In ‘Knife’s Edge’ Pennsylvania, Trump’s Fortunes Rely on His Rural Base

BUTLER, Pa. — “Here he comes!” cried Jeannie Cook over the chomp of rotor blades as a fleet of helicopters flew out of the setting sun, blinding thousands of eyes turned toward the arrival of President Trump in the heart of red America.

No president had ever visited Butler County, according to that day’s Butler Eagle. “It almost feels like Christmas Eve,” the newspaper editorialized.

But rather than Santa Claus, it was Mr. Trump dropping in for the third of four rallies in Pennsylvania in one day, mostly in places where he had trounced Hillary Clinton in 2016. If Mr. Trump is able to outrun the polls in Pennsylvania and other battlegrounds that show him trailing Joseph R. Biden Jr., it will be because he re-energized the white blue-collar voters in places like Butler County, home to a steel mill that employs 9,000.

Supporters like Ms. Cook, 62, viewed the president in heroic terms and had no doubt that he would be re-elected. “Because he’s the greatest president,” she said.

As voters cast ballots on Tuesday, Pennsylvania loomed large as the potential tipping point for the presidency, and perhaps Mr. Trump’s best hope to maintain his hold on one of the so-called blue wall states, along with Michigan and Wisconsin, that he narrowly won four years ago to secure the White House. His advisers believe the state is on a “knife’s edge,” the closest contest on the map.

Mr. Biden spent all or part of the final three days in Pennsylvania, the surest sign of its significance, visiting his childhood home in Scranton on Tuesday.

“From this house to the White House with the grace of God,” he scrawled on the wall.

Vote counting is expected to take longer in the state than in many other key battlegrounds, and legal fights are already underway. But if Mr. Trump defies the polls, his frenetic schedule of rallies in the homestretch may deserve much of the credit, reminding his base why they voted for him in droves four years ago, when he promised to protect their jobs from foreign competition and from immigrants.

As the sun set on Saturday in Butler County, which is just north of Pittsburgh, Mr. Trump marveled at his supporters packed shoulder-to-shoulder and largely not wearing masks, despite daily records of coronavirus infections. “You can’t even see the end of people,” he beamed. “There’s a lot of people here.”

Pictures from that giant rally shook some prominent Pennsylvania Democrats. “That’s not photoshop,” John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, a Democrat, wrote in a string of Twitter warnings. “Can’t fake a crowd like that.”

Phillip Keil, who came to hear Mr. Trump, was optimistic. “I think it’s going to be a landslide,” said Mr. Keil, 65, who owns a power-washing business in Gibsonia, Pa. Like the president, he put more faith in crowd sizes, yard signs and other omens than polling, which has the president behind an average of 5 points in Pennsylvania. Driving to the rally in a pickup festooned with Trump signs and flags, Mr. Keil said, “I had one finger given to me and five beeps and hurrahs.”

To fervent Trump supporters, many of them sealed under a dome of misinformation from the president and his media supporters, he is a champion. He has done the best that any president could have managing the coronavirus scourge, supporters say. He lowered taxes and triggered a roaring economy. He alone stands between a free Republic and an all-out assault on liberty if Democrats win control in Washington.

Watching the president’s arrival on Saturday in Butler from her porch just beyond the airport, Nadine Schoor, 63, compared his leadership of the country to that of a stern but all-knowing father.

“I look at President Trump and we’re the family — the country’s the family,” said Ms. Schoor, who works for the county government. “And he’s the parent. He’s got a lot of tough love, and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks to get something done that he knows is right.”

All of Pennsylvania does not look like Butler County. On Election Day there were lines of people stretching out of sight in the Democratic strongholds of Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive of Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, boldly predicted, “I fully expect Joe Biden to carry Allegheny County by 150,000 votes this time.” Mrs. Clinton’s margin in the county four years ago was 108,000 votes.

Mr. Trump faced a particularly uphill battle in suburban Pennsylvania, where his support among women has eroded over the last four years.

Bucks County, just outside Philadelphia, went for Mrs. Clinton by less than a percentage point in 2016. By the 2018 midterms, it went for the Democratic Senate candidate by 14 points. This year, Mr. Biden hopes to run up his margins in places like Bucks, where disaffected Republicans were not hard to find.

“I feel that Trump is just an embarrassment to the country,” said Andy Innocenti, a 62-year-old retail manager. He is a Republican but this year he voted for Mr. Biden and “Democratic right down the line” to send a message to his own party.

The Biden campaign expressed confidence that it had run up a cushion of support in early voting, after Democrats returned 1,641,000 mail-in ballots by Tuesday morning, compared to 586,000 that were returned by Republicans.

Republicans were expected to vote disproportionately in person on Tuesday, and Mr. Trump’s campaign had made a far larger investment in ground operations.

Both polling and analysis of the more than 100 million votes cast before Tuesday nationwide suggests that Mr. Trump has lost ground with college-educated voters compared to four years ago. To compensate, he must drive up his advantage with white working-class voters even higher than in 2016.

In Armstrong County, where Mr. Trump won 74 percent of the vote four years ago, Pat Fabian, a Democrat on the county commission, predicted that Mr. Biden would “shave that by 10 or 15 percent” — an improvement that if repeated across Pennsylvania would likely doom Mr. Trump.

The Trump campaign in Pennsylvania has pointed to its months of in-person canvassing and outreach to low-frequency voters, which in some counties resulted in a surge of newly registered Republicans. The state includes 2.2 million non-college-educated white voters who didn’t vote in 2016, more than in either of the other blue wall states of Michigan and Wisconsin, which had gone steadily Democratic for years until 2016.

In Bucks County on Tuesday, Wendy Hummel, a 72-year-old Republican, was waiting to cast her vote for Mr. Trump because he was “for life and not death,” referring to abortion. She was willing to overlook Mr. Trump’s own less-than-pious personal history. “He is in his walk with the Lord,” she said, “and he’s learning like the rest of us.”

Across the hallway, in a middle school where the line to vote zigzagged throughout the school and where so many cars had piled into the lot that many were parking on the grass, Jessica Voutsinas had been clutching her vote-by-mail ballot for more than two and half hours. She was concerned with Republican efforts to disqualify such ballots, and planned to surrender it and vote in person instead.

Ms. Voutsinas, 24, called herself a climate change voter and was unsure how Bucks, a swing county in a swing state, would vote.

“It seems aggressively moderate to me,” she said.

Outside the Trump rally in Butler, a supporter named Jeff, who declined to give his last name because he distrusts the media, acknowledged that “it looks bad” for Mr. Trump winning a second term. He blamed the media for not reporting the president’s successes and “the criminal activities the Biden family has been involved in.’’

Among the president’s triumphs, he named “rescuing a lot of women and children who were abducted” for sex trafficking, part of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory.

Mr. Trump has fanned myriad conspiracy theories. For months he has raged that he will only lose if the election is “rigged’’ and he has insisted that mail-in votes counted after Nov. 3, which are expected to favor Mr. Biden, would be fraudulent — a groundless charge.

In such an atmosphere, with Mr. Trump’s base unprepared to accept a loss as legitimate, Mr. Biden’s task of bringing together the country, should he become president, would be immeasurably more difficult.

On the final pre-election weekend, Emily Skopov, a Democrat running for the State Legislature, canvassed in an affluent suburb of brick homes north of Pittsburgh, where almost every resident was a registered Republican. Almost no one was willing to speak with her.

One couple who did listen to Ms. Skopov’s pitch (“I’m not a communist or a socialist!’’ she quickly said) was Brian and Patty O’Connor, whose opinions mirrored the gender gap that has imperiled Mr. Trump.

Mr. O’Connor, a lawyer, denounced Mr. Trump’s personality but said he would vote for his re-election. Ms. O’Connor said she was “embarrassed” to have voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 yet she remained undecided days before the election. “We have five kids, we put them through schools; taxes are a big issue to us,’’ she said. “We are practicing Catholics. Abortion’s a big issue — sometimes. Personally, I don’t like Donald Trump.’’

“I don’t know, I really tell you, I’m undecided,’’ she added.