Pennsylvania blues: Why Joe Biden struggles to connect with voters in his home state

·6 min read
Pennsylvania blues: Why Joe Biden struggles to connect with voters in his home state
Pennsylvania blues: Why Joe Biden struggles to connect with voters in his home state

At the Democratic Party headquarters in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Thursday, Kathy Bozinski was hailing a victory of sorts despite the fact that the party lost the county — again — to Donald Trump.

Trump won Luzerne County but by about 5,000 fewer votes than in 2016, when he was up against Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.

"We wish we could have done more," said Bozinski, chair of the Luzerne County Democratic Party. "But when I talked to the statewide Democratic Party, they said Luzerne accomplished what it needed to do. Didn't have to flip, had to be a reduction" in the size of Trump's win.

"I used to say I was shooting for the stars, shooting for a win. But if we hit the moon by just reducing the amount, that's a win, too."

Mark Gollom/CBC
Mark Gollom/CBC

Such is the political situation in Luzerne County for the Democrats, where victory in the race for president is now measured by the scope of their loss.

Once a major coal producer

This northeastern county was made somewhat famous in award-winning journalist Ben Bradlee Jr.'s 2018 book The Forgotten: How the People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America.

The county is located about two hours north of Philadelphia with a population of more than 300,000 people, about 90 per cent white, that was once a major coal producer. But those jobs have since gone.

It was here that Trump, with his rough edges, abrasive style and promises to revitalize the manufacturing base, pulled off a stunning victory in 2016 by appealing to working-class voters in what was a traditional Democratic county that twice voted for Barack Obama.

For Bradlee and others, the win four years ago and again in 2020 is more an indication of a Democratic Party that had lost its way by ignoring the party's political roots.

And that might explain why Democratic candidate Joe Biden, who was born in neighbouring Scranton, hasn't walked away with Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes.

WATCH | Biden urges patience in vote count:

In looking over the 2016 results in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — states that decided that election — Bradlee discovered that Luzerne County was a Democratic stronghold that hadn't voted for a Republican since George Bush Sr. in 1988.

The county voted for Obama in 2008 and in 2012 but went so big for Trump in 2016 that it accounted for 60 per cent of his statewide margin of victory over Clinton.

Bradlee was intrigued why a county that voted for Obama twice could switch to Trump, and by such a large amount.

"That county played the most important role in winning Pennsylvania and therefore the presidency," Bradlee said in an interview with CBC News. "I used the county to go deep on Trump voters and why they chose him."

Trump 'takes it to the elites'

The 2020 votes in Pennsylvania are still being counted, and Biden had taken a razor-thin lead early Friday.

While Luzerne County likely won't play the same role it did in the last election, its changing political landscape may reveal ongoing challenges that the Democrats, and Biden, could have in similar working-class or rural areas of the state.

Bozinski said this time around, the Democrats were not fighting an electoral battle that involved COVID-19, the economy, social security or health care, although those were factors. They were ultimately fighting a cult of personality with people who like and identify with Trump.

WATCH | Trump campaign advisors on suing Pennsylvania vote count:

"That's real tough to knock down." Bozinski said.

Bradlee suggested the party itself must take some responsibility. He said Democrat voters he spoke with who opted for Trump said "they didn't leave the Democratic Party, the party left them.

"Trump tapped into the anxieties they had. They felt forgotten. I called them the 'forgotten people' ... Washington wasn't paying enough attention to them," he said.

"I find these people, they voted with their gut. They're not always voting necessarily on policy and on economic interests. They like Trump. They like the way he ... tweets up a shitstorm every morning and takes it to the elites."

Mark Gollom/CBC
Mark Gollom/CBC

Justin Behrens, the chair of the Luzerne County Republican Party, said that the Democrats were so focused on the progressive movement that they forgot their political roots — the working class.

"Four years ago, a president came on board saying, 'I'm going to start talking about the forgotten, those working-class individuals out there in Luzerne County," Behrens said.

Jobs are plentiful

One of the voters the president appealed to was John Burke, who lives in the town of Kingston, with a population of just under 13,000 people. It's about five minutes northwest of Wilkes-Barre across the Susquehanna River.

Burke was a two-time Obama voter who didn't trust Hillary Clinton and decided to support Trump.

"He was kind of like an outsider," Burke said. He praised the job Trump has done as president, but he also had positive words for Obama. But Burke said he couldn't support Biden — his roots in Scranton weren't enough to get his vote.

"I think he was, what, seven years old when he left there?" Burke said. (Biden was actually 10). "You know, he's a Delaware guy, if anything."

Burke said that when Biden speaks, it's like "he doesn't know what the hell he wants to say. He just starts repeating the same thing over and over again."

For Rob Acquisto, a passionate Trump supporter with signs and a large flag swinging from his Kingston home, there is one main reason why this once solidly blue county turned red: prosperity.

Mark Gollom/CBC
Mark Gollom/CBC

Acquisto, who works for an energy company, said since Trump took office, he and his wife have seen a big difference in their take-home pay. As well, their 401(k), the employer-sponsored retirement plan, is doing great.

"People are feeling good about what's going on," he said. "People have jobs."

Enthusiasm gap between Trump, Biden

Even Chris Shaw, a retired union theatre technician who lives in Kingston and supported Biden "with a vengeance," noted that jobs are plentiful in Luzerne County.

For example, Amazon's distribution centres make it the third-largest employer in the area.

"They're advertising $20-an-hour jobs, which was unheard of not too long ago. There are living-wage jobs that are plentiful here now," he said.

According to the fact-checking website Politifact, citing data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there has been a slow, steady growth in all jobs across Pennsylvania. There's been about a two per cent increase between January 2017, when Trump took office, and just before the pandemic hit earlier this year.

Mark Gollom/CBC
Mark Gollom/CBC

Even so, Shaw said a county that elected Obama twice and has since voted for Trump twice is "mindboggingly impossible to grasp."

Shaw did acknowledge that Biden just doesn't draw the same enthusiasm that Trump receives from his supporters.

"I think that's the reason that there wasn't a bigger vote for Biden," he said. "There's just no passion for him and lots of passion for for Trump, for God knows what reason."

WATCH | About 40,000 ballots remain to be counted in Pennsylvania: