If one was a resident of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania and had been waiting desperately to attend a live, in-person campaign event featuring Joe Biden last Saturday it finally seemed that the magical moment had arrived. The previous evening, press releases had gone out announcing Joe’s triumphant visit for a special “drive-in” rally, accompanied by none other than reputed musical personality Jon Bon Jovi. The release didn’t specify where exactly in the county this was occurring, or what it would take to gain admittance — which was a bit curious.
First, you had to rely on the local newspaper to tell you where the event was even located. The report was who “spoke on the condition of anonymity” — as though the venue of a public presidential campaign rally was some sort of state secret. In trying to gain entry to the event that afternoon, I encountered a police officer who informed me that “pre-registration” had been required to attend, even though there was no publicly-available information as to how to “pre-register.” Finally, a Biden volunteer spilled the beans: the event was really open only to “party officials and donors.”
Now, this can supposedly be attributed to the Biden campaign’s hyper-cautious approach to the Covid pandemic. And there’s probably some validity — both political and epidemiological — to that rationale. But it’s still peculiar, and one might say disturbing, that public campaign events during the final phase of a presidential election have been effectively privatised under the auspices of virus control, as though that were the only option to ensure social distancing. If the price of mitigating virus spread is giving in-the-know elites another tier of special access to engage in the electoral process, that’s quite a bleak (and self-interested) tradeoff.
And there are more cynical interpretations of the Biden campaign’s tack here, because it’s an open question as to whether the general public would be interested in showing up to his events in the first place. Donald Trump, for his part, is still holding rip-roaring rallies several times a day like nothing’s changed since 2016. In Luzerne County that Saturday afternoon, Trump supporters far outnumbered Biden’s as they gathered en masse on the outskirts of Biden’s own event, with the goal — successfully accomplished — of shouting loudly at Biden’s motorcade as it entered the high school where the “drive in” event was taking place. They also drowned out the small cohort of Biden supporters who did manage to gather on the perimeter, shouting additional pleasantries at them like “Pedo Joe” and “Where’s Hunter?”
Granted, Luzerne County saw some of the biggest shifts to Trump anywhere in the country in 2016, helping him win Pennsylvania overall in a jarring upset, so you’d expect there to be an “enthusiasm” disparity there. The county was perhaps the national epicenter of electoral trends in de-industrialised, heavily white, economically adrift areas of the US that delivered an upset victory to Trump — he received a full 35% more raw votes there than the previous Republican nominee Mitt Romney did in 2012, which was an astonishing shift over just four years, even as raw population in the county . And much of that support remains fully in tact. But still, the scene that day was so weighted against Biden — again, at his own event — as to be comical.
If nothing else, the 2020 campaign will test the theory that on-the-ground, observable, in-person enthusiasm is any kind of significant determinant to a national election outcome. And in fairness to whoever’s calling the shots in Biden-land, there’s already someto believe Biden’s unprecedentedly hands-off approach may work. Even pre-Covid, during the Democratic primaries, the scant attendance at Biden’s campaign events and his paucity of paid campaign staff became a recurring object of ridicule. But then he ended up winning states he’d never set foot in by wide margins, blowing out candidates who’d raised and spent far more money.
Conversely, Trump’s swashbuckling rallies across the country in 2016 were routinely sneered at by journalists as self-indulgent wastes of time, but these rallies have an appreciable pro-Trump impact in electorally crucial areas such as Northeastern Pennsylvania. Home to outsized proportions of white people with less educational attainment — the percentage of residents who possess a college degree in Luzerne County () is well below the — voters there had an observably specific cultural affinity with Trump. And while that affinity remains — they have no qualms about displaying it with huge TRUMP flags attached to huge pickup trucks barrelling down the road — the question is whether this continued enthusiasm will be overridden by other segments of the electorate newly energised in opposition to Trump.
Either way, some humility on the “enthusiasm” issue is warranted, especially given the country’s mass transition to entirely new methods of election administration, whereby huge percentages of ballots are being cast well before Election Day. A member of the “Bikers for Trump” group which bombarded the Biden event, when asked who he foresaw winning Pennsylvania, replied: “If it was just regular votes, Trump. With this mail-in bull crap who knows.” (The man declined to provide his name.)
I also spent some time in nearby Scranton, PA where Biden was born, a fact he mentions constantly, and which provides an easy, cliched backdrop for a tedious number of journalistic inquiries into the state of the race in Pennsylvania. Though the city and surrounding county still lean Democratic, Trump also made enormous inroads there in 2016. Directly adjacent to the Biden campaign office in downtown — at which you can mosey in and pick up a slightly drab-looking “BIDEN” logo face mask — sits a shoe repair shop owned by Barry Lawrence. The interior of the shop is in partial disarray, and posted depressingly to its door is an eviction notice signed by a county magistrate.
Lawrence told me he was unable to operate his shop for approximately four months in the initial stage of the pandemic, and his landlord refused to cut him a break on rent. This was made all the more harmful because he said he didn’t know how to apply for one of the so-called “PPP” loans made available by the CARES Act, which was passed in March to support shuttered small businesses. But even as he’s now able to open his store back up, it’s barely made a dent. He’ll have to vacate just two days after the election.
“Business is dead,” Lawrence said. “People are still thinking about the pandemic. Nobody wanna be out.” He accepted a Biden/Harris campaign placard to put in his storefront window, though when asked about his candidate preference expressed no particular pro-Biden enthusiasm. “We need something better than what we have,” he said, almost mournfully.
Whether Trump himself can rightfully be blamed for Lawrence’s inability to get the loan is debatable, but one can’t deny that prolonged Covid-induced dread isn’t very helpful for the incumbent. Especially for voters who’ve made every effort to abide by mitigation protocols in their own lives, while Trump has a somewhat spotty track record in that regard. For the record, face masks were required for entry to a “Trump Victory” campaign office in Montgomery County as of Sunday, October 25, which apparently is not the case in the White House — site to at least one known “super-spreader” event. Montgomery County, a diversifying Philadelphia suburb, is among the few places in the state that actually trended Democratic in 2016, and that’s where Biden’s campaign is banking on boosting turnout to overcome Trump’s likely sky-high margins in rural areas — areas where, it should be said, mask-wearing is considerably less embraced.
Luckily for Biden, volunteers hardly even have to make an affirmative case on his behalf, when the “negative” case (against Trump) is so all-consumingly dominant in the minds of Trump’s opponents. Jeanne Boland, a Biden campaign volunteer from Scranton, said she hadn’t bothered getting involved in the 2016 election but now was going all-out after four year of being inflicted with what she clearly felt was a non-stop series of Trump-related horrors. “Honestly, I thought Hillary was a lock,” she recalled of this time last cycle.
And out of what she said were hundreds of interactions she’d made over the preceding several days, Boland “only talked to one voter who actually said that they haven’t made up their minds yet.” This is borne out in polling data, and also makes the “final stretch” of this election (to use another pundit cliche) seem altogether different from 2016, when there was a palpable sense of fluidity in the waning days of the race. Now, you either want Trump in, or you want him out. A binary question. Biden is almost a side-story. Voters seldom mention him — it’s all Trump, all the time.
An older woman exiting an early-voting polling place in a largely black area of Northeast Philadelphia on Monday, having just checked the box for Biden, was asked to rate the candidate’s performance over the course of the campaign. “Sufficient,” she said. This is amusing for anyone who can remember the rapturous enthusiasm engendered by Barack Obama in 2008, and even to large extent in 2012 — particularly (but by no means exclusively) in black neighbourhoods. Hillary Clinton’s failure to rouse comparable enthusiasm was a significant contributor to her loss four years ago. This time, though, Trump appears to have provided all the enthusiasm — pro and con — that anyone needs. And if being merely “sufficient” is enough to win a national election in 2020, as it may well be, then the country has really lowered its collective expectations.