How one state could decide 2020

How one state could decide 2020
© Getty Images

There is perhaps no state that better reflects the past and present of the country than Pennsylvania. With two major cities, vast rural areas, and its Rust Belt character, the state bridges nearly every national divide. Donald Trump nabbed a white whale here in 2016, becoming the first Republican candidate for president to win Pennsylvania since 1988. The state will be of paramount importance with the contest this year.

In my map to 270 electoral votes, I see the Keystone State living up to its nickname. With Joe Biden likely crashing back into the former “blue wall” with the Great Lakes, Trump is on track to hold Ohio and the Sun Belt. If this holds, the 20 electoral votes of Pennsylvania could be the ones that send either of these candidates to the White House.

The polls had the state in the column for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The final Real Clear Politics average had her up 2 points, but Trump outperformed her to carry the state with 44,000 votes. Keep in mind, Pennsylvania was his state well before the election, as Trump carried all 67 counties in the Republican primary. His stances with tariffs, immigration, and industrial jobs seem almost tailor made for voters in the state.


Trump now trails 4 points in the Real Clear Politics average, with one poll showing him in the lead and another tied. In the surveys completed since last week, Biden leads by more than 3 points. So if there is a discrepancy anywhere close to 2016, this state is in a dead heat. There is also the real possibility that the polls are more inaccurate this election than they were four years ago, as the constant criticism of the president in his first term could mean a significant “Shy Tory” vote for Trump.

Further aiding Trump are some promising trends for Republicans. In 2016, there were nearly 900,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Pennsylvania. In 2019, there were 800,000 more Democrats. Today, the divide has narrowed by a further 100,000. This represents a shift of nearly 200,000 net voters in four years, with more than half occurring in the last year. Perhaps most striking is that the number for registered Republicans has gone up compared to registered Democrats in all but seven counties. It includes a gain of 5,000 net voters in Philadelphia. The state is also the home to 2,300,000 seniors who will be likely voters.

Trump also has his outreach to African Americans and his achievements on criminal justice reform, which could make a difference in a tight race, notably as rappers such as 50 Cent and Ice Cube make positive remarks about the president. Gallup also found the approval rating of Trump with African Americans across the country is at 11 percent. African Americans were 10 percent of Pennsylvania voters in 2016. If the president wins just 15 percent of this group, he will have a valuable reserve to cut into what Biden could take away in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Then there is the critical issue of energy. Biden made a major error for the final debate when he claimed he wants to transition away from fossil fuels, and he could have tipped the balance with the second largest producer in natural gas. The Trump campaign has said that this stance would cost the state, which has had a renaissance with hydraulic fracturing, hundreds of thousands of jobs. For rural Pennsylvania voters, this represents a mortal threat to the economic stability for plenty of families.

Playing in favor of Biden, however, are recent court decisions that could have a dramatic effect on the final tallies for Pennsylvania. The Supreme Court allowed the state to count mailed ballots until three days after the election. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania state high court ruled that ballots must not be tossed for inconsistent signatures. The cases were decided against the pleas by Republicans and reveals that both parties now view the state as the nerve center of the Electoral College.

Pennsylvania was arguably the biggest surprise of election night in 2016. While the close nature of the race may not come as a shock, its role as a Rust Belt bellwether makes it my top state to watch. Just as Pennsylvania was the colony that made the crucial vote to our independence, it could again have a chance to play the same role this week.

Kristin Tate is a libertarian author and an analyst for Young Americans for Liberty. She is a Robert Novak journalism fellow at the Fund for American Studies. Her newest book is “The Liberal Invasion of Red State America.”