David Boujard has almost his entire mail-in ballot completed. But the bubble under “US President” remains blank. This final decision, from the 28-year-old entrepreneur, carries more importance than that of most other American voters.
Boujard, who is black, lives in Northampton County, Pennsylvania — a bellwether in national politics. A local newspaper examined a century’s worth of elections to find that Northampton has backed the winning presidential candidate in all but three elections.
This is also one of the 206 counties in the nation that voted former President Barack Obama into office twice but flipped to Donald Trump in 2016. It took Pennsylvania with it, which hadn’t voted Red since 1988.
Indeed, in this state with its 20 electoral college votes — either side needs 270 to win — Biden is ahead, as of weekend polls, by an average of 5.5 percentage points, lower than his 8.8-point national lead.
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For Boujard, that doesn’t make things any clearer. “I’m still in that same boat as last time,” said Boujard, who didn’t vote in 2016. Both campaigns are heavily courting non-voters. More than 3.5 million eligible voters in Pennsylvania didn’t send in a 2016 ballot, and Trump won the state by 44,292 votes.
After living in Northampton County’s Bethleham city for seven years, Boujard is also weighing the dying economies he sees around him. “I live in Pennsylvania. I understand manufacturing and coal and those jobs. White people have been dying from an opioid drug crisis. That’s what they bring in here when they get rid of these industries.”
Bethlehem, known as Steel City, is emblematic of the American manufacturing decline. The Bethlehem Steel Company, a vital military supplier in World War II, abandoned the city by the 1980s.
Smoke still billows out of the towering steel stacks in the town, but now the furnace houses a casino instead. Like much of America, the region attempted to diversify its economy, introducing warehouse and technology companies, as well as new residents.
“All the Biden signs on my block are people who moved in recently,” said an employee at a gun store in Easton, Northampton. The middle-aged man, who was born in Easton and requested anonymity, is voting for Trump. “Make America Great Again” in many alludes to erstwhile days before the residents changed and the factories shut.
In 2016, the Trump heartland encompassed the rural white, working-class voting bloc in small towns like these. It’s no coincidence that nearly all the states that flipped from Obama to Trump make up the “Rust Belt” in the MidWest.
“From our polling, for every 100 white working-class voters in Pennsylvania, 65 are going to vote for Trump. Now the party is saying we will raise this number. That’s why Trump is going to more rural counties,” said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican strategist in the state. Nationally, seven out of 10 white voters voted for Trump in 2016, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.
“These post-industrial communities were sold a false set of goods,” said Executive Director of Pennsylvania Democratic Party, Jason Henry. “We understand that they have been left behind in a lot of ways and we are here to fight for them.”
These voters used to be core to Pennsylvania’s Democratic base, aligned in their support of trade unions. The bloc has since then veered right, partly because of left-leaning trade and environmental agendas. Fracking, a process to remove natural gas from deep-rock, has been a boon to the state but has fallen under environmental criticism. Recently, Trump accused Biden of wanting to ban the practice, to which Biden has had to formally deny.
The narrative now revolves around law enforcement or Covid. A billboard in Easton reads: “America doesn’t need: fewer police, a mentally diminished president, mobs on our street. Vote Donald Trump.” Another reads: “250 thousand coronavirus deaths. 315 million unemployed. Vote Him Out.”
Thor Lorenz, sitting in front of a Bethleham cafe, said: “We have a few guys here driving around with their Trump flags in the back of their truck. I’ve read his tweets. I know 8-year-olds who speak better than him.”
The 65-year-old White man, who’s lived in town for 13 years, said he thought Hillary Clinton was as bad as Trump in 2016 and chose to vote third-party instead. There are far fewer third-party candidates this time around, seen to be a boost to Biden.
“Biden isn’t exactly the right guy either,” he says. “But he’s not as bad — at least I can sit down with him and say ‘Listen, Joe, you’re making wrong decisions.’ I don’t even want to be in the same room as Trump. It’s bad enough being in the same country as the guy.”
“I would like to be in the same room as Trump. I like him better as a person but Biden would represent us better on a world stage,” Boujard said. When asked later in the day if he had chosen his candidate, he said: “You know what, neither has courted me, so neither gets my vote.” In the last weekend before elections, that’s not something either side wants to hear.
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