Election 2020 Comes Down to the Keystone State

by Heather Robinson

Pittsburgh–On the eve of the 2020 election, as President Trump and former VP Joe Biden campaign neck-in-neck, Pennsylvania is emerging as the “Keystone State,” with pollsters and pundits predicting that, as this crucial swing state goes, so will the nation. On Saturday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the city’s leading local newspaper, made national news for endorsing a Republican presidential candidate for the first time since 1972 —President Trump.

In the maelstrom of this tight Presidential race, I took to the streets of my hometown, Pittsburgh, over the past three days to get the pulse.

Four years ago, talking with Western Pennsylvanians at random uncovered unlikely pockets of support for Trump. Synthesizing interviews, voter registration patterns, and breaking news, I speculated Pennsylvania would pivot red—and it did. This year, prior to breaking speculation that it may be deja vu all over again due to the phenomenon of the “shy Trump voter,” I had begun my 2020 shoe-leather poll. What I heard over the past four days, along with recent news, suggests the possibility of an upset for Biden here.

I’m hearing similar things to 2016, but greater reluctance on the part of likely voters to go on the record than four years ago. Basically, people don’t want to say whom they’re voting for – unless it’s Biden. Which could translate to a lot more “shy” Trump voters in the state in 2020.

Interviewing almost two dozen Western Pennsylvanians, mostly at random, I heard from several that, if asked to participate in an official poll, they would decline. It was harder this year than it was four years ago to get people to go on the record, and those who did, generally didn’t give their names.

Most polls show Biden ahead in PA within a 3 to 6 point margin of error, with exception of one, the Trafalgar poll, which had the President leading by one point, 48.4 to 47.6, in Pennsylvania as of last week. Pollster Nate Silver, who many in media esteem (despite his inaccurate prediction that Hillary Clinton would win in 2016), is giving President Trump a ten percent chance of victory.

Silver is hedging his bets with the caveat that “Trump can still win, but the polls would have to be off by way more than in 2016.”

What if they are?

Listening to Silver’s October 30th “FiveThirtyEight” podcast, I’m as unconvinced as I was four years ago that he and other prominent pollsters grasp the mindset of the “shy Trump voter” enough to design a poll that would reflect their actual numbers. His remark,” There is no reason to think there are more shy Trump voters than shy Biden voters” suggests to me he is not understanding what it is like to support this President in a climate in which doing so could cost you your reputation, your job, and your relationships.

With the President on his way to the Keystone State Saturday (he came and did four rallies here that day), I hit the streets of Pittsburgh to get the pulse.

On foot, I traversed two neighborhoods—the traditionally Democratic areas of Squirrel Hill and Shadyside. I approached as varied a group as possible in three restaurant/bars, one hair salon, and one bookstore. Additionally, I stopped one man at random on the street, and did a phone interview with Michael Wurster, a prominent local poet and author who leans politically conservative.

Feel free to take this offering with a grain of salt, a slice of pizza, or a glass of wine—all which I enjoyed as I obtained these perspectives. (Distancing and behind my mask).

One theme that emerged clearly was distrust, based on the surprise that occurred four years ago, of the polls predicting a Biden victory in Pennsylvania.

“Look what happened last time – it was supposed to be Hillary by 12 [points], so I don’t trust the polls,” said Brian, a 40-something in Cappy’s Place, a local watering hole in Shadyside, an upscale neighborhood near Pittsburgh’s university district. Brian declined to state his voting preference, adding, “Doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a winner Tuesday night, anyway… Remember the Gore/Bush thing and how long that went on with the hangin’ chads? And that was pre-social media.”

“He did three rallies in our area in a day. I have a friend who owns a business, and he said you couldn’t even park, there were so many cars lined up,” said David Bifano, 49, an accountant, of Johnstown, Pa. “There were a lot more people than the media were saying … I think Trump has a lot more support than the media thinks.”

Several, including Biden voters, volunteered the observation that pro-Trump signs are ubiquitous outside the city.

William, a bookstore clerk in Squirrel Hill (a traditionally Jewish neighborhood that made national news two years ago after the worst ant-Semitic shooting in US history occurred there at Tree of Life synagogue), offered, “My only option is to vote Biden. He added, “Driving through Pennsylvania, there are more Trump signs.”

Ethan Scott, 28, a Southern California transplant to Pittsburgh browsing in the store, declined to say whom he was voting for. He observed, “New York, and Southern California, can be an echo chamber … here, go for a drive for ten minutes in any direction and you are more likely to see Trump supporters. In Squirrel Hill, you’re not going to see a single Trump supporter openly” displaying a sign, for instance.

Jonathan Dinkel, 27, a waiter at Eat-n-Park restaurant in Squirrel Hill, said he voted early for Biden. Asked about his take on the twenty-something vote in Western Pa., Dinkel said he had never voted before, and “at least one” of his friends who has also never voted before went for Biden, adding, “A lot say they are going to, but I don’t know if they’re going to follow through.”

A 50-ish man, approached on Squirrel Hill’s Murray Avenue as he unloaded boxes from a truck, told me, “I don’t like Trump, and I don’t think he’s been a great President, but I don’t think he’s been as bad as they think, and I am voting for him. If Biden is elected, he won’t be calling the shots, it’ll be Nancy [Pelosi] and the gang of 3.” This man, Gene, said he voted for President Bill Clinton, and for President Barack Obama “the first time.” Owner of a moving and storage company with 17 employees, he found healthcare regulations enacted during Obama’s second term “crippling” to his business. “I’m not a Republican,” he said, adding, “A lot of people voting for Trump don’t want to say because of the backlash they’ll get.”

In Squirrel Hill Café, a decades-old dive bar, an elderly woman, who declined to share her name, told me, “Trump’s been an ***hole about not wearing the mask, and I’m sick of the protestors, too … You don’t want to be outside the day after the election.” She is not planning to vote, she said.

Another Squirrel Hill restaurateur who declined to be quoted by name, offered, “What happened in 2016 was the polls said Hillary, but it was Trump in Pennsylvania.” He added, “It could happen again.”

A hair stylist in Shadyside, Pauline (not her real name), 60, of Dormont, a Pittsburgh suburb, said she remains undecided, but is leaning Trump because of the economy, and “law and order.”

“I may not know until I’m standing there,” Pauline said. “I can’t stand to look at Trump, but he did make the economy way better, and I feel like you can’t have a lawless society.”

Michael Wurster, 80, a prominent Pittsburgh poet, author, and retired state welfare department employee, thinks riots in Philadelphia in recent days following the shooting by police of a mentally ill man who charged toward them with a knife, may influence undecided Pennsylvania voters.

“I think the number of Trump voters in Pennsylvania is being underestimated,” Wurster said. “A lot of people who thought they’d vote Biden are changing their minds because of the riots in Philadelphia.”

Wurster said local issues may also sway Pittsburgh-area voters toward Trump. As an example, he says his girlfriend, who is African-American, objects to efforts to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus from Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park. (Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has recommended removal and relocation of the twice-vandalized statue, but local Italian-Americans have objected, including The Italian Sons and Daughters of America, who filed for an injunction and won a recent legal battle to keep the statue in place).

The Columbus statue issue may move some traditionally Democratic voters, heretofore undecided, in the Pittsburgh area into Trump’s camp, Wurster believes. “Columbus is a patron saint for Italians,” he said.

If a red wave of shy supporters delivers President Trump an upset victory in Pennsylvania, big media that have devoted themselves to condemning Trump since before he was inaugurated may have to to contend with shock all over again.


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