LATROBE, Pennsylvania (AP) — Two months from Election Day, President Donald Trump and his allies are feeling new optimism about Pennsylvania, a battleground state that flipped in his favor in 2016.
Trump was holding a rally in Latrobe on Thursday night as his campaign claims signs of momentum in the state — a longtime Democratic stronghold that Trump won by less than 45,000 votes in 2016. Polls show Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, are closely matched.
After months of trepidation, Trump campaign officials have been feeling encouraged in the last few weeks as Trump has pivoted to a “law and order” message amid protests over racial injustice. They believe efforts to paint Biden as weak on crime will help Trump win back suburban voters, and especially women, who supported him in 2016 but have since soured on him.
That includes in Pennsylvania, where they argue the president is in a better position than he was in 2016, citing Democrats' shrinking voter registration advantage. This time, they believe their get-out-the-vote operation will result in better turnout among working-class rural voters, along with improved margins among African Americans, Latinos and union supporters.
"Between the record enthusiasm for this President, our unprecedented ground game, and trends in Republican voter registrations, the Commonwealth, once again, is ready to deliver for President Trump this November,” Nick Trainer, the Trump campaign’s director of battleground strategies, said in a statement.
To that end, Trump and his team have been paying frequent visits to the state as they work to build enthusiasm. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence held a “Workers for Trump” rally at a construction company less than 15 miles from Biden’s hometown, Scranton.
“I know we’re not too far from our opponent’s boyhood home, but it’s Trump country now,” Pence told the crowd,
Trump himself held a small rally last month outside Scranton just hours before Biden accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. At the event, Trump insisted Biden would be the state’s “worst nightmare” if elected president. The former vice president often spotlights his early years in the northeast Pennsylvania city as evidence of his middle-class upbringing.
Biden's campaign remains equally confident about his prospects in the state. They have put considerable emphasis on the Pittsburgh metro area, where Democrats lost ground in 2016 but then watched Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb pull an upset in a special election.
Still, Biden’s path in Pennsylvania is seen as more complicated than winning back Wisconsin and Michigan, the two other “blue wall” states Trump won by less than 1 percentage point four years ago.
In Wisconsin and Michigan, Trump benefited from then-rival Hillary Clinton’s poor performance in the largest, heavily Democratic cities, Milwaukee and Detroit. But Clinton did relatively well in Philadelphia and won more votes that former President Barack Obama in the Philadelphia suburbs, even in defeat. That could put even more pressure on Biden to try to blunt Trump's performance in Pennsylvania’s smaller cities and in rural areas.
Latrobe, the site of Trump’s Thursday rally, is about an hour outside Pittsburgh in Westmoreland County, which Trump won by large margins four years ago.
While Democrats still hold a significant voter registration advantage in the state, the number of new Republican registrations has far outpaced the number of new Democrats registering this cycle. Many political observers believe the state, which has many white, older voters, could become even more favorable to Republicans despite having voted Democratic from 1992 until Trump's win in 2016.
Ahead of Trump's departure from Washington, supporters were already packed into an open airplane hangar with little distance between seats. Many were seen without masks.
Pennsylvania restricts indoor gatherings to 25 people and outdoor events to 250 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Trump's event was set to exceed both limits. The president has often flouted his own administration's social-distancing guidelines as he has tried to swiftly return to the campaign trail.
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed.