Colin Reed: Pennsylvania could be a key battleground in 2020 presidential race

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The political spotlight was on Iowa Tuesday, with dueling visits from President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, currently the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination to run against Trump in 2020. But something more interesting may be going on in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania, a reliably Democratic state that was flipped and carried by Republican Trump in the last presidential election, could be up for grabs next year.

Axios reported surprising results Monday from a focus group of voters in Erie, Pa., made up of eight people who cast ballots for President Barack Obama in 2012 and for Trump in 2016. It turns out the focus group attendees are sticking by the current president.


First, an important caveat. One eight-person focus group in June 2019 is not a harbinger of things to come in November 2020. Nonetheless, there are some useful takeaways that can be applied to future projections.

For one, Pennsylvania can go for either the Democratic candidate or Trump next year.

Yes, Pennsylvania remains a blue state – the last Republican to win at the presidential level before Trump was President George H.W. Bush more than three decades ago. But Trump can compete in Pennsylvania if he reassembles his coalition by turning out voters in places like Erie to offset the inevitable drubbing he will suffer in vote-rich and heavily Democratic Philadelphia.

Erie County as a whole supported Obama by 16 points in 2012, but Trump carried it by two points in 2016.

Biden has been a beneficiary of the soft bigotry of low expectations. Having observed the catastrophes of his first two presidential bids, most analysts expected him to fall on his face from the jump. But he has managed to avoid such a fall – so far.

Biden has made no bones about his desire to win in his native state of Pennsylvania. He kicked off his campaign the first time in Pittsburgh, and round two took place in Philadelphia, where he has based his campaign headquarters. He can’t get through a speech without multiple references to his Scranton roots, and he fancies himself as “Pennsylvania’s third senator.”

Biden’s intense focus on Pennsylvania makes political sense. Of the trio of Rust Belt states flipped by Trump in 2016, only Pennsylvania carries enough electoral votes by itself to deny the Republican incumbent re-election. Assuming Trump can repeat his 2016 performance, both Michigan and Wisconsin could revert to blue so long as Pennsylvania remains red.

If Biden is slipping in Pennsylvania, it could be an aftereffect of the patch of stormy weather his campaign sailed into last week.

Yes, Biden’s inelegant and unpersuasive backtrack on taxpayer-funded abortions stole the show – he was against taxpayer funding before he was for it. He only flipped his position after he was criticized by many fellow Democratic presidential contenders.

But this was far from the only glitch in the Biden campaign last week.

The former vice president also rolled out his own version of the Green New Deal, sending a message that he prioritizes far-left environmentalists over the economic and employment needs of voters in western Pennsylvania.

It was bad enough that some of Biden’s proposals were plagiarized. Even worse was the actual substance behind them, which went far beyond the proposals of the Obama-Biden years that decimated the region.

Compounding matters is Biden’s baffling downplaying of the economic threat we face from China.

Biden recently asked “what are we worried about” from China. That’s not music to the ears in a region where voters still remember the steel industry collapsing. Recognizing the tone deafness, Biden took a much different position in his speech Tuesday in Iowa, labeling China a “serious challenge,” weeks after declaring “they’re not competition.”

Meanwhile, Trump has carried through on his tough talk on China. Tariffs may not be popular with the Republican Party as a whole, but could be a reason that some of the people in the Erie focus group described President Trump as wanting to “take care of Americans first” and said he “follows through.”

Biden has been a beneficiary of the soft bigotry of low expectations. Having observed the catastrophes of his first two presidential bids, most analysts expected him to fall on his face from the jump. But he has managed to avoid such a fall – so far.


Biden can’t rely on friendship bracelets to sew up his party’s nomination. He’s going to need to demonstrate more deftness on the campaign trail and show that he really wants to win. He also walks into the first debate in Miami as a marked man. 

If Biden manages to survive a bruising primary process, Pennsylvania may not be the general election layup for him that many are predicting.