PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia suburbs rebelled. Joe Biden’s Scranton roots paid off. And two key counties that flipped to Donald Trump in 2016 appear to have had buyer’s remorse.
The story of how Biden won the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania is one that winds through every big city and small town here before ending in front of a worldwide audience watching the state’s vote count send him to the Oval Office.
“Pennsylvania, historically, will be remembered as the key that put him over the top,” said Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean, who represents part of the Philadelphia suburbs. “People turned out in record numbers to support the incoming President Biden and Kamala Harris because of their decency. And they rejected — and I know it wasn’t everybody — but they did reject in record numbers the indecent president that occupies the White House.”
Further down the ballot, voters made clear just how much this election was about Trump and Trump alone. Even as Biden was carrying Pennsylvania, Democrats were defeated in the race for auditor general, failed to pick up congressional seats in the suburbs, and are on track to lose ground in the state legislature despite thinking they could take it back in advance of an all-important redistricting battle.
“It was a referendum on Trump and people stepped up,” said Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat. “I mean, we got wrecked on a state level. We’re delivering Pennsylvania for Joe Biden, but it seems quaint to think that people thought that Democrats were going to flip the Senate and the House.”
Biden’s campaign in Pennsylvania was predicated on a few key bets: He could flip a couple counties that swung from former President Barack Obama to Trump in 2016. He could do better than Hillary Clinton in parts of the state where Trump is deeply popular, including western and northeastern Pennsylvania. And the suburbs that detest Trump would come out big for Biden.
All of it seems to have happened. What’s remarkable is that the Trump team’s major goals — run up the score in MAGA strongholds, find supporters who didn’t turn out in 2016, and do better in Philadelphia than he did four years ago — virtually all came to fruition, too.
It was the result of hand-to-hand combat for every last vote in Pennsylvania. Despite polling averages showing Biden with a lead of about 5 or 6 percentage points on Election Day, the presidential candidates treated it like a razor-thin race up till Nov. 3.
Biden traveled more to Pennsylvania than anywhere else by far and located his campaign headquarters in Philadelphia before the pandemic hit. Trump and his surrogates staged multiple rallies and small-scale events throughout the state. And both campaigns and parties spent more money on advertising in Pennsylvania than in any other state except Florida.
The days leading up to Election Day were especially energized. Trump staged four rallies in Pennsylvania on the Saturday before the election and was back on Monday. Likewise, Biden, as well as his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, and their spouses, spent the eve of the election barnstorming every corner of the state.
“It was important for him to match Trump visit by visit,” said Democratic Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia lawmaker close to the Biden campaign. “I said this a long time ago: I said, Vice President Biden, we have to demonstrate that he’s fighting for the vote.”
On Election Day, Biden was in the state again, paying a visit to Lackawanna County, a working-class, predominantly white area in the northeast that is home to Scranton. In 2016, Clinton barely scraped by with a win, capturing it by only 3,600 votes compared to a nearly 27,000-vote margin for Obama four years earlier. Biden took it by a larger margin of almost 10,000 votes, with more than 98 percent of estimated votes reporting.
“I think there was both an identification with people in this region and really the state itself,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, who also hails from Scranton. “But also a basic belief that he cared about their lives.”
Luzerne, a similar county that neighbors Lackawanna, was targeted by Trump’s campaign as a place where he could locate even more votes than he did when he flipped it in 2016. He was successful: He found an extra 6,000 votes, as of the vote tally Saturday afternoon. But Biden, while losing the county, did better than Clinon to the tune of nearly 11,000 votes, therefore cutting his losses even in the face of a pro-Trump surge.
The left-leaning and increasingly diverse suburbs surrounding Philadelphia, which were once a bellwether in presidential elections and a major source of GOP votes, revolted against Trump. Biden outperformed Clinton in Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks counties — all of which she had won in 2016 — by a stunning 95,000 votes, per today’s count.
“You got to give it to suburban voters,” said Dean. “What [Trump] did was stoop lower and lower and lower every day, and with that people got energized and energized and energized and said we will never let this happen again.”
In 2016, “the level of intensity against Trump when I was first sent into office was sky-high,” said Evans, who represented part of Montgomery County until his district was redrawn. “Some people wanted him out that day. … People used to say, ‘We elected you. You haven’t gotten rid of him yet?’”
Though he lost the vast majority of the state’s 67 counties, Biden made gains in the mostly red counties in south central Pennsylvania — places such as York, Dauphin and Cumberland counties — compared to 2016. In Lancaster County, which Biden visited twice during the campaign, he won 41 percent of the vote, compared to 38 percent received by Clinton, according to unofficial results.
The Trump campaign and local Republican operatives predicted that Trump would do better in Philadelphia, something that the Biden team dismissed as a possibility.
But Trump ultimately earned more raw votes in Philly than in 2016, going from nearly 109,000 ballots four years ago to more than 126,000 today. With 96 percent of the estimated votes counted, Biden is underperforming Clinton in the city by about 26,000 votes, though there are mail and provisional ballots left to be tallied, which could change those results.
Democratic strategists and elected officials in the city blamed the power of Trump’s incumbency as well as a lack of enthusiasm for Biden for Trump’s overperformance relative to 2016. Trump aired TV ads aimed at Black and Latino voters in the Philadelphia media market that attacked Biden for his support of the 1994 crime bill, and leaders in minority communities warned of a lack of enthusiasm for Biden among young African-American men.
By comparison, Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, provided 48,000 more votes to Biden than Clinton as of Saturday afternoon. Along with Trump’s growth in Philly, Biden had to contend with the fact that the president managed to mine more votes throughout Pennsylvania, especially in conservative counties. But Biden offset those gains by significantly boosting turnout for the Democratic ticket over 2016, too, with the exception of the biggest city in the state, if the current numbers hold.
Biden’s power in the southeast, suburbs and swing counties overcame a surge for Trump that caught some Democrats by surprise.
The former vice president even turned out additional voters in Trump Country. While Trump added roughly 12,000 votes in western Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County compared to 2016, Biden nearly matched him with an extra 11,000 relative to Clinton. In neighboring Washington County, the same thing happened: Trump got roughly 10,000 more votes, but Biden got 8,000 more, too.
Biden also looks poised to potentially win back two of the three counties that voted twice for Obama before Trump flipped them in 2016. He’s leading Trump in Erie, the quintessential swing county, by about 1,500 ballots with more than 98 percent of the estimated votes counted. Biden is ahead in Northampton by more than 1,000 ballots, though there are still votes to tally.
Both Biden and Trump made stops in Erie. The local Democratic Party in Erie also hired a field director in July and restarted its in-person canvassing operation over the summer, long before the Biden campaign got its program up and running again in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“A woman said to me, Jim, ‘I really don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t approve of the way he speaks, but I really want that [border] wall,’” said Jim Wertz, chair of the Erie County Democratic Party. “The fact that we continued to meet voters and talk to them and answer questions and have available for them things that they felt like they needed when they felt like they needed them — I think that has to pay off.”