These voters put Trump in the White House. Some feel abandoned by the Democratic Party. Some feel Biden is too centrist. Can he really win them over?
One of Joe Biden’s chief arguments for why he should be the Democratic nominee is that he can win the working-class vote.
Those voters in Rust Belt states that previously voted blue, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, helped Trump win the presidency.
But Biden said he can win those voters back. In the most recent Democratic debate in Iowa, Biden said in his closing statement that he’s winning working-class voters in Pennsylvania.
Some polls support that claim, but interviews with working-class Pennsylvania voters paint a more complicated picture, especially in the southwest and northeast corners of the state.
“They can’t count on me on the blue team this year. I won’t vote for Joe Biden,” said Gene Salvati, a 70-year-old registered Democrat and retired railroad worker and union leader. He said he’s looking for a more progressive Democrat instead.
Salvati lives in Economy Borough in Beaver County, where Trump got 70 percent of the vote in 2016.
He wasn’t one of those pro-Trump votes. Salvati said he was a loyal Democrat four years ago because he wanted his party to pick the next Supreme Court judges.
“I voted for Hillary Clinton. It was my choice. I didn’t like it, but I knew my vote could affect the courts for the next 30 years,” Salvati said.
He’s thinking differently this time.
“I’m not giving my vote away this time. I will not vote for a centrist,” he said.
Some Dems feel abandoned by the party
Salvati understands the anger of his neighbors who wanted to see a change in the country and voted for Trump.
“I’m angry, too. I feel like I’ve been cheated,” he said.
Salvati is one of thousands of Pennsylvanians who had to fight to keep his home after the recession, and one of thousands of union workers who feel left behind by Democrats.
He thought the Democratic Party was the party who fought for guys like him. He changed his mind, he said, when President Obama added people in his cabinet with ties to the Wall Street banks that were bailed out in the recession.
“Nobody ever bailed me out,” the Vietnam veteran said.
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There’s no way Trump will get Salvati’s vote, but Biden won’t either.
Progressive Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders could win his support.
“I like Bernie Sanders because he wants to take on corruption,” Salvati said.
Cheryl Whitesell, a 69-year-old voter from Wilkes-Barre in northeast Pennsylvania, said she’s also “fed up.”
But unlike Salvati, this small-business owner who operates her own greenhouse and also works in food service said Trump won her vote in 2016 will again in 2020.
“He’s trying to save America,” Whitesell said.
She is a registered Republican who said she hasn’t voted for a Democratic nominee since Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.
“Democrats today don’t care about people like me. I’m a Christian, I’m against abortion, I’m against gay and I’m for America. I’m for bringing business back to America,” Whitesell said.
Trump’s election in 2016 was an answered prayer.
“I had been hoping someone would get in office who had guts enough to not play political games. Most people around here are for Trump,” Whitesell said.
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Other working-class voters interviewed in the northeast and southwest corners of the state, areas that were vital to Trump winning Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes, voiced reactions similar to Salvati’s and Whitesell’s.
By their measure, Biden still has work to do to win working-class voters in Pennsylvania.
He does, however, have some traction among Pennsylvania voters who chose Trump in 2016, but are looking for a different tone in leadership in 2020.
Claude Schach, a 79-year-old minister in Schuylkill County, hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter, but that could change this year.
He said Trump has “done as good as he could under the circumstances. People have hated him since day one and been fighting against him.”
But Biden, a Scranton native, might get his vote if he’s on the ballot.
“I think he’s got common sense, a calm demeanor and would think things out. He has a calming voice, and we need that,” Schach said.
Can Biden win first-timers who backed Trump?
Biden also appeals to some of the thousands of first-time voters who registered in 2016.
Barbara Boucher, a 42-year-old Republican from Lawrence County, voted for Trump last time but could be open to Biden this time.
She can’t see herself voting for a progressive; she likes that Biden is “not extreme.”
The mother of three said she registered to vote for the first time in 2016 “because I knew I needed to be more involved if I wanted better things for my children.”
Her vote for Trump, she said, was really a vote against Clinton.
“I didn’t think the country needed that at the time. I didn’t think she was trustworthy, and I thought the country needed more of a business approach,” she said.
She hasn’t made up her mind about who she will vote for in 2020, but she sees Biden as “a good family man.”
“I heard he used to take a train every day from Washington, D.C., to Delaware to be with his sons after his wife and daughter died. I read that he keeps the rosary on his wrist that his son had on when he died. I just really respect all of that about him,” Boucher said.
Democrats have a lot of ground to make up with working-class voters in Pennsylvania, said Terry Madonna, a pollster and political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
“They felt left behind by the Democratic party, economically and culturally,” Madonna said.
The largest demographic of these voters helped Trump win the Steeler Country corner of the state, including Beaver, Fayette, Washington, Westmoreland and Greene counties.
Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is, reliably voted for a Democrat, as did Philadelphia.
But Trump won Erie, which had voted for Obama four years earlier, and he lost Scranton by only a few thousand votes.
“Trump’s probably going to live or die politically on the economy. He will have to make the argument to blue collar workers that he’s made things better,” Madonna said.
Progressives will struggle with blue-collar voters
Progressives like Sanders and Warren are winning young voters in the state, but they will struggle with rural democrats and blue-collar workers, according to former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat from Philadelphia.
“Sanders and Warren are against fracking. Warren said she would ban it on day one. But in northern and southwestern Pennsylvania, it’s been an economic godsend. It would be an enormously unpopular position to take that away,” Rendell said.
The progressives’ health care plans also remain unpopular among such voters, he said.
“This is still a union state, and you have a lot of union workers who like their private health care,” Rendell said. “Bottom line, you can’t expect to win Pennsylvania if you want to take away everything Pennsylvanians like.”
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