Opinion | How Joe Biden Can Win Pennsylvania, His Rosebud

By Equipo
16 Min Read

Let’s talk about why President Biden is spending three days in Pennsylvania this week — a lot of time by campaign standards. By now, you probably know that just a few swing states are pivotal to winning the White House in November. For Mr. Biden, the Keystone State is the most crucial.

It’s not just that Pennsylvania has 19 electoral votes — the biggest haul of any battleground. And it’s not just that it is part of the Blue Wall, the string of industrial states that helped Democrats win the presidency for years until Donald Trump cracked it in 2016. This fight is also personal: Mr. Biden is a native son of Pennsylvania who spent part of his childhood there, identifies with its working-class, regular-folk vibe and gets intuitively how the state is a microcosm for America. If Scranton Joe cannot hang onto his Rosebud, he is probably in big trouble nationally.

The goodish news for Mr. Biden is that he appears to be running neck-and-neck here with Mr. Trump, according to polling and campaign insiders, unlike in some other swing states where he is struggling a bit more. The tougher news is that many Democrats anticipate a tick-tight race, and it’s not yet clear what will energize and turn out voters. “My big fear is that people are exhausted by the chaos,” says U.S. Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, who hails from one of the suburban “collar counties” around Philadelphia.

So what does Team Biden need to do to prevail? High-profile visits like Mr. Biden’s three-day swing this week are important. But they are a tiny piece of what it takes to win a place as sprawling and complicated as Pennsylvania. To get a clearer sense of the puzzle, I set about picking the brains of over a dozen strategists, organizers, elected officials and other state political experts. A smattering of common themes and strategies bubbled up — some easier than others for the president and his campaign to tackle.

I started by approaching Gov. Josh Shapiro, a member of Mr. Biden’s campaign advisory board who is considered a Democratic rock star since winning the state by nearly 15 points in 2022. (Mr. Biden squeaked by here in 2020 by 1.2 points. Though, to be fair, Mr. Shapiro had a truly lousy opponent.)

One story stuck with me from talking with the governor. It’s a bit canned, sure, but it made me think about some of the hurdles Mr. Biden is facing. Asked if anything took him by surprise in his own run, Mr. Shapiro told me about his first TV ad, which showed him sitting around the Sabbath dinner table with his family, and how, afterward, voters would come up to him to share their own faith stories and traditions. “The ad allowed them to speak to me in a personal way,” he recalled.

While Mr. Biden can emote with the best of them, many voters, especially among his base, just aren’t feeling that personal bond these days. Finding ways to reconnect, to make people feel understood and listened to, is one of his trickiest challenges.

Part of this will be letting voters know that he has been working for them. It’s important to spell out for people “what you delivered, how your work positively impacted their lives,” Mr. Shapiro says of his experience. It also means addressing the things that still need fixing — making clear that, yes, you feel voters’ pain. “I’ve heard people loud and clear. Things cost a lot. They want relief,” said the governor, stressing that you have to “acknowledge the challenges people feel.”

As Mr. Biden works to sell voters on his accomplishments, and himself, he will have to do it across wildly different parts of Pennsylvania. Winning here means playing everywhere, say the state’s political hands — pretty much all of whom can recite the vote margins a Democrat needs to aim for in Philadelphia, its collar counties, Allegheny (home to Pittsburgh), this western enclave, that area of the Lehigh Valley and even the “T counties” running up the center and across the top of the state that typically go Republican. Boiled down, the blue-team blueprint is: run up the numbers in and around Philly, do well in Allegheny and other select spots and hold down Republicans’ margins of victory in the more rural areas.

“You can’t rely on the places traditionally friendly to us. You have to close the margins in places we’re not going to win,” said Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, a Democrat. Take the reliably red counties of Westmoreland, in the Pittsburgh region, and rural Northumberland, he offered: “You can lose 60-40, but you can’t lose 70-30. It makes a huge difference.”

“Margins matter!” confirmed State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, who is running statewide for auditor general. This is especially true if turnout in Philadelphia is not so hot — which, Democrats say, has been the case for several years. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Making inroads into hostile territory was crucial to both Mr. Shapiro’s and Senator John Fetterman’s victories in 2022. And while a presidential campaign is a different animal, some of the basics are transferable. Team Biden will need to build up its campaign infrastructure and outreach early in places where Democrats usually get clobbered.

So far, the campaign seems to be taking this challenge to heart.

Lancaster County is one of those places that don’t show Democrats a lot of love. Mr. Trump won this Republican stronghold by nearly 16 points in 2020. Mr. Shapiro narrowly lost it to the MAGA-tastic Doug Mastriano in 2022. But the Biden team sees potential here and began investing resources early this cycle. The campaign opened a local office last month — one of 14 already up and running in the state — making a big to-do about the event and inviting MSNBC to cover it. Campaign hiring is gearing up, and volunteers are already out knocking on voters’ doors multiple times a week.

Last Saturday, I tagged along for some canvassing with Stella Sexton, the vice chairwoman of the county Democratic Committee. Armed with a list of registered Democrats, she was reminding people that the primary was this coming Tuesday and ensuring they knew their polling place was at a local funeral home. Getting people involved in the primary makes it more likely that they will show up for the general election, she told me.

Many of the folks on her list weren’t home. Or weren’t answering the door. (It’s gotten harder with video doorbells, she noted.) Others were not in the mood to chat, such as the older gentleman who came to the door in his fish-print pajama pants. But now and then, Ms. Sexton hit upon someone who shared her sense of mission — like Bernese Lyons, a feisty nonagenarian with strong feelings about the need to defeat Mr. Trump. “The man is mad!” she declared.

Playing in Republican areas can get Mr. Biden only so far, of course. His success will rest heavily on Philadelphia’s populous collar counties, which once leaned red but have shifted blue in recent years thanks in part to suburban women turning against Mr. Trump. MAGA extremism did not play well in this region even before the demise of Roe v. Wade. Now? Mobilizing its legions of moderates and independents over reproductive rights is central to the Democratic playbook.

And then there’s Philly. Any Democrat running statewide needs to run up the vote count in this city of more than 1.5 million people, with three-quarters of the voters registered as Democrats. Talking about Philly is where Dems sound the most nervous. Turnout there has been meh for the past several elections, they say. And since 2020, Mr. Biden has lost support among some core constituencies, including Black and Hispanic voters, of which Philly has an abundance.

Some people, including former Gov. Ed Rendell, fear it will be tough for the president to match his 2020 numbers this time. The city was “hard hit during the pandemic. It’s had crime problems, economic problems,” he says. “There really is just a general feeling of — not a hopeless feeling — but a general feeling that people aren’t fired up.”

Political types focused on the city note that, among young Black men in particular, there is a lack of urgency regarding the importance of this election. The Biden campaign is hoping to change this with early engagement. It wants to turn its offices into community hubs, maybe even set up community fridges (like community pantries, only … cooler) in some neighborhoods. And it wants to get trusted local leaders out talking with people early and often.

Smart politicians also know better than to overlook the state’s Hispanic population. While still a relatively modest 8.6 percent, this demographic group is on the rise well beyond Philadelphia. Notably, Allentown, Pennsylvania’s third-largest city, is now majority Hispanic and, in 2021, elected its first Latino mayor.

Mr. Shapiro’s team keeps in touch with Spanish-language media hosts, and the governor does interviews on Spanish-language radio. Not that you have to speak Spanish to us, clarifies Allentown’s mayor, Matt Tuerk. “But you need to show up early instead of just in October and seriously listen to our concerns.” Already this year, Mr. Biden has visited Allentown, as has the president’s health and human services secretary, Xavier Becerra.

The right surrogates, properly deployed, will be critical. Local talent will be the backbone. “It’s really important to tell your story through the people who live in the community,” says Mr. Shapiro. But superstars could have their place as well. “If I were in charge of the campaign, I would take Bill Clinton and send him to every small county in the state,” says Mr. Rendell. “And I’d have Barack Obama hit the major cities.” Many people expect Mr. Shapiro, who enjoys enviable approval numbers, to be Mr. Biden’s most effective surrogate. “He is the most popular Democrat in the state,” says Mr. Rendell. “Use him!”

The campaign’s messengers, of course, need a message that resonates. In terms of policy, Pennsylvanians put the economy at the top of their list of concerns, as is the case nationwide. (No surprise that this is the theme of Mr. Biden’s visit this week.) Indeed, many of the issues that trouble people here are what you hear all over. Gun violence is a worry in Philadelphia. Young voters are outraged over the war in Gaza. The opioid crisis has hit hard. Democracy is being threatened. Women’s reproductive rights are under attack.

The state has its particularities as well, including the sticky issue of fracking. Many Democrats hate the process because of its environmental costs. But in Pennsylvania, fracking took “a lot of people who were going to live and die poor,” made their land valuable and erased their “financial worries,” notes Mr. Rendell.

Tensions over energy development here are one reason the party has lost ground in the southwestern part of the state, says Berwood Yost, who heads the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College. At a rally in the Lehigh Valley last Saturday, Mr. Trump gleefully painted the president as an enemy of Pennsylvania’s energy sector. Mr. Biden needs to approach the issue with extreme care, says Mr. Rendell. Mr. Yost observes that Mr. Shapiro, who has been handling a similar balancing act successfully so far, could “offer ideas.”

The president’s heaviest lift may be combating the general bad vibes afoot in the land. “We’re at a point with polarization and politics where policy matters less than emotion,” says Mr. Yost. Moreover, while hawking specific achievements is all well and good, he says, “you have to have some kind of a vision.”

The vision thing is a tough one. For his part, Mr. Shapiro frames this election as a story about freedom: the freedom of women to control their bodies, the freedom to love who you want, the freedom to be who you are, and so on. Ms. Scanlon sees it as “an election about choice — and not just on reproductive rights.” Mr. Biden will need to find his own narrative for his candidacy, then work like hell to push it out. But even with a great story, it is hard to argue people out of their feelings.

Still, as the race heats up and people tune in, Democrats are betting they will benefit, as they have since 2018, from the chaos that clings to Mr. Biden’s opponent. “There’s an old saying in politics: ‘The greatest motivator is hate not love,’” says Mr. Rendell. “And Trump is giving a lot of people reasons to hate, and fear, him.”

Democrats have their fingers crossed that this will prove the defining piece of the puzzle.

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