With a week to go until Election Day, Pennsylvania has lived up to its hype as a key battleground state that could decide the presidency.
Former Vice President Joe Biden leads in state and national polls, but both he and President Donald Trump have been making frequent stops in the commonwealth and spending big on advertising.
But what’s swaying voters?
Our network of reporters talked with people across the state about who they are voting for and how they’re being affected by the biggest issues of the year — including COVID-19, the economy, and protests for racial justice.
Jamari Davis, 41 | Lebanon
Jamari Davis, 41, says this election comes down to putting “morals over money.”
Davis used to be an Independent who favored candidates from both major parties.
“In the words of our president, there were ‘very fine people on both sides,’” he said tongue-in-cheek, referring to Trump’s comments after a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
“Nowadays, you have no choice,” he said. When it comes to politics, “you have to draw the line.”
Davis works in mortgage loans and real estate in central Pennsylvania. In Lebanon County, where he lives, 55 percent of registered voters this year are Republicans. That gives the GOP a large edge on the Democratic Party, which now includes Davis.
As a small business owner, he said he benefits from Trump’s approach to the economy. The coronavirus pandemic slowed his work “slightly,” freezing real estate transactions and forcing him to temporarily work from home. He criticized Trump for not taking the pandemic more seriously, but has not heard a plan from Biden that satisfies his economic concerns.
No matter, Trump cannot win his vote.
“As a Black man, with morals and character, I cannot in good conscience vote for somebody that’s racist, divisive and tearing our country down,” he said.
He points to the first presidential debate, when, 10 minutes before Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” the president criticized racial sensitivity training as a “radical revolution.” The White House has banned such education for federal agencies and contractors. Davis’ sister, Amanda Davis-Buie, leads anti-racism trainings with organizations in the county.
“There are programs put in place meant to bring people together, yet his only goal is to divide,” he said. “And people are okay with that.”
Getting along with friends or coworkers who support Trump means doing his best to avoid the subject. “I’d rather not lose respect for people,” he said.
Davis prefers Biden mostly for who he isn’t — Trump.
“I’m wearing my Black Lives Matter shirt, I’m wearing my mask that says ‘I can’t breathe,’ and I got a little MAGA hat that says, ‘Made you look. Black Lives Matter,’” he said. “I’m going in full garb.”
Roy Straley, 59 | Marion, Franklin County
Roy Straley has watched with pleasure as his wife’s family, which historically leaned towards Democrats, has come to share his support of Trump.
“They all sit around the dinner table for Sunday dinner,” he said, raising his voice to imitate the conversation. “[They say] ‘If daddy was alive today, he’d change parties too! These ain’t the Democrats we grew up with.’”
Straley, 59, sees the 2020 election as a turning point between the status quo and “a more socialist-type state.”
A lifelong Republican, he said he will vote for Trump for a second time on Nov. 3.
“I personally don’t feel we should be borrowing from our grandkids. I don’t even think we should have gotten that stimulus,” he said, referring to the checks many citizens received earlier this year to help defray economic instability caused by the pandemic.
Straley, a service technician and oil delivery driver, never lost work due to COVID-19 and said he did not need the aid. He fears that taxing the rich further would drive them away, with no one to foot the bill for more expansive social programs. “You can’t just keep giving handouts out — free college, free, free, free — somebody’s got to pay for it,” he said.
Straley’s opposition to abortion is another deciding factor in his vote. He sees Trump, who has now gotten three conservative justices confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, as the better candidate for those beliefs.
“I don’t look at President Trump as perfect. He’s done things in his life that’s not perfect. We all have,” he said, but “abortion would be one of my things that I would say that I would lean more towards Trump.”
Brendan Bittle, 25 | Chambersburg
Brendan Bittle, 25, believes the future is on the line in 2020. The environment, healthcare and the economy all play a part in why he’s backing Biden, although he would prefer to cast his vote for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
”One of the big things for me is climate change. I would like my nephews and nieces, and children in general to have an inhabitable planet,” said Bittle. “Second biggest thing is Medicare for All.” While that’s not a part of Biden’s platform, Bittle said he hopes a Democratic presidency will at least move the country towards more state-supported healthcare. Biden’s platform includes expanding the Affordable Care Act to include a public option — a government-run health insurance agency that would compete with the private sector.
Bittle moved home to Chambersburg after completing his undergraduate degree at West Chester University last year. In the spring, he’ll graduate from a master’s program in sports administration, but his job prospects are murky due to the ongoing recession.
The pandemic job market “has kind of sucked,” he said. “I had a really nice bartending-waitering-hosting-type job at Roy Pitz, a little pub in Chambersburg. Now they’re only open three days a week.” And Bittle lost his job. He’s been working at a supermarket instead.
Bittle’s grandfather, R. Harry Bittle, served in the State House as a Republican for more than a decade starting in the late 1960s. Brendan, though, has steadily moved away from the politics he grew up with.
Initially, he registered to vote with the GOP, but as he learned more about systemic inequalities while studying accounting and finance in college, he changed his thinking. Now, he actively lobbies his immediate family members to vote Democrat and believes he’s influencing them.
“My family has always been kind of centrist, moderate Republicans … Obviously in the way the party has shifted over the last four years, I know they’re good people and their votes should reflect that a little better,” he said.
Breanna Mekuly, 30 | Erie
Breanna Mekuly lives with her girlfriend in a brick house on Erie’s east side. She helps run Emmaus Soup Kitchen and works with a Catholic church ministry. Because of personal underlying health issues, she said healthcare is a key driving issue for her this year, especially as Trump seeks to have the Supreme Court invalidate the Affordable Care Act.
“If I lose my job for some reason, it would be really scary,” she said. “I have fibromyalgia. I have endometriosis. I have to go to the doctor often to make sure that things are taken care of, and if I would lose my job I don’t even know how I would be able to afford my healthcare bills.”
As the pandemic has taken its toll, Mekuly said she’s thankful she hasn’t been impacted economically. She’s kept her job and has been able to work from home. But in working to feed those who really have been struggling, she said the crisis has opened her eyes.
“It just makes me realize that our economy is so much less stable than I had hoped, and that there are a lot of people who are living day to day,” Mekuly said. “To me, that just means that we really need to focus more on the average person. How do we create and help people sustain these family-sustaining wages and jobs that will be good for not just the owner of the company, but everyone else?”
Mekuly, who moved to Erie recently from Wisconsin, is a registered Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. She plans to vote for Biden this year using a drop box available at the county courthouse.
Mekuly said she’s worried that four more years of Trump could erode protections that LGBTQ people have gained, especially as the Supreme Court becomes more conservative.
My girlfriend and I would possibly want to get married someday, and we’re hearing these things coming up now of, ‘Well, maybe they want to repeal gay marriage,” she said. “We’ve been having these conversations with our families and our friends, and for the most part people want to support but they don’t necessarily understand what it’s like to be in that position.”
Erie County was one of three in Pennsylvania that voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 but turned to favor Trump in 2016. Democrats believe Biden’s appeal this year will surpass Hillary Clinton’s, but Trump supporters are hopeful for another outcome that surprises pollsters.
Scott Sanderson, an Erie voter who declined to be photographed, said he is an Independent who sat out 2016 but will vote this year for Trump.
“Erie has basically always been a Democratic city. But there is a silent majority of people who have sat by and not gotten involved that are fed up with the crap that’s going on around the country,” he said. “And I think you’re going to see a lot of people who normally wouldn’t have turned out.”
Ken Kane, 61 | Kane, McKean County
Ken Kane, 61, has worked in the forestry industry for decades. A Kane native, he doesn’t claim any relations to the town’s founder General Thomas Kane, but considers his roots deep in the Pennsylvania wilds of the Allegheny National Forest.
His industry has been hit hard during Trump’s trade war with China, but Kane, a registered Republican, said he was generally OK with the hardwood sector being “collateral damage to the trade imbalance.”
“In 2000, China was a very small component of our hardwood trading partners. In 2018, they occupied 70%,” he said. “We put all our eggs in one basket, because, quite honestly, it was easier to fill that basket. They would come and they would buy. It was really easy. We didn’t work as hard as we probably should have at maintaining other markets.”
Kane became a Republican when Ronald Reagan ran for the White House and said Trump has reinvigorated his interest in politics, with policies he sees as fostering a stronger sense of self-reliance. He does worry that voters have been turned off by the president’s divisive style, but hopes they would recognize what his administration has accomplished. He says the roll-back of certain environmental regulations has helped industries in rural parts of Pennsylvania, and he likes Trump’s “America first” agenda.
“His New York personality is quite evident. And that New York personality, I think it’s his biggest Achilles’ heel,” Kane said. “Because [for all] the positive things that he has done, that personality jumps out at people and golly, they just don’t like the guy.”
Kane said he’s grown wary of the state of politics, because he thinks there are too many emotional responses and polarization in civic discussions when it comes to issues like racial justice protests, for instance.
“We see something on the news that appears to be an injustice, and we jump to a conclusion before all the facts are out,” he said. He was critical that some protests against police brutality this summer turned destructive.
“When you have multiple city blocks of a major city occupied by someone, if I’m a taxpayer within that area, who is my government? Who am I paying taxes to? What am I paying taxes for? What protections do I have?” he said. “The presence of a police vehicle should give us some occurrence of security. But when we see police vehicles burnt in the City of Brotherly Love, what’s someone from rural Pennsylvania supposed to think?”
Marty Wilder, 70, Bradford | McKean County
Marty Wilder, 70, is the chair of the McKean County Democratic Committee. In the heavily Republican county, where Trump won 71% of votes in 2016, Wilder said she’s surprised to see how much enthusiasm is coming from Democratic voters this year.
“People really do come out of the woodwork in this area,” she said. “I took a sign to a lady who lives in Clermont. I wasn’t even quite sure how to get there because it’s way off the beaten path. But I found her little trailer and she had had her sign stolen. So she said, this one, she’s gonna keep closer to her house.”
Wilder, a former editor with the Bradford Era newspaper, has hosted drive-thru voter registration events in town, handed out yard signs and made face masks with “Biden-Harris” logos. She said, while the area generally supports Trump and his politics, she doesn’t think it’s benefited much from his first term.
“One of the things that Trump promised was jobs, manufacturing jobs. I can assure you that Bradford is virtually identical right now to what it was in 2016,” Wilder said. “There are no new jobs that I’m aware of. We still have a lot of poverty, jobs that have no health insurance. Small towns are in really big trouble. I think they’re in the process of dying. And I don’t see a lot of people reaching out to help us.”
Wilder is going to vote for Biden, not only because she believes he has a plan to revive the rural economy, but also for her dislike of Trump.
“I’ve been through elections during the Vietnam War. The second George Bush presidency was difficult. But this has been, I mean, it’s hard to believe that people cannot see the authoritarian moves that Donald Trump is making and not be a little bit alarmed.”
Mike Otto, 41 | Williamsport
Mike Otto moved from Philadelphia to Williamsport 10 years ago for a job working as a geologist in the fracking industry.
These days the 41-year-old works for Pepsi repairing vending machines and volunteers a few days per week fixing bikes at Recycle Bicycle in Williamsport.
The area’s COVID-19 case rates are relatively low, but Otto says he gets frustrated when he sees colleagues and neighbors who don’t observe health precautions or observe social distancing.
“People in America just need to do what they’re told and wear your facemask and do the six feet apart,” he says. “I work with people every day and more and more I see people not wearing a face mask.”
Otto’s kept working as usual during the pandemic because his job is considered essential, but his friends — mainly, those with children — are grappling with balancing career and childcare.
“Friends with kids in grade school, they’re having huge issues trying to figure out what to do with them, because they can’t just go into daycare,” Otto said.
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Although pandemic precautions have been relaxed since their initial more restrictive incarnation, Otto worries about the economy going forward. He voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again this year because he’s concerned Biden will be too aggressive with business restrictions in the name of fighting the pandemic.
“I don’t think we could deal with another two months of everything being shut down completely. It killed us, almost. I mean, the three or four weeks we already had hurt a lot of people, a lot of businesses,” Otto said.
He plans to vote in person, in part over concerns about the risk that voters’ mailed ballots could be tossed over technicalities such as “filing it out wrong.”
“I think it might be hectic,” he said of Election Day. “It just seems easier to go to the polling place … I’m up at 6 o’clock every day, so it’s no big deal for me to go early.”
Otto resents increased political polarization, but says it hasn’t affected his own relationships with family or friends.
“Most people in my family, and my friends, we’re all pretty much very mellow people. We don’t get angry over our differences. It’s kind of like, we see each other’s point and then you believe what you want, I believe what I want. I haven’t really found anyone that’s very adamant or angry, you know?”
Val Dejesus, 69 | Philadelphia
Before the pandemic, Val Dejesus, 69, had been working part-time as a secretary in a funeral home in North Philadelphia. That job and her social security check were her sources of income. When COVID-19 hit, she stopped working.
“I’m old, I have underlying health issues,” she said. “High blood pressure and I’m a cancer survivor. So it’s not safe for me to be in that environment.”
Both economic livelihood and health are on Dejesus’ mind as she casts her vote. She’s been swayed by Biden’s messaging that Trump will undermine Social Security benefits.
Trump has said he wants to cut federal payroll taxes that fund Social Security, but has promised to find other revenue to keep the retirement program whole.
On the campaign trail and in debate performances, Biden has seized on the issue, and that’s fed into Dejesus’ existing lack of trust in Trump.
“The president has lied. He’s not concerned with our health issues at all. He’s concerned with himself,” she said.
She’s been most turned off by the way Trump has handled the pandemic, even after he contracted COVID-19 himself.
“He got that treatment. Will I be able to get that if I contract coronavirus? I won’t be able to get that,” she said.
Dejesus also does not trust the Trump administration’s ability to find a cure for the virus. She does not want to be among the first to be vaccinated when a treatment is available, even if it is offered to her, but prefers to wait until the vaccine has proven to be safe in the general population.
A widow, living alone in a rowhouse in Logan, Dejesus has been pushed into isolation by the pandemic.
“I’m not able to be with my family like we usually are. We’re usually together all the time, doing things, going out,” she said. “It’s a little depressing. In the summer I can open my door, see my neighbors, stand in the door, maybe stand on my patio. Winter is coming, I’m not going to be able to do that. I’m just going to be in the house. I’m a widow, so I will be by myself.”
Dejesus voted early by mail, hand-delivering her ballot to an official election drop-off point set up inside Julia de Burgos Elementary. When asked for whom she voted, the lifelong Democrat tilted her head back and shouted to the sky: “Joe Biden!”
“I don’t like Trump. I like Joe and think Joe will do a good job,” she said. “Trump has not looked out for the poor Black people at all.”
Aurelis Figueroa, 36, and Zaelys De Arce, 18 | Lebanon
Aurelis Figueroa, 36 keeps a chart on her wall that illustrates, in simple terms, the steps a person needs to take to become president. She got it so that her children can see that “anyone can be president.”
“I just can’t believe that there’s so many intelligent people in the nation as these are the two people that are running,” she said. “It’s just devastating to me.”
In 2016, Figueroa voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein. She said she feels guilty about that choice because she opposes Trump’s restrictive approach to immigration, and feels obligated to pick a major candidate this year.
Figueroa, a registered Democrat, is undecided. She is still doing research, and is leaning toward Biden.
“The reasons I would vote for Trump would be based on business,” she said. But immigration is a crucial issue for Figueroa, and she hopes Biden will stop what she calls “the crazy deportation tactics that are happening now.”
When the pandemic hit earlier this year, Figueroa had just taken a new job working with young people. But her hours soon dried up, and so did the real estate work she had begun the previous year. Business also stalled for her husband, a barber, and they suspended the opening of their fledgling car dealership indefinitely. “We went through all of our savings,” she said.
Figueroa is not a rigid partisan, but she has strong opinions on certain issues. She supports the Black Lives Matter movement and sometimes gets into arguments with her mother, who is in her 70s and lives with her. As Figueroa tells it, her mom believes Trump has been chosen by God.
“I tell her all the time, ‘Mom, he stands against everything you are,’” she said. Her mother is from Puerto Rico and mostly speaks Spanish.
“It can get a little hot,” Figueroa’s daughter, Zaelys De Arce, said of the household political debates.
De Arce is an 18-year-old high school senior who plans to vote for the first time and serve as a poll worker and interpreter on Election Day. Like her mom, she said she is still doing research, but right now Biden has her vote. It’s really Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris who De Arce feels a connection with, and who she said represents “a spark of hope” for her own ambitions.
She plans to become a judge advocate general in the U.S. Marines and eventually a federal attorney. She decided on law in the seventh grade, partly because of the time she spent watching crime shows and eating peanuts with her grandfather. “I know that TV is not like real life, but it inspired me to research,” she said.
For De Arce, this election season has been about navigating misinformation on social media and discussions with friends who fall across the political spectrum. Whoever wins the presidency, she hopes education becomes a priority. She wants to see more affordable college options and more equal opportunities in K-12 public education between wealthy and poor school districts.
Wyatt Schriver, 21 | Jonestown, Lebanon County
This election is Wyatt Schriver’s first chance to vote for president. At 21, he is finishing his first year as the owner of a farm, where he grows pumpkins and mums and sells fall decorations. He worked for the previous owners for about five years before buying the business, which he says timed out fine with the pandemic.
“The first chance people got to go out to do something or buy something, they did it,” he said, and those with money to spare spent more “closer to home,” including on decorations.
Schriver lives in Jonestown, a borough of about 2,000 people in Lebanon County. Most of his family and close friends are, like him, Republicans.
“Nobody when they’re younger likes to give up something that’s theirs. And it just kind of stuck with me as I got older, like, ‘Hey, I worked for this money. I don’t want to pay more taxes for it,’” he said.
Despite not being old enough to vote in 2016, Schriver supported Trump. The “America-first” message resonated with him, and four years later, Schriver still sees the president as the candidate who supports farmers and small business owners. He is also concerned about the threat of another war and likes Trump’s foreign policy record.
Schriver watched part of the final presidential debate, including the discussion over Trump’s relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. For Schriver, the president has been successful in reducing tensions with the country.
“I’m not saying Biden wouldn’t have done it or couldn’t have done it, but I feel like [Trump] being a business owner previously, he’s more familiar with that type of stuff,” he said.
When it comes to Trump’s image, Schriver said, sometimes the president’s behavior is “a little extreme,” and Biden’s sometimes less so.
“When I’m electing somebody, I’m not electing them because of how I like their personality, I’m electing them because of how they will be in office,” he said.
Schriver doesn’t believe that Biden will look out for people like him, and that he is only “trying to help a certain group of people.”
“Like minority groups or whatever — I’m not saying not to favor them, but I think the way he’s going about favoring them is now hurting the people that he’s not favoring,” he said.
As someone who depends on people spending money, Schriver says his personal stake in the election is tied to the economy.
“It’s up to the people of America and, hey, it is what it is,” he said. “I’m going to make the best of it.”
Derrick Tillman, 40 | Pittsburgh
For Derrick Tillman, the fight for social justice is a big part of why he’s voting this year for Joe Biden. Tillman, 40, is president and CEO of a real estate development firm in Pittsburgh. As a Black man, he says he’s aware that no matter how successful he is, he could still face many of the issues that have been raised this year, including police brutality.
“It impacts one’s mental health,” Tillman said. “Some days you hear about another Black or brown man being killed, it just hits you right there; it takes the wind out of you. Overall, we’ve been fighting these issues for so long. You just get tired and you get weary, and you say, ‘When are we going to stop fighting for the same things?’”
He said he wants to see more than “progress” on issues related to racism, hoping the nation can “truly get beyond it.”
“Social justice impacts every fabric of our lives, and learning not just how to navigate it, but what can we do to try to make it better overall is something we constantly think about.”
Tillman has worked on projects in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, including housing for low-income residents that are designed to look like market-rate apartments.
He said growing up in poverty himself, he learned how to be resilient. He kept that mentality during the pandemic.
“As a business owner, some clients can’t pay. And that impacts our ability to run our business, it impacts our ability to invest in future projects,” he said. “But coming from poverty, we’ve seen much worse.
Tillman voted for Clinton in 2016 and already cast an early ballot this year for Biden/Harris.
“It was never really a hard decision,” he said. “There were some things the Republican Party was focused on that I agreed with, but overall, it’s more aligned with the Democratic side.”
“What’s at stake is, are those systems going to be torn down?” he said. “Or are those systems going to be preserved?”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated where Ms. Mekuly lived before moving to Pennsylvania.
This story was produced as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. Reporters Alanna Elder, Laura Benshoff, Min Xian, Emily Previti, Sam Dunklau, Ariel Worthy, Peter Crimmins and Jarred Cruz contributed to this work. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Keystone Crossroads and WITF are part of the America Amplified network.
Reporter Alanna Elder is following stories that community members identify as deserving of more coverage in Lebanon and Berks County, Pennsylvania, and she wrote this reflection:
Q: What did the people you talked to say about the experience of being interviewed for public radio?
Half the people I interviewed for this piece were sources I had already connected with through previous reporting, but who hadn’t held a central role in a published story, so they knew the drill and joined out of curiosity and a desire to make their voices heard. Of those I met more recently for this story, some expressed reservations about providing their full names or photos because they were worried sharing their political beliefs online could have ramifications in their work or social lives. During the conversations, though, people didn’t shy away from talking about how some of the election season’s top issues have impacted them and their hopes for afterward. One person said she appreciated being able to talk things through.
Q: What surprised you about this type of community engagement?
We asked everyone questions around the same set of themes, such as how the pandemic economy, health concerns, and the movement for racial justice had impacted them and their take on the election. Even though this project focused more on candidates than most America Amplified stories in our state, asking the questions that way seemed effective in keeping the focus on people: why they see the world the way they do and what’s at stake for them personally. It was also surprising, to me if not other reporters, how frequently someone said they’d been an independent before, or voted across party lines. I think the partisan voters were in the minority of those I interviewed, although basically everyone recognized the presence of stark political divides in their own lives and in the country.
Q: What lessons do you have for others who want to do the same?
With Election Day a week away, there will still be tons of opportunities to take the community engagement strategies we’ve learned through this project and apply them to whatever is happening in the coming months. The approach behind this story, tying together voices from across the state and packaging them as non-narrated audio stories and web profiles, could also be useful in other contexts and I hope we’ll find more ways to use it. The timeline of this project and the need to have a spectrum of political beliefs pushed me to try some new strategies for finding sources. One that worked was asking someone I’d talked to before who, if anyone, they can have conversations with across lines of disagreement. Another takeaway is that asking questions that begin with someone’s personal relationship to an issue is a good way to get oriented in their world – it keeps the conversation going while touching on the elements that shape their lives. And finally, this project shows the benefits of keeping people in mind who had been part of a story that hadn’t panned out or didn’t include much of their perspective.