Ambivalence and protest votes: Pa. primary exposes challenges for Biden, Trump in race for president

Less than 18% of registered voters in Philly voted in Tuesday’s election — considerably lower than the 20–25% usually seen on primary day.

Pa. activists outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreational Center in North Philly

Activists call for an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza conflict and an end of aid to Israel outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreational Center in North Philly, where President Joe Biden was accepting the speech of the Kennedy family April 18, 2024. (Carmen Russell-Sluchansky/WHYY)

Voting in the presidential primary wrapped up in Pennsylvania on Tuesday evening. The swing state is critical in deciding who will win the White House this November.

Traffic at polling stations tended to be light, reflecting the low voter turnout, a fact supported by polling data that shows that voters here are not enthused by their choices.

“There is a general sense of disappointment right now among the electorate with the choices, especially at the presidential level with both Donald Trump and Joe Biden having fairly low favorable ratings,” Christopher Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College, told WHYY’s Studio 2. “A lot of voters don’t like either of ’em, and that doesn’t really create a situation with a lot of energy to show up.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

However, Borick added it could also be the fact the top races were foregone conclusions.

“The presidential race and the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania were largely uncontested races, so there wasn’t a lot of drama that would bring in maybe more casual voters,” he said. “It just wasn’t there.”

In Philadelphia, less than 18% of registered voters made their way to polling stations — considerably lower than the 20–25% usually seen on primary day. Being a city of Democrats, that would have mostly affected Biden.

Meanwhile, only 29% of those registered across the state voted — also down from primaries in 2016 and 2020.

‘Uncommitted’ to Biden

Another challenge for Biden: the number of write-in votes, many of which are the result of a grassroots movement of voters concerned about the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Results from Pennsylvania’s Democratic presidential primary show that so far more than 60,000 voters statewide chose the write-in option on their ballots, according to a vote count released by the AP Wednesday night. In comparison, the vote total for write-in votes in 2020 was just over 34,000, according to state election officials.

“We are very excited about the amount of people who participated,” Miracle Jones, an Uncommitted PA organizer, told WHYY News. “Given the fact that this was a volunteer-run, volunteer-led organizing effort.”

The breakdown of how many of those write-in votes were for “uncommitted” is still being reviewed as of Wednesday night.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Since Pennsylvania does not have an “uncommitted” option on its primary ballots, voters who wanted to use their ballot to voice their discontent with President Biden’s stance on the war in Gaza chose the write-in option. The campaign, known as “Uncommitted PA,” followed movements in other states like Michigan and Minnesota where Democratic primary voters used the uncommitted option on their primary ballots to cast a protest vote.

Organizers had a goal of securing at least 40,000 “uncommitted” write-in votes. That number represents about half of the votes Biden won the state by in 2020.

Following Tuesday’s primary results, organizers of the write-in campaign to protest President Biden claimed a victory saying they had exceeded their expectations. Jones, says the group will decide later how if at all they will continue their movement into the general election in November.

“The Pennsylvania Uncommitted Coalition was solely focused on the primary election,” she said.

President Biden won his party’s presidential primary as expected Tuesday night, securing more than 87 percent of the Democratic primary vote, according to a race call by The Associated Press. The state has become critical in deciding who will win the White House.

Haley’s comet

Trump also experienced clear — and maybe even greater — dissatisfaction among Republican primary voters. More than 150,000 cast their support for Nikki Haley, who dropped out early last month, but her name still appeared on the ballot. She ended up with nearly 17% across the state, bringing Trump’s share of the vote down to 83%. By comparison, Trump won 92% of the primary vote in 2020 and went on to lose to Biden.

Some of Trump’s weakest performances were in the suburbs surrounding Philadelphia — the critical “collar counties” — where Haley won more than 20% of the vote.

“You look at the suburban Philadelphia of course, which is just an enormous driver of election outcomes in Pennsylvania, and have Haley pull almost a quarter of the votes in counties like Montgomery and Chester, it’s a warning sign,” Borick said. “There’s no other way around that for the Trump campaign.”

On the airwaves

Trump may have sensed — or polled — trouble as the presumptive Republican nominee sat for a remote interview with 6ABC on primary day. He said Biden was responsible for an “open border,” took credit for overturning Roe v. Wade and making abortion access a state-by-state decision, and attacked Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and a witness in the “hush money” trial now underway in New York — possibly violating the judge’s gag order.

“Now all of the states are making their decision,” Trump said about the patchwork of abortion access across the country. “Pennsylvania is making its decision. They’re all making their decision. And this is what people have wanted… It’s tailormade, and it’s really working out well for people, and they’re very, very happy.

The Biden-Harris campaign sent WHYY News a statement in response.

“People are not ‘happy,’” said campaign spokesperson Ammar Moussa. “Because of Donald Trump, women are being turned away from emergency rooms and forced to wait until they are on the brink of death before receiving the care they need. Child rape victims have to leave their states to get health care.”

Voter issues

At the polls and various events, voters usually cited abortion, the economy, immigration and threats to democracy as their top issues, often determined along partisan lines.

“I would say reproductive health rights is probably the most important one to me,” Laura Mantini, a Philadelphia high school senior who was voting for the first time in her life, told WHYY News.

On the other side, Kim Crowley, a resident of Bensalem and a Trump supporter, said she was concerned about border security and inflation.

“We are in such a state of despair in America today that our only hope is Trump,” she said. “I work 40, 50 hours a week, and I could barely afford groceries, or gas from my car. And everybody is struggling.”

Inflation has been a challenge for the Biden administration, hitting record levels during and following the pandemic but has decreased in the last year, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal