PITTSBURGH — Despite a deadly pandemic, staggering unemployment and racial unrest, Pennsylvania voters showed up in record numbers to take part in their presidential primary Tuesday — even though the results were a foregone conclusion.
“We are already looking at a 40 percent voter turnout, which is what we hit in 2016 where there were still contested races on both sides of the aisle,” said Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County executive. “These numbers are way off the charts.”
And judging by the numbers so far, President Trump drew voters out in force. With almost 98 percent of districts counted, Republicans have cast more than 861,000 ballots for Donald Trump, with 734,000 Democrats voting for Joe Biden. And while it’s still unclear how many people voted in person versus mail-in ballot, some counties are reporting that Trump drew plenty of supporters out of their homes.
Most voters who cast in-person ballots in the suburban Pittsburgh county of Beaver, for example, were Republicans, said Daniel Camp, a GOP elected official there. “Republican turnout in person outperformed Democrat turnout in a county where there are 10,000 more registered Democrats,” Camp said.
Voting in person, especially given all the risks of the times, demonstrates a high level of enthusiasm, said Jeff Brauer, Keystone College political science professor.
“The Republicans had even less to vote for than Democrats did,” Brauer said. “There were no statewide contested races on the Republican side — the Democrats at least had the six-person Auditor General race — and Trump had long secured the nomination with never having a serious challenge.
“That is a fairly rare phenomenon in American politics. It’s usually hard enough to get Americans to vote when their vote actually matters.”
As of press time, Trump had earned 94 percent of Pennsylvania Republicans’ primary votes — with a minuscule protest vote going to either Bill Weld or Rocky De La Fuente.
Meanwhile, Biden, who boasts Scranton as his hometown and has based his national campaign headquarters in Philadelphia, has earned just under 78 percent of his party’s support. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hawaiian Rep. Tulsi Gabbard ate away at his numbers, with Sanders winning nearly 20 percent of the vote even though he has dropped out of the race and urged his supporters to back Biden.
What’s more, only registered party members can vote in their party’s primary in this state and there are approximately 800,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Pennsylvania.
In some counties, including Erie, Washington and Beaver, the percentage of Biden voters slipped to the low 70s. These ancestral Democratic counties are important, because this is where voters turned out in droves for Trump in 2016, helping to match the blue votes in and around Philadelphia to give him a squeaker of a victory.
Four years ago, pundits dismissed the overwhelming number of Trump signs posted on back roads, farms and highways in Rust Belt states as an unscientific measure of voter enthusiasm. But the signs for Trump (and lack of signs for his opponent Hillary Clinton) revealed a passion factor that traditional polls missed.
In 2020, Trump signs are once again everywhere in Pennsylvania. And Biden signs seem nonexistent.
Joanne Moyer said her Ruffs Dale sign company near Pittsburgh just finished making a life-size cutout of Trump for a customer.
“That’s pretty much the norm for us,” said Moyer, who has owned the business with her husband Leon for over 30 years. “There has actually been an increase in business over 2016, even though this is an overwhelming Democrat area and, even with the shutdown, people came in wearing masks to get their signs for Trump.”
Democrat Larry Ceisler, a Philly-based business consultant who voted for Biden in this primary, said he saw no campaign signs for the ex-VP at his polling station in West Mt. Airy — a place he calls “the most liberal neighborhood between Cambridge and Berkeley.”
While national polls show Biden leading Trump, it’s the swing states that matter. And thelatest Change Research poll shows the two candidates neck and neck in battleground states won by Trump in 2016. Both men are tied in Wisconsin, Biden holds a slim lead in North Carolina and Michigan, and here in Pennsylvania, Trump leads by 4 percentage points. Winning Pennsylvania is crucial for Biden — no Democrat has lost here and won the presidency since 1960.
David La Torre, a Republican public affairs executive, said he’s only seen one Biden sign in Pennsylvania so far — and that wasn’t even in person.
“It was a borough councilman, celebrating on social media the picture he took of a Biden sign in somebody’s yard.”
Trump signs, meanwhile, he’s seen a lot of them.
“They are everywhere,” La Torre said, “and many of them are homemade.”
Salena Zito is the author of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics” (Crown Forum), out now.