Philly’s suburbs are crucial to the presidential race. After the first debate, some voters are wincing at the Biden-Trump rematch

Voters in Bucks and Montgomery counties could prove pivotal in deciding the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.

Elisha Morris

Elisha Morris, of Norristown, at the Montgomery County Democratic Committee headquarters' watch party (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

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Securing a win in Pennsylvania is crucial for unlocking any presidential campaign. In 2020, President Joe Biden found the key: the Philadelphia suburbs.

That election saw a boost in the size of the suburban electorate and its support for the Democratic nominee. Biden defeated Trump in those four counties by a margin of more than 280,000 votes. This cycle, the suburbs of Pennsylvania continue to play a major role.

On Thursday night, equipped with lawn chairs and full plates of home-cooked food, dozens of Biden supporters gathered inside of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee’s headquarters in Norristown.

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They’ve seen this movie before, yes.

But four years later, attendees at one debate watch party were looking forward to President Joe Biden nailing former President Donald Trump on threats to abortion, democracy and the social safety net. Some winced at the sequel.

“I was hoping that we would at least stand our ground and be able to stand up to Trump and not let him just talk about random things,” said Amanda Baker, of Pottstown. “But, I don’t know if that happened.”

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There were some shaky moments from Biden, but the chasm between Trump and the Democratic Party was enough fuel to keep the left-leaning crowd energized.

Biden’s strongest moment with his remote audience occurred around the halfway mark — when he went on the offensive. In reference to Trump’s recent conviction in the hush money trial, Biden said Trump has “the morals of an alley cat.”

The jab elicited the largest collective hoot of the night. During the commercial break, the group of more than 60 people took an ice cream break.

“He’s Uncle Joe,” said Elisha Morris, of Norristown. “He may have fumbled a couple of words there. He may have fumbled on a couple of sentences, but he was clear and concise throughout the night.”

Elisha Morris
Elisha Morris, of Norristown, at the Montgomery County Democratic Committee headquarters’ watch party (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

Mark Weiss, a Democratic committee person in Abington Township, wasn’t super enthusiastic about the performance.

“I was hoping that President Biden would be a little bit more glib. I think he improved after the first couple of questions, but there were some moments that I was like — uh,” Weiss said.

He wanted to hear more policy and less Trump.

Jason Salus, chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, believes Biden accomplished his goal of expressing his accomplishments in office — even if there were some stumbles along the way.

“If you listen to the content of the president’s answers, he’s right on the issues. I call it suburban sensibility where the tax system is fair, where working folks have a shot, where our rights are protected and defended,” Salus said. “Those are the things that suburban voters care about.”

Jason Salus, chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Party (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

Just 44 miles away, at the Trump Force 47 office in Newtown, Bucks County, a crowd of roughly 50 people were an equally spirited virtual audience, cheering Trump while laughing and groaning at Biden’s responses.

“There’s the border, the economy right now with gasoline prices and food prices going up again,” said Jim Petrino, a Trump supporter. “And I guess one of the biggest things is Biden’s stability. Is he able to stand for an hour? Is he able to hold the conversation for an hour? Legitimate conversation.”

The answer to that question, according to the crowd’s reactions, was a resounding “no.” People applauded when Trump responded to Biden’s description of his immigration policies by commenting, “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said either.”

For Abigail Vega, who will be voting in her first election this November, immigration is a top concern.

“I feel as if Trump will get a hold on that,” she said.

Abigail Vega at the watch party
Abigail Vega, 17, will turn 18 and vote in her first election in November. She said she’s voting for Trump because of immigration concerns. Ahead of the debate, she said she wants to see both candidates have a more “mature” debate than the first Trump-Biden debate during the 2020 election cycle. (Emily Neil/WHYY)

The room filled with groans in response to a question about Jan. 6, and cheered when Trump said he “peacefully and patriotically” told people to gather to support him on Jan. 6.

People reacted with “no” and “liar” when Biden said Trump encouraged people to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The watch party audience also applauded when Trump addressed his recent felony conviction, saying “I did nothing wrong.”

Ellen Cox, a member of the Bucks County Republican Committee, said she was “really, really proud” of Trump’s performance — especially in contrast to Biden.

“The current president slurring his words, forgot where he was, you know, just gets angry … he’s misremembering things,” she said, noting that as a veteran she was particularly moved by Trump’s reference to the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2021.

Trump supporters at a watch party in Newtown posed for a photo with a cut-out figure of Donald Trump after the debate. (Emily Neil/WHYY)

Cox hopes what she says are multiple crises the country is facing motivates more voters to turn out for Trump in November.

“The economy is down, the border is open, there’s a fentanyl issue,” she said. “Prices are up, fuel is up. I’m scared for our kids. I’m, we’re living in hell right now. And Trump said that. So we need to get Trump back in office.”

Importance of Philadelphia suburbs in presidential elections

More than a decade ago, Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards handed the party control of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners for the first time in 140 years.

With each passing election cycle, Philadelphia’s collar counties lost their purple hue. Meanwhile, Democrats wrested power over Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties’ top governing seats in 2019. Biden won Bucks County in 2020 by a slim margin, with 51.7% of the vote (204,712 votes) to Trump’s 47.3% (187,367). Hillary Clinton barely edged out Trump to win Bucks County in the 2016 election, with 48.4% of the vote compared to 47.8% of the vote for Trump.

Changing demographics, evolving attitudes and threats to abortion and voting rights have given Democrats a serious edge in recent statewide elections.

Montgomery County Commissioner Jamila Winder, who attended the Norristown watch party, told WHYY News that she’s witnessed the suburban evolution first hand.

“Growing up in Montgomery County myself for the better part of four decades, I have seen that change right from red to blue, and so when I think about what helps Democrats win elections, it’s about meeting people where they are and understanding our values as a party and being able to speak to those values as we’re out talking to voters,” Winder said.

She said Biden’s campaign should focus on communities who have historically been on the margins.

Commissioner Neil Makhija, who made voting rights key to his own campaign, zeroed in on the disgust that the Jan. 6 insurrection generates amongst voters.

“He incited a riot, they disrupted Congress and people were killed as a result,” Makhija said as he addressed the crowd. “There were real damages done both to people’s confidence in the system and to people’s lives, and so the fact that we have a former president who is trying to wage another attempt to take back the office that he refused to give up is dangerous.”

At the Newtown watch party, Jim Worthington, local delegate to the Republican National Convention, spoke to the room about the importance of local Trump organizers engaging voters to win the county, the state and ultimately the election.

He said worries about “stealing the election” should be dismissed, stating that 500 lawyers will be on the ground that day to ensure the election is fair.

“Forget it, you’ve got to start focusing in on what you can control. That’s what I do,” Worthington said.

Jim Worthington at the watch party
Jim Worthington, chair of the Republican delegation to the Republican National Convention, said he wants to see former President Trump “correct the record” and address any “mistruths” President Biden shares during the debate. He said winning Bucks County is key to winning the election. (Emily Neil/WHYY)

He recommended Trump supporters work with “low-propensity” voters by helping to get them to the polls on Election Day, or by assisting them with voting by mail.

Although Trump claimed that mail ballots led to election fraud in the 2020 elections, Pennsylvania Republican leaders have been encouraging voters to use mail-in ballots in the upcoming elections and working to change negative perceptions of mail ballots.

“If you win Bucks County, you win Pennsylvania. If you win Pennsylvania, you become the president,” Worthington said. “So their strategy is to win Bucks County, keep the Southeast close, and he’ll become the president of the United States, guaranteed.”

Bucks County resident Cox said she and other Republican organizers have been working to register more people to vote Republican, and are a little over 500 registrations away from surpassing Democrats and flipping the county red.

The issue in 2020, Cox said, was “voter apathy.”

“The biggest thing is voter turnout,” she said.

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