Former Vice President and Presidential candidate Joe Biden spoke at UA Plumbers Local 27's Erie Training Center in Erie, PA on October 10, 2020.
Demetrius Freeman | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidates had not set foot in Erie, Pennsylvania, for a dozen years.
When Joe Biden spoke at a union building there on Saturday, his presence showed how an election turned the city of Rust Belt from an afterthought to a priority for Democrats.
President Barack Obama and his colleague Biden trumped their GOP opponents in Erie County in 2008 and 2012. In 2016, Republican President Donald Trump took over the area with around 2,000 votes when he exploited concerns about job losses in manufacturing and pledged to revise US trade deals.
Pennsylvania, where Biden was born, will give 20 votes as one of the country's top prizes. Erie County will help test whether Biden's economic message can break through in the former Democratic strongholds of Keystone State – and others in the Midwest – that tried a Republican political freshman four years ago.
"I really see Erie County as Bellwether County, not just for Pennsylvania, but counties like this in the United States, especially the Rust Belt throughout the Midwest," said Joseph Morris, chairman of the political science department at Mercyhurst University in Erie. "It's just so typical of Midwestern counties that once had an industrial base and that industrial base evaporated in three decades."
Erie County will offer one of the better tests in Pennsylvania of how effectively rivals can tailor their messages to workers, according to political observers in the area. With a white population of 87% and a lower percentage of college graduates than the whole of the country, the area is home to some of the white working class that Trump successfully reached in 2016. Low voter turnout in this area among colored people – the out of the country polls that overwhelmingly supported Clinton in Pennsylvania – also reflect the struggles that Democrats won against non-white voters in the Midwest in 2016.
In Erie on Saturday, Biden featured a "Park Avenue" contactless president who broke his promises to the working class and led an "uneven recovery" from the post-pandemic economic crisis. He asked what the "bottom half" had while investors and corporate titans saw their wealthy balloon.
Trump hosted a rally Tuesday in the former steel and iron center of Johnstown, east of Pittsburgh, delivering a familiar message to Erie County's voters. He said the free trade policies backed by Biden had "decimated entire cities in your region" and argued that "China will win" if the Democrat prevails on November 3rd.
Biden focused on the economy in an area that has recovered more slowly from the coronavirus-related shutdowns than the entire country. Erie County had an August unemployment rate of 11.1% – higher than the Pennsylvania and national levels of 10.3% and 8.4%, respectively.
The Democrat touted his recovery plan, which aims to boost the economy by promoting U.S.-made products, renewing U.S. infrastructure, investing in clean energy, setting a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour, and stricter workplace safety requirements be introduced.
Meanwhile, in a speech in Pennsylvania riddled with horror stories about what the country would become under Biden's watch, Trump highlighted his efforts to cut regulations, update the North American Free Trade Agreement, and raise taxes for many Americans under the GOP Lower Act of 2017. He highlighted the health of the U.S. economy before the virus hit – a point local Republicans want to emphasize as they try to hold the ground gained in 2016.
"People are looking for results and they have had results that were great, at least until the Covid hit," said Verel Salmon, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party.
The county had a much lower unemployment rate of 5.8% in February, although it was still higher than the statewide rate of 4.7%. A Mercyhurst poll of voters in Erie County in February found that 58% of those polled agreed with Trump's handling of the economy at the time.
But a majority or large number of voters disapproved of how Trump handled 10 of the 14 topics included in the poll.
"They may be very happy with what he is doing to the economy, but they are very concerned about everything else," said Morris.
Why Erie is in the game
Before 2016, the Democrats hadn't lost Erie County in a presidential election this century. Obama won it by about 20 percentage points in 2008. Its margin decreased in 2012, but still to 16 percentage points.
Then Trump won Erie County in a dramatic shift of about 1.5 percentage points. His nearly 2,000 vote lead, which followed Obama's victory with around 19,000 votes, came in a 2016 election in which he won Pennsylvania by an overall lead of only about 44,000 votes.
Erie County Democratic Party chairman Jim Wertz, who did not lead the party in 2016, said the city of Erie saw low turnout in counties with high levels of black and immigrant people during these elections. He added that the party saw a "temporary failure" of democratic engagement for Hillary Clinton, particularly in a county where around 47% of primary voters supported Sen. Bernie Sanders against her in 2016.
When many district voters saw Trump as an "outsider", "they gave him a chance," said Wertz.
Clinton's caution contributed to Trump's success in Erie County, said Anjali Sahay, program director of political science at Gannon University in Erie. "Industrial decline" and Trump's pledge to reshuffle the manufacturing sector compounded problems for the Democrats, she added.
"I think people were just ready for a change," said Sahay.
Despite general economic improvements in Erie prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the production outflow has continued. Once a motor of Erie's economy, General Electric has moved hundreds of jobs to Texas in recent years. Wabtec eventually merged with GE Transportation and continues to operate a manufacturing facility in Erie.
The shift towards the GOP did not continue in the medium term in 2018. Both Democratic US Senator Bob Casey and Governor Tom Wolf won the county by at least 18 percentage points in a strong year for the Pennsylvania party.
During the Trump presidency, "the number one thing that resonates with everyone is the impact this administration has on democratic institutions and the democratic process," said Wertz, chairman of the district's Democratic Party. He added that in the run-up to the November 3 elections, the party had been focusing on healthcare, jobs, education and infrastructure.
But Republicans have seen recent trends that give them hope for a Trump repeat in Erie County. Democrats had a voter registration advantage from 98,319 to 73,238 in the county earlier this week, according to state records, but Republicans have narrowed the gap.
The number of registered Republicans in the county has increased more than 5,700 since November 2016, while the number of Democrats has only increased by 722. This reflects a wider surge in Republican registrations across Pennsylvania.
"We see it as a positive indicator of the way the county is moving," said Salmon of the county's GOP.
Where Erie County is decided
Morris said that the people of Erie County generally politically divide the area through Interstate 90, which runs roughly parallel to the shore of Lake Erie as it runs from Ohio to New York. The democratic city of Erie and some of its most populous suburbs are north of the highway, while rural areas and smaller towns and districts with a higher concentration of Republican voters are to the south.
In order for Trump to repeat his 2016 success, he'll likely need to get as many votes as possible from Biden in the northern part of the county while running up the edges under I-90, Morris said.
The strategies of the local parties reflect how their calculus has changed in Erie County. Wertz said the district's Democratic Party set up field offices outside of Erie city for the first time this year.
An arm was erected in Millcreek Township, the city's most populous suburb, which local observers consider a rocking area within Battleground County. Democrats have also focused on the Northeast, a neighborhood near the New York state line, and Union City, a neighborhood in the southern part of the county.
Trump surpassed Republican Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign in all of these areas.
Biden's messages on his Erie station provided a glimpse of the message he's going to try to win back the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. He argued that Trump's difficulty in containing the virus outbreak resulted in unnecessarily persistent and profound economic pain for Americans.
He suggested that Republicans could repeal the Affordable Care Act. Pennsylvania, which Medicaid expanded under the ACA, had one of the lower uninsured rates in the nation at around 6% in 2018.
Erie doesn't rely on the natural gas industry and the divisive practice of fracking as in southwest Pennsylvania. Even so, he stressed in Erie that he "doesn't forbid fracking, period".
Trump and his allies have tried to use prominent Democrats' opposition to fracking to gain support in the Pittsburgh area, which helped make Pennsylvania the second largest natural gas-producing state last year. Many Democrats have urged the practice to end due to concerns about water and air pollution from the chemicals used in the process.
The focus on these issues shows Biden and Trump's efforts to reach out to the workers who drove Trump's success in Erie County.
"The working man, the working woman, the working families and so on are certainly the main thing. These are the people who said, 'We want results' and kept saying that," Salmon said.
But in an election year marked in every way by the devastation of the pandemic, the winner may be the candidate who offers the most compelling case that he can give the appearance of normal life.
For Biden, this means containing the virus and building a fairer and cleaner economy. For Trump, this means going back to what the country and economy looked like in February.
"This is what people want, a return to normal, whether it's an end to the pandemic, an end to unemployment. … I think anyone who can do that will be the winner," said Gannons Sahay.
Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.