Beaver county in rural western Pennsylvania is dotted with red, white and blue Vote Trump banners along its winding country roads and on shopfronts of local businesses closed by the pandemic.
It’s a predominantly white, working-class, socially conservative county hit hard by the demise of the steel industry and the opioid epidemic. Now it is also bearing the brunt of Covid-19 unemployment, which has caused unprecedented demand for food aid, and yet also seems to have bolstered support for Trump among once-loyal Democrats.
“This country needs to come back to life, and Trump is the only one who can pull us out of this insanity. It was an overreaction. It’s no worse than the flu. You can’t keep the country locked down indefinitely,” said Diana Renda, 61, a registered Democrat who works at a senior citizens’ independent living facility.
Renda, an avid hunter and climate crisis sceptic, supports the recent rollback of emission standards for methane, a potent greenhouse gas produced in vast quantities by the oil and gas industries, as it could help the nearby petrochemical plant.
“I’m very much in favor of capitalism and job creation. I didn’t leave the Democratic party, my party left me … 20 years ago,” Renda said.
Beaver county, situated 40 miles north-west of Pittsburgh and bordering Ohio and West Virginia, is a former Democratic stronghold that Trump won by a staggering 19 percentage points in 2016 – even though more than half of all voters were registered Democrats.
The Democratic demise didn’t start with Trump. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win here was John Kerry in 2004, who beat the incumbent George W Bush 51% to 48%, since when residents have increasingly voted Republican.
Republican voter registrations in the county, which is 90% white and 76% non-college-educated – key Trump demographics – are up from 39% to 44% since the last election.
In 2016, the polls before election day were too close to call in Pennsylvania, though most experts expected Hillary Clinton to hold on to the state won twice by both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
In the end, Trump collected Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral college votes after winning by 44,292 votes out of more than 6m cast. Clinton held on to the urban centers, including Pittsburgh; the state capital, Harrisburg; and much of Philadelphia. But Trump carried 57 of the state’s 67 counties, all predominantly rural or semi-rural areas.
Analysts agree that Pennsylvania is a must-win battleground state this November if the Democrats are to win back the White House, which means Joe Biden clawing back votes in former blue-collar rural heartlands like Beaver county.
Biden needs the backing of people like Mike Wooley, 55, who in 2016 was swayed by Trump’s promise of putting America first.
“I voted for him because he promised life would be better for blue-collar workers, and I totally regret it. Look at us, we’re not living, we’re surviving,” said Wooley, who lost his cash-in-hand restaurant job in March. He doesn’t qualify for unemployment benefits and has no health insurance.
“Trump’s a businessman, not a politician. I’ll be voting for Biden,” he added.
But for many, it’s not all about Trump. Quina Price, 67, a lifelong registered Democrat, believes the party abandoned rural communities after the decline in manufacturing industries like steel and coal.
“They need to get back to the grassroots, come and listen, not just talk, to what our needs and concerns are … it’s not racism. We don’t see that here,” said Price, assistant director of the Families Matter food pantry.
Price, who describes herself as an anti-abortion conservative Christian, is convinced that the Democrats, led by the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, have surreptitiously tried pushing through gun control and open access to abortion in the latest coronavirus stimulus bills – which is not true. She has also heard that Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, supports legalizing abortion at any time before birth – also untrue.
Echoing an insult frequently used by Trump, Price said: “Nancy Pelosi is a nasty woman, dishonest … There’s no chance I’ll vote for the Democrats until she goes.”
After watching Biden’s televised speech at the virtual DNC, Price added: “I’m sticking with Trump. He’s the lesser of two evils, and he cares for working people, that’s the bottom line. Joe Biden is not qualified for the job and doesn’t seem sincere. The whole party has become unethical.”
Trump’s poll numbers have floundered in recent months amid disapproval of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and protests against systemic racism. He is also facing an opponent in Biden who is substantially more popular than Hillary Clinton. With both parties’ conventions now over, Biden enters the home stretch with a healthy lead.
But winning the popular national vote is no guarantee he will win the White House: the US electoral system is more complicated than that.
Biden must win back votes in the so-called blue wall states Trump won (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan) after 20 years of Democratic victories – rather than simply increase the party’s dominance in solidly Democratic states like California and New York.
With just over two months to go, the battleground states are very much in play.
An average of national polls on Wednesday showed Biden leading Trump by about 7.5 percentage points, but only 4.2 in Pennsylvania, according to the website FiveThirtyEight.
An education and race divide appears to be key. Pennsylvania’s electorate, like those of Michigan and Wisconsin, which Trump also won by a whisker, has a larger than average share of non-college-educated whites – who are twice as likely to vote for Trump as Biden, according to a recent Pew Research Centre poll.
And while party registration doesn’t guarantee votes, Republican activists have been doing their bit in Pennsylvania: 57 counties have shifted more Republican, while only 10 have become more Democratic, according to analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Every county with fewer than 100,000 voters has become more Republican, at least in registration numbers. The Democrats still maintain an 800,000-voter edge, but it’s down from 936,000 in 2016, when Trump won the state by less than 1%.
Still, if Biden and Harris can increase voter turnout significantly in the cities, it could be enough to win back the state. They’ll need people like Naela Shuman, 42, who owns a popular eatery in Homewood – a poor majority-black neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
Shuman, who is originally from Palestine, has never voted, but her son, Mohammed, 20, has convinced her that this year she must help get rid of Trump. “This president talks too much, I don’t know how he can be president of the biggest country in the world. I have to vote,” she said.