Democrats grow more anxious about Pennsylvania

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Joe Biden on Saturday prepared to mount a last-minute, two-day blitz of Pennsylvania, amid concern among some local Democrats about a potential late shift that would threaten his narrow advantage there and mirror President Trump’s 2016 comeback.

Most Democrats still believe Biden will capture Pennsylvania, and he maintains a modest polling lead there, but their confidence has eroded in recent weeks with emerging signs of a tightening contest in the state, according to elected officials, strategists and party activists. Both sides believe the outcome in Pennsylvania will be crucial in determining who wins the White House.

The causes of Democrats’ anxiety are varied. They worry about potential trouble with mail-in ballots during a pandemic. They are concerned about the prospect of a voter surge in White, rural areas favorable to Trump and signs of lower-than-anticipated turnout among the Democratic base.

They are nervous about GOP efforts to place limits on voting. They cringe at the recent looting and violence in Philadelphia, which Trump has seized on to portray Biden as weak on crime and hostile to police. And they harbor lingering concerns about Biden’s muddled rhetoric on oil and gas, which has prompted inaccurate attacks that he advocates ending fracking.

“I am worried about Pennsylvania,” said Neil Oxman, a veteran Democratic strategist based in the state. Oxman cited several concerns, including the possibility that Trump’s base “will come out just a little bit stronger than our base.”

Many Democrats acknowledge that their doubts may be exaggerated by what happened four years ago, when Trump shocked analysts by narrowly winning Pennsylvania — a loss that Democrats did not see coming and have yet to fully recover from emotionally. Since then, consistent Democratic electoral gains in Pennsylvania have prompted Republicans’ own alarms about the state.

But Democrats have found plenty to lose sleep over.

Polling averages show Biden’s advantage in Pennsylvania has shrunk somewhat and now lies between four and seven points. That is slightly larger than Clinton’s four years ago, but far from enough for Democrats to feel safe.

Trump himself tore through the state on Saturday, scheduling four rallies as he chased another come-from-behind win.

“In 2016, Pennsylvania voted to fire this corrupt political establishment, and you elected an outsider as president who finally is putting America first,” Trump said at a rally in Reading, where he played a video of selectively edited clips of Biden’s comments on fracking and fossil fuels.

Trump’s day started with a rally in a Philadelphia suburb, where he made a baseless allegation of widespread voter fraud and urged supporters to act as election watchers in the Philadelphia.

“I have to be very, very careful, especially in this state, more than any other state,” Trump said in Newtown. “We have to be extremely — everybody has to watch, be vigilant.”

Trump’s 2016 victory in Pennsylvania, by less than a percentage point, was powered largely by support from White voters without a college degree.

Democrats are wagering Biden can narrow the gap with that group while building a winning coalition with suburban voters and people of color in urban areas. There are signs that is working, as recent Republican polling showed Biden narrowly ahead of Trump in a congressional district Trump won by 10 points in 2016.

Still, Democrats are watching Trump’s closing push with some trepidation.

“The president has a very strong, sturdy base here, and what he’s doing is juicing turnout in those small counties,” said Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D).

On Saturday, Biden, joined by former president Barack Obama, campaigned in Michigan, another state Trump narrowly won in 2016. The Biden campaign dispatched a diverse army of surrogates across Pennsylvania on Saturday, including Pete Buttigieg, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and actress Debra Messing.

Now he turns his attention to Pennsylvania for the closing stretch.

On Sunday, Biden plans to speak at a “Souls to the Polls” event with faith leaders in Philadelphia and deliver remarks at a drive-in event there, both part of the campaign’s effort to excite Black voters.

The following day, Biden, his running mate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and their spouses will barnstorm the state. Local Democrats said they expect the effort to touch areas where White suburban and working-class voters will be key.

Biden has been running heavily on health care and Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic, and his economic plan calls for large investments in manufacturing. But if the message has improved from four years ago, Democrats say, the election process has been upended by the pandemic, and the process of counting ballots in the state could drag on for days.

“The biggest worry I have is still the ballot issues,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.).

Democrats initially encouraged voters to cast ballots by mail. But the possibility of errors with mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania — such as not using a mandatory “secrecy envelope” — has raised Democratic concerns that some votes may be disqualified.

Democrats scored a legal victory this past week when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed state officials to count ballots cast by Election Day and received within three days. Still, the issue may not be fully settled, and Democrats are now encouraging their voters to drop their ballot off in person.

Pennsylvania, where no-excuse mail-in voting is a new option, has seen fewer ballots cast early than other states, amounting to 37 percent of its total 2016 vote. About two-thirds of those early votes have come from Democrats, but a late shift in opinion could have a significant effect.

Those numbers have not calmed the jitters in the party, and not just among Democratic officials. As Election Day draws near, pro-Biden Pennsylvania groups on Facebook have been filled with anxieties and fears.

“With only four days to go, how is everyone feeling?” one Biden supporter posted late Friday night. Within hours, there were more than a 1,000 responses, a mix of hope and anxiety, optimism and fear.

“Nervous to the 10th degree,” a supporter wrote. Others chimed in: “On edge.” “Scared very scared.” “STRESSED.” “My nerves are shot.” Several people wrote that they are sick to their stomachs as they wait for Election Day, and several others feel like they have post-traumatic stress disorder from 2016.

Christina Ramos, a 30-year-old kidney transplant coordinator who lives in Philadelphia, is one of these nervous Democrats. She raised concerns that the recent looting and violence in her city could dissuade some voters from supporting Biden. The unrest followed the police killing Monday of an African American man, 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr.

“There are a lot of liberal Democrats calling for things like defunding the police, and I think that works to Biden’s disadvantage,” said Ramos, a new mother of a 9-month-old.

Biden does not favor defunding the police, and in recent days, he has repeatedly stated that he does not condone violence or looting, as Trump has sought to tether him to the demonstrators. His rebuttal has become so aggressive that some Democrats are annoyed that he is not talking more about the police shooting and racial justice.

The Rev. Mark Tyler, who was out in Philadelphia amid the protests of recent days, said he has sensed fears that the looting could reinforce Trump’s narrative. “The story of Walter Wallace has gotten lost,” said Tyler, a Biden supporter.

In a reflection of the Republican playbook across the country, Future 45, a pro-Trump group, recently released an ad showing an image of protesters shaking and pounding a fence. “Republicans aren’t perfect, but they are the only ones who can bring American back,” says a woman in the ad as she fills out her ballot at home.

In the closing days, Biden has found himself fighting off the attacks that Trump hopes will resonate in Pennsylvania. He has stressed that he would not ban fracking and that his proposed transition away from oil would be gradual. Biden also has underscored that as president he would “shut down the virus,” not the economy.

Still, a resurgence of coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania could diminish support for Trump. And there are other encouraging signs for Biden.

Democrats running downballot have embraced his campaign. Democrat Christina Finello, running to unseat Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) in the Philadelphia suburbs, is airing a television ad that focuses heavily on Biden’s praise of her at a recent rally.

“I’m looking forward to serving with you, kid,” Biden says in the spot.

Overall, the Democrats’ mood is one of hope mixed with anxiety.

“I am absolutely convinced that we have a lot of enthusiasm, too, on our side,” said Fetterman. “But there’s a lot of factors you can’t extrapolate into a poll that are absolutely significantly in play in Pennsylvania.”

Jenna Johnson, Michael Scherer, Scott Clement and Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.

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