They are disaffected and disconnected from conventional politics. Yet they flock to the president’s rallies, plaster their yards with signs and have been filling up voter registration rolls, the campaign insists.
In few places will this strategy be tested as in Pennsylvania, a critical state that Trump carried by only 44,292 votes out of 6.1 million cast in 2016. A Democratic surge of votes in cities and suburbs could quickly erase that narrow lead. To hold onto Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, the president needs to prove that a hidden groundswell of supporters exists – and will vote.
But the math behind the theory is tight. Trump’s plan requires blowout victories and historic turnout in conservative strongholds across the state, places where he outperformed traditional Republicans four years ago and he knows must do even better.
His mission is made clear by his campaign stops in Pennsylvania this week – a tour through GOP areas like Latrobe, Lititz and Martinsburg, “Trump has to drive turnout,” said Terry Madonna, a professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster who has conducted polls in the state for almost three decades. “I don’t see any evidence that he’s expanded his base.”
The strategy is more difficult to execute given the stunning disruption wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, both in terms of a public health crisis and nationwide economic dislocation.
Trump’s handling of the virus has cost him support among suburban women and older voters. His response to the civil unrest reacting to police killings of Black men only served to energize the resolve of Black women, as candidates and as voters. His wrecking-ball persona has prompted some of his backers in 2016 to reject him.
So his fate lies in large part in places like Butler County, an overwhelmingly white, conservative county north of Pittsburgh. There are nearly two Republicans for each registered Democrat. Most adults did not graduate from college. The economy rests on manufacturing and fracking, as well as service-sector jobs from suburbs creeping in from the city.
Republican turnout in Butler County was an impressive 80% in 2016. But local Republicans say the goal is to push that number as high as 90% this year. And they’ve spent several months registering new Republicans, adding 9,043 of them this year alone, for a 12.8% increase. Trump’s campaign is trying to replicate those kinds of numbers in other rural and exurban counties in the state.
Al Lindsay, a 74-year-old trial lawyer and farmer who leads the Butler County Republicans, says that registration push has been made easy by frustrations over pandemic lockdowns and a growing belief that Democrats don’t understand people who are religious and rural. His pitch is simple: “Look, there’s an urgency here. We need you.”
Butler wears its industrial past openly. There is still a baseball field at the historic Pullman Park, but the company closed its railcar factory in 1982. Its towns’ Main Streets recall an era when America was ascendant. The wire rope that holds up the Brooklyn Bridge was made in Butler County. So was the prototype for the Jeep deployed in World War II.
Republicans have been operating three campaign offices in the county – a declaration of their intention to dominate. Slippery Rock Mayor Jondavid Longo pushed to open one of those offices in his town of 3,600. It sits opposite North Country Brewing, the town’s second-largest employer after Slippery Rock University, where Longo, a former Marine infantryman, attended college.
Longo, 30, was elected mayor of Slippery Rock in 2017 by promising to keep taxes low and attract new businesses. The Republican knocked on 1,000 doors on the premise – similar to Trump’s – that the key to winning was finding people who had tired of politics.
His suits are tailored, his beard manicured and he drives entrepreneurs through Slippery Rock in a matte white Tesla. Trump “has given us an energy that says, Don’t back down, stand up for what’s right,” Longo said. “Open your mouth when you feel compelled to do so.” The mayor has aimed to turn out younger voters, a group that normally favors Democrats. But in Butler County, there are almost twice as many Republicans under 35 as there are Democrats – and their perspectives veer from the politics of their peers across the country.