YORK, Pa. — Democrats and President Trump agree on at least one thing: Pennsylvania is one of the most important states on the electoral map in 2020.
Analysts place it in the top three states to watch, along with Wisconsin and Michigan. Together, these states gave Trump a Rust Belt victory in 2016, thanks to a high turnout of blue collar workers.
Pennsylvania hadn’t backed a Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1988, but a wave of first-time, rural voters helped Trump change the reliably blue state to red for a victory over the favored Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“Trump won in 2016 because he flipped Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all of which Barack Obama carried in the previous election. If 2020 is a repeat of 2016 in the 47 states besides Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, these three would determine the winner,” said Seth Moskowitz, a political analyst and columnist for the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Other competitive states include Iowa, Main, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Ohio, he said.
Moskowitz is founder of EverySecondYear.com, a blog that focuses on U.S. House races. He pointed out a potential drawback of having so much attention on the commonwealth.
“A presidential campaign focused on Pennsylvania and a handful of other states might work in the electoral college, but it could hurt a candidate’s party in down-ballot Senate and House races,” he said.
One of the top House battlegrounds in the country is in south-central Pennsylvania, where state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, is running to unseat Republican Scott Perry, an early Trump supporter who narrowly defeated Democratic challenger George Scott in 2018.
There are no U.S. Senate races in Pennsylvania in 2020, but competitive House races and the presidential election will make the state a frequent stop for candidates.
“Pennsylvania is going to be critical in the next presidential election,” said Kyle Kopko, a political scientist and professor at Elizabethtown College. “It’s one of the key states.”
Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states considered to be a tossup in 2020, according to the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Along with Arizona and Wisconsin, it’s voting patterns can’t easily be categorized as “likely Democrat” or “likely Republican.”
New York and California, on the other hand, are almost certain to vote overwhelmingly for a Democrat, while Oklahoma and Alabama are fully expected to vote overwhelmingly for a Republican.
Analysts focus less on the red and blue states and more on the so-called purple states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Ohio and Florida, which could elect a Democrat or Republican.
Can Trump win Pennsylvania again?
“That depends,” said Terry Madonna, a veteran pollster and political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “We have to see how the impeachment will go, and we won’t really know until we know who the Democratic nominee is.”
Trump would much rather run against a progressive, such as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, who are viewed as too far left by the president’s supporters, Madonna said. He doesn’t want to run against Joe Biden, who has an everyman appeal.
“You can disagree with Joe Biden, but you can’t dislike him,” Madonna said.
Before he served as vice president to President Barack Obama, Biden spent decades as a U.S. senator. Though he represented Delaware, he was constantly covered by Philadelphia media and broadcast throughout the highest population center in Pennsylvania. The story of a widower taking the train home from Washington, D.C., every night to be with his children, who had recently lost their mother, pulled at heart strings.
One of Biden’s biggest fans often sat across the aisle from him in the U.S. Senate and next to him on the train.
Sen. Arlen Specter, who represented Pennsylvania for 30 years and died in 2012, became friends with Biden during their Amtrak rides back and forth to the beltway.
“Arlen Specter used to drive Pennsylvania Republicans crazy because he called Biden Pennsylvania’s third senator,” Madonna said.
As Biden campaigned with Obama, he reminded the electorate that he was born and raised in Scranton until he was about 10 years old.
“Biden is a popular Democrat and the most known Democratic nominee, and he served as vice president with the most popular Democrat,” Madonna said.
But Biden has struggled to maintain a lead among the crowded field of 17 Democratic candidates who are still in the race. Eight other Democrats have dropped out.
“The Democratic nomination process is a mess,” Madonna said. “I have no clue who the nominee will be. Right now, the Democratic race is a two-person contest between Biden and (Sen. Elizabeth) Warren.”
Biden being a Pennsylvania native might not help him much, especially among Trump supporters who have not wavered.
The impeachment inquiry has already been more detrimental to Biden’s campaign than Trump’s presidency. Trump’s approval rating dropped one percentage point in the Real Clear Politics average, while Warren took a lead over Biden.
As of Thursday morning, Biden had regained a five-point lead over Warren.
If Biden is the nominee, Democrats hope his “average Joe” charm could defeat Trump in the Rust Belt areas.
In the last days of Clinton’s campaign, she tapped Biden to campaign for her in the heart of his home state. During a stop at a Harrisburg school administration building, Biden said the 2016 presidency would be decided in “areas like this.”
He was right. Though Trump lost Pennsylvania cities, he won the state because of rural voters and small towns, such as the ones that dot south-central Pennsylvania.
When he dropped out of the 2008 primary, Biden joined a list of Pennsylvanians who failed in their bids for the White House, such as Specter (R), Milton Shapp (D), William Scranton (R) and Rick Santorum (R).
Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock, a Union general who led the Battle of Gettysburg, came close in 1880, but ultimately lost to Republican James Garfield. Hancock ultimately went on to become president of the National Rifle Association.
The only Pennsylvanian elected president was James Buchanan, who is often regarded by historians as the worst president in U.S. history and presided over the country’s spiral into the Civil War.
When Trump was elected, some pundits compared the tone of the country to that during the Civil War — the division, not the bloodshed. The battle was an intellectual one between rural and urban voters.
“People ask why politicians in D.C. are so deeply divided. It’s because the voters who send them there are deeply divided,” Madonna said.
Moderates are losing elections in this environment, which bodes well for progressives such as Warren and Sanders, but not for Biden.
Trump defeated moderate Republicans in the 2016 primary. Liberal Democrats defeated moderate Republicans in House races in the 2018 midterms.
To win Pennsylvania in 2020, a candidate will need to win the cities and their suburbs, and have a high turnout of their voting base.
Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 because he had a high turnout, won Erie, almost won Scranton, captured southwestern counties around Pittsburgh, and won 57 of 67 counties in Pennsylvania.
Madonna predicts Trump will get impeached in the House, but not convicted in the Senate, which means he would serve out his term. He could potentially be impeached and re-elected.
Also, no president has been re-elected with a job approval rating less than 48 percent. Trump’s job approval rating was 42 percent as of Tuesday morning, according to Real Clear Politics. Trump’s job performance on the economy is 49.5 percent.
“No president has been re-elected like that,” Madonna said.
Kopko agrees the economy is key in the election.
“If there’s a recession, it’s a likely sign Trump will lose,” he said
But the analysts are also watching another important number. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans. Some 68 percent of Pennsylvania Republicans gave him a favorable rating in the latest Franklin & Marshall College Poll released Thursday.
“His supporters are still with him,” Madonna said. “The question is, will they have the enthusiasm and turnout like they did in 2016.”