Top Stories Of 2020: Here's How Pennsylvania Laid The Last Brick To The White House.
The 2020 election brought Pennsylvania renewed national attention as a battleground state, and was the place that both handed President-elect Joe Biden his electoral victory and delivered Republicans broad down-ballot victories.
Now that this cycle is all but over, we took a look back at how Keystone State voters earned such a prominent role in deciding political fortunes.
Both President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden made Pennsylvania a focal point of their campaigns. The commonwealth is Biden’s childhood home state and he set up his campaign headquarters in Philadelphia. It’s also an obsession of Trump’s after he unexpectedly carried it along with Wisconsin and Michigan in the 2016 election.
Muhlenberg College political science professor Chris Borick said that’s because the stakes were high here. Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes represented the top tier of battleground state prizes.
“Biden and Trump saw [them] as almost essential, and thus they invested in the state in a way that we haven’t seen presidential candidates do almost in our history,” Borick said.
By mid October, their operations had dumped nearly $200 hundred million into advertising across Pennsylvania alone.
On top of that, both candidates made numerous stops in the Keystone State. Trump barnstormed areas like Pittsburgh as often as he could, with messaging focused on Pa. energy and transportation workers.
“This is the place where generations of tough, strong Pennsylvania workers mined the coal, worked the railroads, and forged the steel that made America into the greatest and most powerful nation in the history of the world,” Trump said at one event at Pittsburgh International Airport.
Like many Americans during the pandemic, Biden was holed up in his home for much of the campaign. But he made his own slate of appearances at places like Gettysburg, when he gave a speech themed around the political differences of the country.
“There’s no more fitting place than here today to talk about the cost of division, about how much it has cost America in the past, about how much it is costing us now,” Biden said.
While the candidates were making pitch after pitch to commonwealth voters, County Commissioner Association of Pennsylvania Director Lisa Schaefer told WITF’s Smart Talk that county election workers were facing a perfect storm as the weeks ahead of Election Day weaned.
“We had several counties that were still implementing their new voting machines back in the June primary,” Schaefer said. “We were using mail-in ballots for the first time, which although they’re a carbon copy of absentees, were now available to a lot more of the public. And on top of that you had a pandemic.”
Plus, the Trump and Biden campaigns were faced with a new demographic landscape, said Political Science Professor Robin Kolodny of Temple University.
“Since 2016, Pennsylvania became less white and more southeastern. So all of those things together worked in Biden’s favor.”
Biden’s campaign strategy seemed responsive to that. It banked resources on getting as many people as possible to vote by mail, and to drive turnout in the Philadelphia suburbs. In the end, that playbook made the difference: Biden’s largest vote margins came from urban centers like Philly and Pittsburgh, and a New York Times analysis shows his stronger support among Black voters compared to 2016.
After a record 6.9 million Pennsylvanians turned in a ballot, vote totals showed Biden receiving more than three times as many mail-in votes as Trump. On Nov. 7, Biden was declared the winner, crossing the 270 electoral vote threshold needed to become president.
Rachel Thomas, who worked as the campaign’s Northeast communications director, remembers the moment it happened:
“Having Pennsylvania be the state that carried the ticket over the top was just really amazing and incredible, and emblematic of the hard work that the ticket and everyone on the campaign had done,” Thomas said.
Political observers largely agree President Trump’s handling of the pandemic was his undoing.
But at the same time, Pennsylvania Republican candidates actually picked up seats in the House and Senate and two state row offices. House Speaker Bryan Cutler called it a “wonderful week.”
“We now hold the Auditor General’s and the Treasurer’s office if those election results hold, which it certainly looks like they will,” Cutler told reporters after House leadership elections in November.
Though state GOP leaders supported Trump’s baseless efforts to overturn the election , Pennsylvania’s electoral college brought this cycle to an end on Dec. 14 when it awarded Biden its 20 votes.
But Robin Kolody is among those who say the same state election law change that helped Democrats widen their vote base this year also helped Republicans manage to tighten their hold on Harrisburg.
“I’m sure Demcratic operatives are already rueing this: what they did in Act 77 was a mixed blessing,” Kolody explained. “They went for the mail [voting], which clearly helped them with getting Biden, and then what they did is gave up the straight party ticket option, which works better for them.”
Along with consistent messaging from the state party, Kolody attributed the mixed bag of results to a political science concept called roll-off, where fewer people vote in down-ballot races than they do in more popular contests, like presidential ones.
She explained using the state treasurer’s race between Democratic incumbent Joe Torsella and Republican challenger Stacey Garrity as an example. Kolodny argues voters who marked Biden’s name on their ballots might not have done the same for other Democratic candidates like Torsella, giving Garrity’s party the upper hand.
“Nowhere is it written that you have to put a bubble next to all the offices,” she said. “165 thousand more Pennsylvanians voted in the [presidential] contest than voted in the Torsella contest. In other words, you had 165,000 people who didn’t bubble anything in.”
Though the state earned a lot of attention this time around, Kolodny said that could change after 2020 census data is finalized.
“We’re gonna lose a [Congressional] seat almost certainly in the next election, so I would hesitate for anybody to talk about that Pennsylvania would be in perpetuity the battleground state and also the microcosm of the nation.”
All the same, 2020 was a year at the polls with few comparisons.
Read more from our partners, WITF.