Covid and stogies on the campaign trail
A trip through a swing state reveals the complex dynamics of a strangely disembodied presidential race
This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Biden has come to Pittsburgh, in western Pennsylvania, to counter-attack with a speech designed to draw a clear line between himself and the activists doing battle in the streets of Portland, Seattle and other US cities. The location — the second largest city in the second largest swing state in the country — has a basic electoral logic to it.
But Pittsburgh also burnishes the version of himself Biden wants to present to the country: tough, hard-working, honest and down to earth like the residents of Steel City. Not a coastal globetrotter like Hillary Clinton — the first Democratic presidential candidate to lose Pennsylvania since Michael Dukakis in 1988. And definitely not, as the Trump campaign claims, a “Trojan horse” for the far left.
“I want to be very clear about all of this,” he will say. “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”
In an effective and memorable line, the 77-year-old Washington veteran and self-styled moderate will look down the camera’s lens and, with three American flags hanging neatly behind him, ask the country: “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?”
What little spontaneity and authenticity there was left has been killed off by the virus
This being 2020, the camera lens is the only place Biden will find any actual voters. Other than bag carriers and security, he will be alone.
The lack of in-person attendance has not stopped some loyal Biden supporters from showing up. They are here for the same reason I am: in search of something resembling a campaign trail, a place where candidates are challenged and voters get to see the whites of their eyes. Even in the twenty-first century, in-person politicking can make a difference.
I join a small crowd gathered on the edge of a windy field on the outskirts of the city and across the street from the venue for Biden’s speech — a giant skeleton of a steel mill that now houses a robotics manufacturer and, with its rusty beams and bright yellow exterior staircases, looks like Pittsburgh’s answer to the Pompidou Centre. The masked voters bolster the message Biden hopes to deliver inside and mirrors the coalition he hopes will deliver him victory in November: the white suburbanites, older black Pittsburghers and curious university students are not a rowdy bunch.
“Who’s ready to restore a little dignity to the people’s house?” yells one grey-haired rabble-rouser to polite cheers. Antifa this is not. The crowd take the speech in on their phones. Biden’s voice rattles, out of sync, from dozens of tinny speakers. Then they wait for a glimpse of the man they hope will be the next President of the United States.
“Hey, Joe, before you go, come outside and say hello,” they chant.
Delores Cannon, a 74-year-old retired bus driver sporting a cap with the emblem of the AMU, her trade union, has been waiting for two hours. “Pittsburgh and Allegheny County [the surrounding area] got Joe’s back,” she tells me with complete confidence. “Now the rest of Pennsylvania . . . who they vote for is on them. But Trump can’t win here because we know right from wrong.”
“He’s got to come out here and wave. He has to,” insists one middle-aged woman. “It’s a presidential election.” “It’s just nice to be part of it, even if he doesn’t come out,” says another, managing expectations.
As time wears on, the chances of a candidate sighting slip. The crowd gradually thins and, when the motorcade speeds off, it’s confirmed: Joe Biden, a master of the rope line who has built a career on pressing the flesh, won’t be meeting any voters today.
The in-person dimension of a presidential campaign was carefully managed before Covid-19. What little spontaneity and authenticity there was left has been killed off by the virus. Pared-back travel itineraries, behind-closed-doors speeches, underwhelming socially distanced events: these practical consequences of holding an election during a pandemic make the campaign trail oddly elusive this year. The presidential race may dominate the headlines, but it’s more virtual than ever before and is leaving a disconcertingly light footprint on the real world.
And so, instead of looking for a campaign trail that, on the evidence of Biden’s Pittsburgh appearance, wasn’t really there, I decided to plot a route for an election road trip, driving from one end of Pennsylvania — maybe the most important state in the race, decided by fewer than 50,000 votes last time — to the other. Taking the scenic route from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, I’d see what I could learn about the presidential race along the way.
According to Pennsylvania: A Guide to the Keystone State, published in 1940 as part of a government-funded series of guides to all (then) 48 states (a New Deal scheme to keep writers employed that John Steinbeck called “the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together”), the state’s “natural resources, its scenery, its people and their manifest interests illustrate a vivid section of the contemporary life of the nation.”
Pennsylvania, now older and whiter than America as a whole, may be less representative today than it once was, but it has hardly ever been as central to the country’s political future. According to two leading election models, one run by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and another published by the Economist, Pennsylvania is the most likely to be the tipping-point state, meaning that when the votes are counted, the result in Pennsylvania provides the decisive vote in the electoral college for either Trump or Biden. In other words, the road to the White House very likely runs through Pennsylvania.
The 1940 guide also touts the Keystone State’s “remarkable diversity”: “Landscape and natural resources and people, their dialects, manners, customs, and traditions, their religious beliefs, mental and social attitudes, and occupations, all display a seemingly endless variety.”
That variety is still on display today, and means Pennsylvania resembles the national presidential race in miniature: urban democratic strongholds, deep-red rural counties and the fiercely contested suburbs in between. My route would take in rural farmland, down-at-heel small towns in coal country, once- mighty industrial hubs (some reinventing themselves with more success than others), and city ghost-town downtowns in cities still struggling with the coronavirus.
With white working-class voters turning out in huge numbers to deliver the state to Trump by just under a percentage point, Pennsylvania encapsulated the story of the 2016 race. Four years on, it is likely to play a similarly starring role and this time around the polls give Biden a consistent lead.
Soaring demand and pandemic-affected supply chains mean Gooch has even had to ration ammo
Before heading east from Pittsburgh, I take a short detour north-west along the Ohio river. It may be thought of as a quintessential rust-belt city but the area’s recent economic history is not nearly as grim as that might suggest. The short answer as to why is fracking. Pennsylvania produces more natural gas than any state other than Texas and, over the past decade, the counties around Pittsburgh have been at the heart of the fracking boom.
My 30-minute excursion into Beaver County is to gawp at a tantalisingly nicknamed new industrial site. “The Cracker” sounds big. It looks even bigger. When it is finished, the site will be a Shell plant that converts ethane, a byproduct of fracking, into little plastic pellets — 3.5 billion tons of them a year. Pipelines will bring the gas in from across Appalachia. Its own railway system, with 3,300 freight cars will take the pellets out. For now, it is a colossal building site, employing 5,000 workers — so many that the site has its own airport-style “kiss and fly” drop-off area.
The $6 billion complex got the green light a few months before the last election. For those who lament the decline of heavy industry in the US, and for the long-term viability of the fracking industry, it is a dream come true. For those worried about plastic pollution, it is hard to imagine anything worse.
The Cracker is also a reminder of one of the many banana skins on Biden’s path to the White House. During the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren committed to a nationwide ban on fracking. Biden did not. That hasn’t stopped Trump from claiming Biden will bring the industry to its knees. And though Biden may not support a ban, environmental policy is a priority for his party. A Pennsylvania shale industry worker, who on average makes twice what the average private sector employee in the state earns, knows Biden must pull off a difficult balancing act. Trump, by contrast, promises unambiguous support for US energy and petrochemicals, the environment be damned.
In his Pittsburgh speech on law and order, Biden took time to say: “I am not banning fracking. Let me say that again. I am not banning fracking. No matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.” No wonder. A study by the US Chamber of Congress last December made clear just how serious an economic blow an outright fracking ban would be for the state, forecasting the loss of more than 600,000 jobs by 2025 and an increase of $4,654 in annual living costs for the average Pennsylvania household. Those are big numbers, but looking at the forest of cranes above The Cracker, they aren’t hard to believe.
Business is booming for Gregory “Gooch” Ionadi, 55, who co-owns Smoke ’N’ Guns, a shop that sells coffee, cigars and firearms, with his father in Oakmont, about 30 minutes’ drive east of Pittsburgh along the Allegheny river. My 1940 guidebook notes the town’s “fine residential section of sturdily built houses, large lawns and tree-lined streets clustered on the hills” and a golf course that “has been the scene of national open and amateur championships”. Notwithstanding a few strip malls, the description of this leafy, affluent-feeling exurb rings true today.
The shop’s smell of coffee and cigars is enticing, the wall of guns at the back less so. A television is tuned to Fox News, and two customers puff away in armchairs watching footage of Trump touring burnt-out buildings in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
In a year of pandemic and civil unrest, demand is high for stogies to settle people’s nerves and handguns to protect their property. “We’ve been pretty well swamped,” says Gooch. “First it started with the coronavirus, but then we had all this protesting and marching. That really threw everybody into a tizzy, purchasing firearms and ammo. It’s mostly first-time buyers: older women and older men who have never owned a gun before.”
It’s not just Oakmont. Across the country, the FBI’s firearm background check system has seen seven of its ten busiest weeks on record this year. This past July alone saw 3.9 million checks, beating the previous monthly high, set in March, by 200,000.
Soaring demand and pandemic-affected supply chains mean Gooch has even had to ration ammo. As well as a pandemic and the protests, there’s the election. According to Gooch, customers worry about their ability to buy weapons were Biden to win — and about Democratic calls to “defund the police”. What would business be like the day after the election in the event of a defeat for Trump? “I’d sell out everything in the store.”
If you want to understand the politics of Schuylkill County (pronounced skoo-gal), 200 miles further east, you could start with the statesman they chose to memorialise with a 15-foot cast-iron statue atop a 50-foot column on a hillside in Pottsville, the county seat.
Henry Clay, a Kentucky Senator, Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams and four-time failed presidential candidate, has no obvious connection to this part of Pennsylvania, but he was reportedly lionised here in the nineteenth century for two reasons: his unrepentant and combative brand of nationalism and his enthusiastic support for tariffs. The latter helped make the region, home to the largest seams of high-quality anthracite in the world, rich.
Many of the dynamics in Pennsylvania remain remarkably familiar: unwavering rural Trump support and increasingly Democratic suburbs
This is coal country, and what it loved about Clay, it loves about Trump. To drive its roads is to stop counting Trump signs and instead award points for the scale and innovativeness of the tributes to the president. If there are shy Trump voters, they don’t live here.
Places like Schuylkill County — already solidly Republican before Trump but wildly supportive of him in 2016 — were central to his win in the state. In 2012, Mitt Romney picked up 24,500 votes here. Trump nearly doubled that number, an increase equal to half of his margin of victory in the state, with 44,000 votes and a wider margin of victory in Schuylkill County than any presidential candidate in 150 years.
The county GOP’s headquarters is a few dozen steps away from Pottsville’s tribute to Clay. Inside I find Robert Bylone, the 77-year-old vice-chair of the local party. Campaigning here appears to be an emphatically analogue affair. “I have a phone bank in the back,” he boasts. “Do you know what that is?” The walls are lined with campaign posters, hand-drawn elephants in stars-and-stripes top hats, old maps and framed portraits of Republican presidents — Lincoln, Reagan, Bush.
Supporters drop by to pick up the “TRUMP PENCE 2020” signs you see everywhere; “the cost is just one vote for Trump,” jokes Bylone with one of them. Bylone worries that Trump won’t carry the state: “There’s such a heavy concentration of Democrats around Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west that may sway it the other way.” But about one thing, he is confident: “Trump will win here. If there’s only one Trump county in the whole state, it’ll be mine.”
For Pottsville’s most famous native, the novelist John O’Hara, the town was the basis for his fictional “Gibbsville”. “When these veins are being worked,” he wrote in Appointment in Samarra (1934) of the region’s coal, “Gibbsville prospers. When the mines are idle, Gibbsville puts on a long face and begins to think in terms of soup kitchens.”
Today the county is poorer, whiter and less well-educated than the rest of the state — and the country. The mining industry here is diminished, if not extinct, and Trump has not made good on his 2016 pledge to “bring back beautiful coal”. But that seems beside the point in Schuylkill County. Even here, in an archetypal “left behind” part of the country, the idea that Trump struck a cold-blooded economic deal with voters is risible. The promise he made in 2016 was far less specific, and far more powerful. The same is true in 2020.
Fifty miles further along my route to Philadelphia are neighbouring cities whose names are as evocative of the rust belt grit as Pittsburgh. In his hit “Allentown”, Long Island crooner Billy Joel sings,
“Well, we’re living in here in Allentown / And they’re closing all the factories down / Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time / Filling out forms and standing in line.”
Whether or not you think these lyrics fill you with respect for the forgotten man or make you cringe, they are typical of Allentown and Bethlehem’s place in the popular imagination. In fact, the towns and the surrounding sprawl are doing far better than the stereotype would suggest. Until the coronavirus arrived, Northampton County (which includes Bethlehem but not Allentown) was one of America’s fastest-growing regions, in part thanks to a burgeoning role as a logistics hub for the east coast’s megalopolis.
The wider Lehigh Valley area is getting busier and busier, with warehouses being built on farmland, hispanic immigration on the rise and more and more affluent suburbanites choosing this part of the state to settle down. Clinton won Lehigh County by four points in 2016. Trump won Northampton County by a similar margin.
Four years on, this part of the state will be just as closely contested. Charlie Post, a 66-year-old retired high school English teacher and Allentown resident, is the political equivalent of an exotic bird: that rare voter who voted for neither major party candidate last time but this time will “100 per cent” be voting to re-elect the president. “I really think he followed through on a variety of campaign promises. I respect what he set out to do, and what he’s done,” says Charlie, citing Trump’s renegotiated trade deals, tax cuts and foreign policy. “I’ll be honest with you, when he got elected I said to my wife this guy could get us into a war, but he’s governed with a much more level hand in that regard.”
Charlie’s brother, Jim Post, 54, represents a similarly thin slither of the electorate: the undecideds. However, one thing that Jim is sure of is that he won’t be voting for Trump. A registered Republican who works for an insurance company, he opted for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, in 2016. Now he is weighing up whether to vote Libertarian again or vote Biden. “I had serious issues with Clinton, I don’t have the same kind of problems with Biden. I’m comfortable with him, but I’m also looking at [the Libertarian Party candidate] Jo Jorgensen.”
For Jim’s wife, Lisa Boland, 55, the decision isn’t complicated. Motivated first and foremost by a desire to see the back of Trump, she will be voting Biden. Lisa is a registered Libertarian but this will be her second consecutive vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. “When I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, I’m not kidding I walked out the voting booth and I was crying. It was the first time I didn’t vote with my conscience and I felt horrible because I didn’t believe in her. But she was the lesser of two evils.” This time, she won’t feel so bad about her vote. “I believe in Biden more than I believed in Clinton,” she says.
Closer to Philadelphia, I cross paths with the official campaign for the first time since Biden’s speech in Pittsburgh.
Places like Chester County, a “collar county” home to wealthy, historically conservative suburban voters outside Philadelphia, are central to the Democratic plan to retake Pennsylvania. The area has been trending blue for some time. In 2012, Mitt Romney won narrowly here; in 2016, Clinton notched up a ten-point victory. Biden is hoping for a suburban revolution: a surge in turnout among college-educated whites, especially women. It worked for the Democrats in the midterms. Two years later, they are banking on it working again.
The president has sent his favourite daughter, Ivanka, here to have what is billed as a “fireside chat” with a socially-distanced and well-heeled group of local Republicans. Beneath twinkling fairy lights in a barn that looks as if it hosts wedding receptions, the A-list understudy sweeps in, perfectly turned out in a demure green dress and black mask to talk to Erin Elmore, a local campaign surrogate and former Apprentice contestant, about “these amazing four years”.
The Trump presented to this crowd is hardly recognisable: a dutiful public servant working to help middle-class families with policies on everything from affordable childcare to getting more girls studying STEM subjects.
As you might expect, the interview isn’t exactly hard-hitting. “We see how the president responds on camera to tragedies,” begins one pre-selected audience question. “Could you give us an insight into how these things affect him personally?” Ivanka nods along solemnly and hardly knows where to begin, implying that there are too many moments of heartfelt compassion to choose from. (That day’s headlines are dominated by an Atlantic story that accuses Trump of calling US military casualties “losers” and “suckers”.)
After Ivanka whizzes back to Washington, I talk to Paul, a 45-year-old financial adviser who won’t give me his second name because he has Democratic clients and worries he will lose business if they know he supports Trump. “We can’t put a Trump sign on our lawn,” he says. “The party that is supposedly the tolerant party is the least tolerant party of all.
“It’s hard to be an outward Trump supporter,” he says. “Either you’re one of the superfans, or you keep it quiet.”
Driving into Philadelphia, things are far from back to normal. Its downtown is not altogether shuttered. But it is a lot emptier than it was before the virus, eerily free from the bustle that you come to expect from a major American city. It is a reminder of how much has changed since 2016, which belongs to a bygone, pre-virus age.
And yet many of the political dynamics in Pennsylvania remain remarkably familiar: unwavering rural support for Trump, increasingly Democratic suburbs. That doesn’t mean the result this year will be the same as in 2016. Small shifts in opinion can yield big results in America’s polarised politics. In what we are told is the Year That Everything Changed, an ordinary swing is all Joe Biden needs.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe