voters across the state and from seniors, Wasserman said, which puts added pressure on the president to expand margins among male voters in rural areas and smaller towns.

Polls in 2016 underestimated Trump’s support in Pennsylvania, where he beat polling averages by 4.4 percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight. Paul Scracic, a political scientist at Youngstown State University just over the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, predicts polls will again underestimate the president’s support.

Scracic said that rising nonresponse rates make it difficult for pollsters to create accurate samples of the population. “For Trump voters, universities and press, who conduct polls, are the enemy, and many just won’t respond,” he said. “If you have nonresponse bias in a specific demographic, you can’t control for that.”

Scracic added that Rust Belt voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are loyal to the president because he combined an anti-free-trade agenda that Democrats had largely abandoned with a manner and bearing that resonated with the white working class.

“They liked what he said and how he said it. People weren’t holding their nose to vote for Trump. In this part of the country, they were excited,” he said. Meanwhile, Trump did follow through on the campaign promises to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and raise tariffs on Chinese goods, Scracic added.

Mikus argued that while Democrats have lost the faith of many working-class voters, Biden’s ties to Pennsylvania and longtime support of unions gives him credibility, and his positioning himself as more of a centrist will pay dividends in much of the state.

“The vast majority of people in these communities are closer to the center,” he said. “They want things to get done, and they’re not fans of partisanship. The fact that Biden is talking about being a president for everybody, and not just Democrats, is a driving force for why he is doing better in the suburbs and  improving in these outlying counties.”

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