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Pennsylvania — which Democratic strategist James Carville famously described as Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west and Alabama in between — is among the swing states that could decide whether President Donald Trump wins a second term or former Vice President Joe Biden is inaugurated in January 2021.

And pundit Nathaniel Rakich, in an article published by pollster Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website on September 15, explains why Pennsylvania is such a make-or-break state in 2020’s presidential election.

“Right now, Pennsylvania looks like the single most important state of the 2020 election,” Rakich explains. “According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast, Pennsylvania is by far the likeliest state to provide either President Trump or Joe Biden with the decisive vote in the Electoral College: it has a 31% chance of being the tipping-point state. That’s what happens when you take one of the most evenly divided states in the union and give it 20 electoral votes.”

Rakich adds, “In fact, Pennsylvania is so important that our model gives Trump an 84% chance of winning the presidency if he carries the state — and it gives Biden a 96% chance of winning if Pennsylvania goes blue.”

Whether Pennsylvania goes Democrat or Republican in statewide races has a lot to do with who shows up on Election Day. While densely populated Philadelphia is overwhelmingly Democratic — the city hasn’t had a Republican mayor since the early 1950s — Central Pennsylvania, which Pennsylvanians jokingly refer to as “Pennsyltucky” is much more GOP-friendly. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton underperformed in Philly and its suburbs, while Trump overperformed in Central Pennsylvania as well as Northeastern and Northwestern Pennsylvania — and Trump became the first Republican to carry the state in a presidential election since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

But Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania, as Rakich points out, was a narrow one: he carried the state by only 0.7%. Had Democratic voter turnout been better in Philadelphia — and had Republican turnout in Central Pennsylvania or “Pennsyltucky” been weaker — Clinton would have won Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes. Biden, in order to carry the Keystone State, needs to flip as many voters in Central Pennsylvania as he can, while making sure that there is a heavy voter turnout in Philadelphia.

Rakich explains why Pennsylvania demographics worked to Trump’s advantage in 2016, noting, “Non-Hispanic white people without bachelor’s degrees make up 55% of Pennsylvania’s population age 25 or older, and Trump accelerated their migration to the Republican Party in 2016. According to the Center for American Progress, the turnout rate among these voters increased from 53.0% in 2012 to 57.4% in 2016 — and they went from voting for Mitt Romney by 20.3 points to voting for Trump by 28.6 points.”

Rakich points out that Trump’s base is not only found in Central Pennsylvania, but also, in the northeastern part of the state. While Philly is in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Northeastern Pennsylvania includes places like Allentown, Scranton (Biden’s home town), Wilkes-Barre, Bethlehem and the Poconos.

“Campaigns have also been forced to reconsider their conception of Pennsylvania’s political geography,” Rakich explains. “The conventional wisdom was that Western and Eastern Pennsylvania were Democratic and Central Pennsylvania was solidly Republican, memorably summarized by Democratic strategist James Carville’s quote that, between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was just Alabama. While this may have been true, at least politically, in, say, 2000, working-class Western and Northeastern Pennsylvania have slowly but surely been getting redder. As a result, Pennsylvania’s new geographic divide is between Southeastern Pennsylvania and the rest of the state — in other words, the parts of the state that are culturally northeastern and the parts that are culturally midwestern or Appalachian.”

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Biden was already talking about health care. Justice Ginsburgs death makes it even more important

Republicans have spent years beating Democrats when it comes to convincing their base of the importance of judges, and the power to appoint them. That Republican focus on judges has typically centered around cultural wedge issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights. The death of the iconic Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Supreme Court weighs the fate of the Affordable Care Act may change both those things.

The widespread reverence for Ginsburg means lots of Democrats who don’t usually tune in for court battles are energized. And health care for millions of people being on the line in the Affordable Care Act case plays exactly into former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign message.

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As former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp told The New York Times, “This is a choice between a court that will defend your health care and take your health care away.”

That’s an easy message for Biden and other Democrats to work with. With attention newly focused on the Supreme Court, people who had no idea that Donald Trump was backing an effort to strike down the entire Affordable Care Act may find out about that. In the middle of a pandemic.

Health care was a powerful message for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, and Biden has continued that focus, emphasizing things like the preexisting conditions protections that California v. Texas threatens, along with his plans to build on the ACA. The focus on preexisting conditions comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is leaving millions of people with a new preexisting condition from a virus that can strike so many parts of the body in so many ways. Democrats have wanted the public to understand this Supreme Court threat, and Trump’s support for it.  

Abortion rights could also take on new saliency for people who lean Democratic but don’t necessarily vote on that issue every year … or even vote at all. “If you want something to fire up young people who weren’t all that interested this year, this is it,” according to one of Biden’s pollsters.

With even half of Republicans thinking that the Supreme Court vacancy should be filled by whoever wins in November, it’s unlikely that Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can whip up much new fervor—Republicans who are likely to vote on this issue probably already were, and the push to ram through a replacement for Ginsburg is unlikely to play well with independents. Along with firing up young people.

But the thing is, if Biden wins but Trump and McConnell prevail on this, Biden needs to be ready to do something about it.

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