Why Biden Backers Are Sounding the Alarm on Pennsylvania

8 minute read

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It’s not hyperbole to say Joe Biden’s childhood home state of Pennsylvania put him in the White House. It was The Associated Press’ call of that state’s outcome at 11:25 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 7, of last year that made it official that the son of Scranton would be heading back to Washington and into a job he’s coveted since his 20s. The counting in Pennsylvania took four days and it was closer than anyone in the Biden campaign wanted. But the Keystone State came through for Biden, who had early on recognized the state as a lynchpin for his strategy and even headquartered his campaign near Philadelphia’s City Hall. (Well, at least until COVID-19 mothballed that operation and sent everyone working from kitchen stools and basement couches.)

So when Biden’s advisers and allies assemble these days to consider his path to success if he runs for a second term—as he has indicated he will— Pennsylvania is always top of mind. It was one of the five states that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and switched allegiances in 2020. But Biden’s 1.2 percentage-point win there last year seems meager compared to the Obama-Biden victory there in 2012 by 5.2 percentage points. Being a childhood local doesn’t overcome the sincere frustration Pennsylvania voters have harbored for decades and a voting pattern that offers the party in the White House little reason for comfort.

According to a new assessment of where Biden and Democrats stand today with the voters they need in Pennsylvania, things do not look good. The frank findings, presented in a 134-page private presentation prepared for anyone who will listen by two outside groups who are allies of the White House, paint an electorate in Pennsylvania disappointed by the pace of Biden’s work and unsure why he’s chasing compromise with Republicans where none is to be found. In open-ended surveys, focus-grouped test ads and multimedia texting conversations with a range of voters, there remains a persistent lag between what voters thought Biden would work on and what he’s accomplished, according to the blunt document obtained by TIME.

“There still is an incredibly high level of voter frustration (in Pennsylvania),” says Mark Riddle, the president and CEO of Future Majority, one of the outside groups that conducted the research and has been clamoring for Democrats to be more intentional in how they talk about their plans.

And Pennsylvania might just be the bellwether. “We’re doing these studies in a lot of different states. We’re seeing overall this broad sense of malaise about COVID. It’s been a slog that people have been going through,” says Gretchen Barton, Future Majority’s research director. “It presents a strategic opportunity for the party. There are a lot of people in these small towns who want to live and breathe like Democrats and are aligned with what Democrats are about. They just need to be connected with the larger party.”

For instance, men of color in Pennsylvania told researchers that they feel Democrats have taken them for granted. At the same time, those men of color are starting to sound like country club Republicans, according to the report, co-presented with Way to Win, another outside Democratic group that formed after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss. “It would be remiss of us not to mention that men of color are spending a lot of time talking about wealth building, financial prosperity and success and talk about freedom from government. They express a desire to be free of things that slow them down (which includes racism, red lining, poor educational opportunities and excess regulation), they want to be invested in and they want to be given the same opportunities as everyone,” the groups warn.

This isn’t coming out of nowhere. National exit polls last year found 12% of Black voters backed Trump, and 32% of Latinos and 34% of Asians did so, too. Trump fared less well among voters of color in Pennsylvania, lagging by 5 points among both Black and Latino voters. But that’s still a concern for some strategists in a state that was decided by less than 82,000 ballots of 6.9 million cast. “Joe Biden has done so much more to change the country than perhaps any other modern President, but the voters who delivered him the presidency—especially voters of color and younger voters—it’s like they don’t know what the President has done,” says Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, a co-founder of Way to Win and the group’s chief strategist.

The broad answer to this problem, these Bidenphiles posit, lies in Democrats’ inherent negativity in their narrative that misses the improvements of the last year: rising vaccination rates, a stronger first-year jobs-added figure than any recent president and unemployment at a 52-year low. Biden signed into law a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill along a party-line vote and delivered a bipartisan infrastructure plan that spends $550 billion on new projects. He and the Democrats are halfway home on another social spending bill that would spend $1.75 trillion on universal childcare, expanded health coverage and efforts to mitigate climate change; it made it through the House and Democrats are trying to get it across the finish line in the Senate before leaving for a holiday recess.

“Democrats have to start acting like winners,” says Riddle, who was instrumental in running outside spending and messaging to help Democrats in 2018 and 2020. “We actually did win the election and we’re actually accomplishing things to help people. And it feels like we’re just playing defense on everything.”

Biden’s victories have been slow to reach the ears of the swing voters whom Democrats will need when voters will pick their congressional delegation to serve Pennsylvania districts that still are not drafted. Instead, their attention has focused on collapsed negotiations over a criminal-justice bill, free public university falling off the table and an immigration overhaul becoming a non-starter. Biden hasn’t so far pushed to scrap the procedural roadblock Republicans seem intent on putting up on anything approaching a Democratic win, even when it comes to protecting Americans’ voting rights. And an uneven foreign policy has left some voters wondering: Wasn’t this the guy who knows the best restaurants in every global capital from his days chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Barack Obama’s de facto international fixer?

It’s not that Biden hasn’t been trying to sell his record to Pennsylvania: other than his current home state of Delaware or Virginia just across the river from D.C., Biden visited the state more than any other since becoming President. It’s just that voters in Pennsylvania’s cities and small towns just aren’t buying it. They know how they feel, and it’s not dissimilar to how they felt in 2008 when the economic crash they endured seemed purely the creation of the insiders in New York and Washington. A staggering 71% of these targeted voters told the Biden-backing researchers that they feel the world is in chaos, hardly the calm-and-steady pitch Biden made during the campaign.

It might just be something inherent to Pennsylvania. The state seems to be perpetually agitated with Washington and takes special glee in punishing candidates who seem too cozy to their party’s leadership. Sen. Pat Toomey would never be confused as someone who makes life easy on Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Democrats have come to accept Sen. Bob Casey’s stated opposition to Roe v. Wade. (Democrats also privately cluck that Casey’s own voting record doesn’t match his rhetoric on the issue but give him a pass in heavily Catholic Pennsylvania.) In fact, in the presidential elections held since Watergate, voters in Pennsylvania have voted against the party nominee with pals in the White House more than half the time.

But that doesn’t have to mean defeat for Biden, Ancona argues. If Democrats get smarter about their communication with voters, Pennsylvanians might get the message.

“The simple thing of calling it a spending bill versus calling it a job bill,” she offers as an example. “We’ve created more jobs than any President in his first six months in office. That’s the kind of thing you want to be screaming from the rooftops.”

Oh, and calling the GOP a party of extremists more often might help, too, the study finds. “We did some content testing and one of the ads called the GOP extremists, tying their Jan. 6 Capitol attack to the extreme views that they have on COVID vaccines and reproductive freedom,” Ancona says. “That actually works with the voters who delivered a Biden victory in 2020.”

Democrats’ next test? Getting those voters to show up again.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com