Democrats in Trump Country: They're Not Shy Anymore About Liking Biden
LATROBE, PA. - When Vicki Simon passes the rare Biden pendant in her small town in western Pennsylvania, an obscured hand signal flashes softly.
"We have a secret society," said Simon, 54, of Scottdale, Pennsylvania. "We give each other the peace sign."
Mike Sherback, 55, stood by Simon as they waited to catch a glimpse of Joe Biden in nearby Latrobe and said that he, too, is usually not open about his political views. The two quoted the vocal Trump supporters in their conservative communities who sometimes shouted down dissidents.
"The Biden supporters don't like to come out like Trump supporters," said Sherback. "Normally I wouldn't do that either. But it's the biggest choice of my life. He needs the support because the Trump people, Trump supporters, are showing their support, whether in a radical way or not."
As a divisive presidential campaign enters the final stage, there is evidence that some Democrats deep in Trump land - the kind of voters who avoided political debates with their neighbors - tried to ignore Facebook debates, and in some cases the last Suspend elections - suddenly don't feel so shy. It's a surge in buzz reflecting the urgency of the election for Democrats desperately trying to oust President Donald Trump. This could have a significant impact on voter turnout in highly competitive battlefield nations, which the president won in 2016.
Nobody expects Westmoreland County, which also includes Latrobe and Scottdale, to take over democratic control after Trump won it by more than 30 percentage points in 2016. And no one doubts the passion of the president's supporters in such lands in Pennsylvania and the industrialized Midwest.
The question is whether Democrats in counties like Westmoreland are engaged enough this year to prevent Trump from restoring his staggering 2016 profit margins in working class white areas, the kind of support that his losses in cities and suburbs elsewhere last time compensated. If Biden can reduce Trump's support in these regions while producing even more in the suburbs and cities than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, Trump's path will be all the more difficult.
"Even if we just cut the margin," said Biden on his recent train journey through east Ohio and west Pennsylvania, "it makes a huge difference."
To what extent Biden can achieve this goal is uncertain in a highly polarized environment, and there is ample evidence that Trump's supporters have only become more committed in these areas. However, polls, Democrats and some local Republicans say there are also unmistakable signs of more democratic vigor this year - even in the "belly of the beast," as Simon put it - compared to 2016.
"Among those who didn't show up in Pennsylvania, they were 2-1 supporters of Clinton," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "What we're seeing right now isn't the same lack of excitement."
"Many of these so-called shy Biden voters who haven't spoken about it before are also the voters, the Democratic voters who stayed home four years ago and now regret it," he added.
A poll in Monmouth of registered Pennsylvania voters last week found that Trump's lead among white non-college voters had fallen from 22 points in early September to just 9 points this month, suggesting Biden is in for president decisive population group is advancing hopes for re-election. Several recent polls have found that Trump has less to do with these voters compared to his 2016 Pennsylvania result.
Biden has worked aggressively to include only those voters - and to woo their neighbors who are uncomfortable about their past support for Trump. On Saturday he fought in Erie, Pennsylvania, a county that supported Trump after voting for President Barack Obama and Biden in 2012. On Monday he was due to visit Ohio, a state some Democrats have written off over the past four years, but these polls show they are now up for grabs.
And his train journey after the initial debate took him to parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania closely associated with disaffected Democrats and dedicated Trump voters.
His first stop after the tour started in Cleveland was Alliance, Ohio, where Republican Mayor Alan C. Andreani described "seeing as many Biden signs as Trump signs, Biden flags with Trump flags".
"We rarely get as many signs as we see right now," said Andreani, who refused to say how he would choose. On both sides he said: "A lot of people are committed."
Yard signs, while far from definitive, offer a snapshot of the buzz as they did in 2016 when rural areas in key battlefield states were covered in Trump signs. And in a deeply partisan area, they can act as part of some sort of approval structure - an encouragement for others, in this case Biden followers, to speak up.
"People can feel connected to an older population," said JoAnn Seabol, 70, who coordinates volunteers for the Westmoreland County's Democratic Party. "Sometimes they are surprised by their neighbors when they see that they are also putting out a Biden sign."
And when signs are stolen from lawns - which has happened regularly on both sides this year because partisan sentiment is high - "it makes Biden supporters angrier and more determined," said Seabol from behind a desk in the Democratic office in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
Rochelle Thompson, 68, said she drove to the office because her neighbor's Biden sign was stolen. She described her neighborhood as "very trumpy" and said political discussions could be tense.
But Thompson also said she's seen more Democrats express their views publicly this year than in 2016.
"More and more people are clamoring because they're really fed up with what has happened in the past four years," she said. "I think more people will vote for Biden than they say."
A summer poll of Monmouth, Pennsylvania found that 57% of voters polled believed there was a "secret" Trump vote following the president's unexpected victory in 2016. In Trump counties, 32% of voters also expressed a belief in a "secret" Biden vote.
In interviews, a number of Westmoreland Democrats said they were unwilling to make their views known in their communities because they were outnumbered and reluctant to argue with neighbors, as some conservatives do in large cities or on some liberal campuses do their views on themselves.
"We're waiting for election day," said Rich Seanor, 67, a Biden supporter who works in a liquor store, when he was finishing up a shopping spree at an Aldi grocery store in Greensburg. "Then we'll be loud."
About ten miles away, in the Latrobe area, Republicans making pilgrimages to a place called Trump House felt no hesitation in voicing their views. A mix of Pennsylvanians and tourists from Florida and Colorado wound their way around the courtyard and porch of a converted farmhouse painted like an American flag. The place was designed as a grassroots hangout for Trump, said Leslie Rossi, the owner.
There she distributes voting information, free Trump paraphernalia and encourages people to change voter registration and register as Republicans.
"Biden can't bring 100 people a day to a rally," she said from the porch there, hours before Trump announced his positive test for the coronavirus. "I get a thousand people a day."
"The polls are wrong," she added, "because of what I see here."
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, the Republican Congressman in the region, said he was skeptical that Biden would do better than Clinton in rural areas, arguing that Republicans, who doubted him four years ago, were even more excited about Trump .
Reschenthaler cited in particular Trump's support for the oil and gas industry and his demand for "law and order" in response to unrest.
"Our base wasn't as excited in 2016 as it is now," he said. "So I am actually seeing more excitement from the republican base for the president in 2020."
Republican and democratic energies are not, however, mutually exclusive.
John Petrarca, 61, from Latrobe, was a 2016 Trump delegate to the Republican National Convention and agreed that Republicans in his region would only have given the president more support. However, in an interview outside Trump House, Petrarca said he was seeing more signs of democratic activity in the area too, pointing to Biden ads and signs. Not doubting the excitement of some of the Democrats in the area, he said, "This is not Alabama."
"Biden put in more effort than Clinton this time around, more money, I've seen more ads and signs - I haven't seen any Hillary Clinton signs," he said. "That's how a Republican would be if Obama were in office. People aren't afraid to make their mark because this election is so important to both sides."
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company
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