Fishs Eddy, NY – Driving from Philadelphia to our summer home in the Catskill Mountains region of upstate New York, my wife and I normally leave Interstate I-81 at the old coal-mining and railway center of Scranton, and head off on a meandering route on secondary roads through hill country passing farms, woods and smaller towns with names like Carbondale and Forest City and that grew up around now played out or uneconomical anthracite coal mines. It’s a much nicer drive, with no truck traffic. Once one leaves behind the huge, nearly treeless man-made mountains of coal mining slag left behind after the coal industry abandoned the region, it’s beautiful country, but its mostly white working-class population is poor and struggling, and has been for generations.
I remember traveling those pot-holed and cracked roads in the summer and fall of 2016 and seeing not just a sea of Trump signs and no signs for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, but also a number of big black-and-white lawn signs saying “Lock her up!” This was all angry and in-your-face Trump country back then, with a lot of hate on display for Democrats and especially for Clinton. Indeed, this region’s voters contributed to Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss that year of the normally “blue” state of Pennsylvania — a 0.72% loss which handed Trump PA’s 20 electoral votes and victory in the national election, though not in the total national popular vote.
This presidential election, things look a lot different in this part of Trump Country.
Driving our usual route from Scranton to our place in Fishs Eddy, NY now as Nov. 3 approaches, we still see Trump signs in some yards, but I only counted about 20 of them in the course of a 40-mile drive, including along the main streets of the towns. We also noticed a few prominently placed Biden and Biden/Harris signs. This means that unlike in 2016, not only are supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate this year willing to publicly advertise their preference, but while some places in the country have experienced thefts and destruction of political signs, Biden signs are not apparently being stolen or defaced at night in rural northeast Pennsylvania. There were also no anti-Biden signs as there were for Clinton four years earlier.
I confess, I was nervous when my wife and I made this first foray since the Pandemic hit from our home in exurban Upper Dublin outside Philadelphia up to Fishs Eddy, the town near the Pennsylvania/New York border where we have for 36 years owned a former little church and rectory purchased as a “fixer-upper” in 1984 for less than $20,000, and that we have spent the decades since trying to repair and rescue from collapse. I worried that the largely Republican population in that region might be listening to Donald Trump and ignoring basic safety precautions to minimize the risk of Covid-19 contagion, given Trump’s aggressive dismissal of mask wearing and social distancing guidelines.
So I was pleasantly surprised, on stopping for supplies at Bisbee’s, the local family-owned hardware store in neighboring Hancock, NY, just across the bridge from Pennsylvania, to find everyone — staff and customers — wearing serious masks. A local Sunoco minimart with a counter and two adjacent tables with benches to seat four customers each had one table taped off with a sign saying “Covid rules.” And at the popular local eatery, the Circle E Diner in Hancock, masks were ubiquitous and required.
Interestingly, the village of Fishs Eddy, a little settlement with a zip code of its own but only one business and employer — a family-owned sawmill — has to date not reported a single case of Coronavirus infection. According to a state Covid-19 dashboard, even the much larger Delaware County in which the town is situated and that includes the entire watershed of the Delaware River’s headwaters, has only recorded about 100 cases and four deaths. One might think that under such circumstances, especially in a region where virtually all local elected officials are Republican, often running for office without a Democratic opponent, there would be a lot of folks calling the Pandemic a hoax and being critics of Covid-19 safety rules. In fact, people up here seem to be taking it all deadly seriously.
That behavior in itself all represents a huge shift in the political climate in a very important part of a state that the Trump campaign knows it has to win if Trump is to be returned to the White House.
All this leads me to make a bold prediction (based admittedly on a small sampling): I believe Trump has lost significant support and enthusiasm among his non-college-educated white base — or at least enough of it that he’s toast in a blue-collar working-class and rural state like Pennsylvania — and probably Michigan and Wisconsin too. That would be the three “swing states” that he has to win to get enough electoral votes to win a second term as president. Pennsylvania’s urban areas — Pittsburgh in the west and Philadelphia and its sprawling suburbs in the southeast — are heavily Democratic, so to win the state, Trump would need to win big in the rural middle and northeast of the state as he did in 2016, and at least in the northeast, he doesn’t seem to be doing that.
Political analysts say with Biden already almost having a lock on the Electoral College (not to mention the national popular vote), the key to this election is the three “swing” states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, all of which formerly were considered Democratic shoe-ins, but that went narrowly to Trump in 2016. Now I’ll admit that I haven’t been to either Wisconsin or Michigan in ages, but in terms of the frustrated and angry white workers who populate these areas and who overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016, there’s not much difference between a city like Flint, Michigan that has lost its auto industry or Milwaukee, Wisconsin that shop industries, and Scranton, Pennsylvania that has lost its coal industry. Both those states, like Pennsylvania, also are similar in having significant and growing minority populations and increasingly integrated suburban regions that have watered down the racism that is Trump’s go-to vote motivator. Polls also are suggesting that both Wisconsin, and especially Michigan, have in recent weeks become even more pro-Biden than is Pennsylvania. If as appears, it’s down to Pennsylvania, and my recent road trip suggests Trump’s hope of an Electoral College win is gone. (Truth is, with polls in Arizona, North Carolina and Florida all now showing Biden leading, if he wins any of those, he won’t even need Pennsylvania.)
It could be that Trump, who has spent nearly his entire presidential term trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act (ACA), undermining Medicaid, the public health care program for low-income families, and reducing or ending supplemental funding for unemployment benefits — all programs that are critical supports for many people living in northeastern Pennsylvania and in the economically struggling Catskill region of upstate New York — has lost a lot of the voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere across the country, whose bitterness at what they perceived as the elitism of the Clintons fueled his victory in 2016. This is all the more true with Trump, still infected with Covid-19 after release from Walter Reed National Medical Center, diminished the threat of the Coronavirus while himself having received what one nurse has called “VIP Insurance,” a phalanx of medical specialists, and access to experimental medicines not available to ordinary citizens.
In the real world of massive and unprecedented joblessness, a shredded social safety net, and the loss or threat of a loss of health insurance during what everyone knows is a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans in just eight months, a significant number of former Trump voters seem to be losing interest in their man’s egotistical boasts about being America’s greatest president, and don’t seem to be buying his ludicrous warnings about Democrats “coming for your 2nd Amendment” or about “Antifa,” that fantasy “organization” he says will “destroy the suburbs.” (There are no suburbs between Scranton, PA and Middletown, NY about 100 miles to the east; just small towns.)
So as uninspiring as Biden is, as milquetoast and addled as he occasionally appeared in the debate, with the exception of a few brief bursts of understandable anger, I suspect that up in this supposed hot-spot of one-time Trump fervor in northeastern PA and in New York’s normally strongly conservative Delaware County across the river, the 2020 vote for Trump will be way down from where it was in 2016. It could very well be that there won’t be many conversions to Biden voters among the Trump defectors up there, but there surely will be quite a few of them who may sit this election out, or just vote for down-ballot candidates. A poll released Tuesday by Yahoo/YouGov shows that Trump has lost significant support among three critical groups he did well with in 2016: voters who disapprove of both candidates, voters who had supported other parties (i.e.: Democrats) in the past and college-educated women.
If I’m right, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral college votes will be going to Biden. So too, I believe, will the electoral college votes from Michigan (16), Wisconsin (10) and maybe even Ohio (18). I cannot offer any predictions about Arizona, Texas, Iowa, Florida or North Carolina — those other “swing states” that Trump won big four years ago but where things are now too close to call in the polls. Those populations are not the same as the ones in the so-called Rust Belt like Pennsylvania.
But recalling that many of the union workers who used to labor in the Youngstown steel mills, the Flint auto industry plants and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre coal mines moved down to the sunbelt states of Florida, Arizona and North Carolina , or maybe even Texas, perhaps we can even hazard a guess that the support for Trump in those states has also softened significantly.
Of course, I’m aware that Trump and the Republican National Committee, in league with the Pennsylvania state Republican Party, are making plans to contest all the mail-in ballots that are being cast already in Pennsylvania, to try and intimidate voters with illegal “poll watchers”, etc., all with the goal of having as many votes as possible ruled invalid for nonsensical reasons like failure to enclose the ballot inside of a blank envelope inside of the ballot return envelope (a provision only designed to protect the voter’s anonymity, not to guard against voter fraud, which is obviated by the voter’s identity and signature on the outside of the outer envelope). So there’s still the risk of Trump and the Republicans invalidating enough Democratic votes, or by delaying the counting, getting a Republican-dominated Supreme Court to block the counting of all write-in ballots, to eke out a win in the state, but ever the optimist, I think that effort will fail. Public opposition in the state and the nation will be too great.
Now I’m no fan of Biden or the Democratic Party. I have no illusion that a shift in power in Washington from Trumpian Republican to Biden and Democratic Party control, even if this election produces a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate as well as the House, will make that big of a difference in addressing the big problems with the US. A Biden White House and a Democratic Congress are not going to significantly reduce the US’s obscenely huge military budget or US imperial policies around the globe. Climate change may finally be accepted as real, but the likelihood of significant policies being put in place to slow it down is low. We won’t have White House cheerleading for white supremacist thugs, or unidentified federal stormtroopers surged into cities facing protests, but institutional racism and racist policing will continue as they did through the Obama/Biden years, and the National Security State will continue to grow and spread its monitoring of our lives and activities ever more deeply, as it did under the prior administration. And Biden has made it clear that he does not support, and in fact would veto if Congress passed a ball to create a Medicare or All single-payer health system.
But the solid win in Pennsylvania for Biden I’m anticipating, and the resulting defeat it would mean for Trump’s bid for a second term, especially if it comes along with a narrow Democratic takeover of the Senate, will put an end to the threat of a fascist America. It will also put an end to a national government that scoffs at science, whether in the field of medicine or climatology and ecology, and perhaps a shift to a more civil politics that can address issues like making education more equal and affordable, ending racism in law enforcement and the justice system, and that can join the rest of the world in trying to tackle the existential crisis of global heating.