Tuned out or turned off? What the Pennsylvania primary results mean for Biden and Trump

With the top-ticket races already decided, Pennsylvanians voted sparsely, perhaps begrudgingly, in the primary this week.

An unofficial and preliminary estimate from the USA TODAY Network put voter turnout at less than 30%, several percentage points lower than turnout for the 2020 presidential primary. Nearly a quarter-million Pennsylvanians also voted against both President Joe Biden and his likely Republican opponent, Donald Trump, in favor of candidates who already had conceded and are no longer campaigning.

"I spend time with college-age voters every day and they could not be less enthusiastic about a rematch between Trump and Biden, and not just because it's a rematch and not just because it's candidates that are maybe not exciting to them," said Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a political science professor at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

"There's a real lack of their views in politics being represented. It's not a big jump to go from, 'Those candidates are 80ish,' to, 'Why would they care about my future or the potential for me to have a family?' They're very tuned out as a result."

'If you don't vote in the primary can you vote in the general election in PA?'

More than a month ago, Biden and Trump became the presumptive nominees for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively.

Two years ago there were signs there could be, at minimum, a showdown between Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was rallying in Pittsburgh with Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano in September 2022. But DeSantis lost the Iowa Caucus to Trump by 30 points in mid-January this year and dropped out entirely before the end of that month.

"Pennsylvanians are at a huge disadvantage compared to many other states in terms of their influence of presidential nominations," said Joseph Morris, chair of the political science department at Mercyhurst University in Erie.

Images of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump superimposed over a ballot. (Photos by Getty Images and Scott Utterback/Courier Journal, Illustration by Jason Bredehoeft, USA TODAY Network.)
Images of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump superimposed over a ballot. (Photos by Getty Images and Scott Utterback/Courier Journal, Illustration by Jason Bredehoeft, USA TODAY Network.)

Presidential primaries are often decided long before voters in the commonwealth have a chance to weigh in because Pennsylvania's primary is weeks after many other state primaries.

"What incentive (to vote) do people really have besides offices that they don't really understand, like auditor general?" Morris said.

This sentiment may have been best reflected by a popular internet search on Wednesday: "If you don't vote in the primary, can you vote in the general election in PA?" was a breakout query on Google Trends.

"I don't know that we can say too much about November based on what we saw yesterday," Morris said. "Who knows who decided to stay home and who showed up to vote?"

The protest vote

With approximately 96% of the ballots counted, 68,490 Pennsylvania Democrats, or 7%, had cast a vote for presidential dropout Dean Phillips instead of Biden.

An even higher percentage of Pennsylvania Republicans snubbed Trump for Nikki Haley and her defunct campaign. Haley received 156,986 votes, nearly 17% of the total.

"Neither the Democratic candidate or the Republican candidate is at all popular," Morris said.

"Joe Biden has probably the worst approval ratings of any president in the last 20 years, at least at this point in their time in office. And when it comes to favorability, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are underwater. People just don't like these candidates."

More: Pennsylvania primary replay: Trump, Biden clinch victory; Casey and McCormick will compete for Senate

Last year, Morris said, he was convinced the general dislike of Biden and Trump would result in an independent or third-party candidate capturing national attention, similar to Ross Perot's surge more than 30 years ago.

"By June of 1992, Ross Perot was polling at just under 40% nationwide. Robert F. Kennedy has a long way to go to reach a Ross Perot level," Morris said.

If Kennedy hangs around in the race and makes the ballot in Pennsylvania, according to Morris, he'll make a repeat victory more difficult for Biden. He cited polling that shows Kennedy siphoning slightly more support from Biden than Trump when included on a hypothetical ballot.

"'Slightly' is going to be enough to determine the outcome of the election," Morris said.

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, isn't as certain about Kennedy's potential effect. He believes Kennedy could win over more Trump supporters than Biden supporters because of his outspoken criticism of the COVID vaccines and Anthony Fauci, the nation's former chief medical adviser.

Kondik also said he believes the "protest" vote against Biden, for instance, could come from "ancestral Democrats" in coal-mining counties such as Cambria who've come to more closely align with the GOP despite never changing their party registration.

"Likewise, you probably still have some registered Republicans in southeast Pennsylvania who don't vote (for Trump)," Kondik said. "Party registration can be kind of a lagging indicator of reality."

How will Pennsylvania vote in November?

Because Pennsylvania is among a handful of swing states likely to determine the outcome of the presidential election, both polling and campaign strategies in the commonwealth should remain of national interest.

"There was such a significant protest vote for Nikki Haley," Sweet-Cushman said. "I'm curious ... are those voters who are willing to consider Biden? Are those voters who are going to stay home? Are those voters who can be won over to Trump, (or) are those voters who might consider a third party?"

She added that motivating these disaffected Pennsylvanians to support their candidate—or convincing certain demographics to vote third party or perhaps not at all—will almost certainly be central to the Biden and Trump campaigns as they enter the summer and the heat of the general election.

"I just don't think we have any precedent for who may be mobilized," said Sweet-Cushman, who spent Tuesday talking to voters as a poll worker. "There's a lot of time and a lot can happen."

Bruce Siwy is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Pennsylvania state capital bureau. He can be reached at bsiwy@gannett.com or on X at @BruceSiwy.

This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: What the results of the Pennsylvania primary mean for Biden, Trump