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Will Pennsylvania decide the 2024 election?

Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Pennsylvania late last month. Credit: Getty

July 11, 2024 - 1:00pm

Decades ago, a young Joe Biden described himself as “the most popular politician in Pennsylvania”. In 1980, at one state stop for Jimmy Carter’s flagging presidential re-election campaign, then-Delaware Senator Biden told attendees: “I am one of the most important men in America.” He added: “I’d probably be president myself if I wasn’t too young the last time around.”

This time around, youth and popularity aren’t on his side — including in the deal-breaker Keystone State where Biden, a Scranton native, long branded himself as its “third senator”. According to the RealClearPolitics’s polling average, following Biden’s calamitous debate Trump is now leading the President by 5.3 points. For perspective, based on archival RCP polling averages dating to 2004, no Republican presidential candidate has led at this point of a campaign in Pennsylvania (Biden was up by 6.5 points this week in 2020). As Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter noted this week based on one set of surveys, “Trump expanded his lead […] from four points to 10 points.”

Biden can’t win re-election without Pennsylvania. This is why, as Axios reported, the Trump campaign still views Pennsylvania as the toughest to win among the seven swing states. But to Democratic elders — such as campaign veteran James Carville, whose career was launched by his management of a successful 1986 gubernatorial campaign in Pennsylvania — there is no path to victory for Biden.

It was 1986 when Carville famously described the state as Paoli (suburban Philadelphia) and Penn Hills (suburban Pittsburgh) with Alabama filling the rest. Today, even after Trump’s narrow 2016 victory there, Pennsylvania has dramatically changed. If anything, the state’s vast, growing, and Democratic-trending suburbs — in many cases just Republican farmland in the mid-Eighties — remain Biden’s electoral insurance policy despite current polling.

After all, it was only two years ago in Pennsylvania when a health-compromised candidate was written off following a poor debate performance. Thanks to suburban turnout and improved margins among working-class voters, John Fetterman managed to defeat Republican Dr Mehmet Oz. “Morning-after thermonuclear beat downs from my race from the debate and polling geniuses […] And what happened? The only seat to flip and won by a historic margin (+5). Chill the fuck out,” posted Fetterman, a steadfast Biden supporter, after the President’s debate.

Now the oldest swing state will decide Biden’s fate. But current polling could engender overconfidence among Republicans. Healthcare-driven suburbia, especially around Harrisburg and its growing outskirts, is leaning Democratic and beginning to look like metro Washington.

Even in working-class regions such as Biden’s native northeastern Pennsylvania, as Fetterman’s 2022 campaign proved, there are still enough older, pro-labour Democrats who view their ancestral party through a nostalgic lens. Meanwhile, east of the Susquehanna River, many cities, comprising a global warehousing hub, now have Hispanic-majority or plurality populations (Dominicans are becoming Philadelphia’s largest immigrant group), but their Trump sympathies may not translate into turnout without GOP engagement.

And in Philadelphia, despite favourable national polling for Trump, Biden will still count on voter turnout among the city’s African American population. “God knew Biden needs some love,” a pastor said upon the President’s visit to a city church last Sunday. Indeed, it’s still a state where Trump risks underperforming in areas which should be a key source of support. And NeverTrump Boomers, disillusioned Zoomers, and double haters will keep a Trump-Biden rematch unpredictable.

Biden barely won Pennsylvania in 2020, and though present polling is slanting in favour of his Republican rival, the state will doubtless remain the most competitive and consequential one headed into November. Last Saturday, California Governor Gavin Newsom campaigned for Biden in suburban Philadelphia’s Bucks County, on track to holding the sole GOP voter-registration majority in the metro region. Newsom’s stop was reminiscent of Biden’s 1980 tour for Carter. “You’ve probably all already made up your minds, so I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here,” Biden told Pennsylvania voters that year.

Even following the debate, it would be state voters’ preexisting conditions, particularly economic discontent, that would lead Pennsylvania voters to narrowly pull for Trump. But in the post-Trump era, especially after the Dobbs decision in 2022, Pennsylvania Republicans have suffered punishing losses due to suburban voter turnout. These voters, alongside stalwart older Democrats and former Republicans, will keep the state competitive — and unpredictable.


Charles F. McElwee is the founding editor of RealClearPennsylvania. Follow him on X at @CFMcElwee.

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Steven Carr
Steven Carr
10 days ago

We have to ask ourselves what the election is all about.
Is it about saving democracy from the threat of Donald Trump?
Is that what the election is about?

As Biden said to George Stephanopolous, ‘“I’ll feel as long as I gave it my all and I did the goodest job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about,”’
The election is not about saving America from Trump.

If Biden loses, he will feel fine about the result, knowing he did the goodest job he could do.
In the end, that’s what matters isn’t it? Biden’s pride. Biden’s ego, Biden’s feelings.
Not America.

T Bone
T Bone
10 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Dont worry Steven, I’m sure Hollywood and the Superdelegates will resolve the problem for the “Guardians of Democracy.”

Although, we’re still waiting on a working definition for this type of “Democracy.”

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
10 days ago

Biden has been a tick on America’s @ss for 50 years and that has nothing to do with Trump. His cognitive decline was apparent during the 2020 basement campaign. Let’s not pretend that no one knew before the debate. They knew. They also knew that he wasn’t the one making decisions and he wouldn’t be if he somehow won this time.
The left to talk about “saving our democracy.” This is the same group whose party features super delegates, a completely undemocratic concept. It’s also the group slavishly devoted to the unelected, unaccountable administrative state.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Most voters understood what they were getting in 2020. They didn’t vote for Biden as much as against Trump. The Democrats knew none of their actual woke, tree-hugging, microaggression conscious, pronoun respecting, overeducated urbanites could actually win, so they essentially nominated an empty suit who wouldn’t trigger the still viciously populist voters outside the urban strongholds to register their displeasure as they had in 2016. They were right. Biden hid in his basement, did his job, and avoided triggering any serious backlash from anywhere. A generic Democrat could beat Trump, but not one of the loud, activist types who increasingly dominate the party. Biden played the role of generic Democrat, and the argument can be made it was the perfect situation for him. Most people knew the score and essentially elected nobody, a figurehead, because they were tired of Trump’s antics and just wanted things back to some semblance of normality, and this was during COVID.
Four years later, Biden has actual policy decisions that make it harder for him to distance himself from the wokery and nonsense that are killing the Democrats with poor and working class voters, including minorities. He’s embarrassed the country in a completely different way and Trump’s antics don’t seem so bad by comparison. Lastly, people have realized that things aren’t going back to normal no matter who we elect. The world is changing and the time for clinging to the past, especially the recent past, is over. The worrying thing for Democrats should be that Trump consistently outperforms his poll numbers going back to 2016. Polls always lean towards the educated and the urban. Many of the people who vote for Trump are hostile to the media and won’t talk to them for a poll or anything else, which is why he does better in Fox News polling; some of the voters will still talk to Fox News. If polling shows him up by five points, it might actually be seven or even ten points. I’ve got no great love for James Carville but the man is undeniably a sharp political strategist and has been right more often than not in his political calculations. Democrats should be very, very worried. If Biden stays in the race, he might not just get beaten, but beaten by a significant margin, a margin large enough to well and truly put the fear of God into the establishment. They’re already frightened, but I’m not sure they’re frightened enough.
If Biden won’t agree to step down, it will divide the party and probably make things worse. Even if he does agree to step down, there’s no obvious replacement who will necessarily be any better. Harris polls slightly better or slightly worse than Biden depending on which poll and when it was taken. Newsom is worse. Whitmer has taken herself out of the running. The Democrats best hope might be my own home state governor, Andy Beshear, who has managed to win as a Democrat twice in one of the reddest states in the USA. His name has come up recently, and his father (who was also governor) did have aspirations to national office at one point, but he’s a virtual unknown nationally. It’s a roll of the dice on an unknown commodity and it means passing up and possibly pissing off a number of powerful constituencies and people who back the likes of Newsom and Harris, but it’s probably the best they can do at this point.

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
9 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Very well said.

Leslie Smith
Leslie Smith
10 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Yes, and Obama disparaged rural white voters in Pennsylvania clinging to their Bibles and guns, and Hillary Clinton called her political opponents “deplorables” – shows you how much the Dem Party elites dislike average Americans. With Biden’s open borders 10+ million migrants influx, we’re witnessing turning the destruction of the USA, but at least the champagne liberals will have lots of cheap domestic labor. BTW, the House of Representatives just passed the SAVE Act to require voter ID at polling places – all but 5 Dem Party Congressional Representatives voted against this bill, i.e., they are in favor of not having to show an ID to vote – just shows you the anti-American agenda of today’s Democrat Party.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
10 days ago

Will Biden win Pennsylvania?

No chance.

The Democrats have turned on Biden.

Even the New York Times is now printing the truth about Trump and the truth about Biden.

In the Stephanopolous interview , Biden said ‘This is a guy who told us to put bleach in our arms to deal with COVID, with a million– over a million people died. ‘

The NYT responded that Trump did not “instruct people to inject bleach but suggested that doing so with a disinfectant was an ‘interesting’ concept to test out.” 

Even CNN said ‘Biden’s claim is misleading. Trump never portrayed his ill-informed and widely denounced musings about using disinfectants to address Covid-19 as advice to Americans. Rather, Trump was talking about the possibility of scientists conducting tests of this idea.’

When CNN and the New York Times resort to telling the truth about Trump, then Biden is doomed.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

The NYT and CNN fact checking Biden for comments about Trump. That is truly a mind frack, especially since they did the exact same thing in 2020. Their commitment to truth is very situational.