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Why Barack Obama is stumping for Biden in reliably blue Philadelphia

Karl Baker
Delaware News Journal

About a mile north of the Philadelphia Phillies' ballpark, where former President Barack Obama would soon address supporters in cars, a man swung a long stick at pro-Biden and anti-Trump signs that appeared to be improperly posted high up on utility poles.

Watching was a friend who said he was taking down illegal signs posted by an out-of-state group, not making a political statement.

But onlookers who heard the slapping sounds reverberate down Broad Street yelled in protest – and in opposition to President Donald Trump. 

Others chuckled, helplessly shaking their heads at the increasing political tensions enveloping the largest city of what could be the most important state in November's presidential election. 

Dan Lanzilloti, a Democrat who sat watching from a stoop on Broad Street, said the coming election is escalating anger in an already "angry city."

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Joe Biden and Donald Trump participated in competing town halls on Oct. 15.

Scranton, Erie and Reading attract attention as key Pennsylvania presidential battlegrounds. But Philadelphia, because of its sheer size at 1.6 million people, may be the real home of election-tipping numbers of voters with potentially shifting allegiances.

Even marginal changes in the overwhelmingly Democrat-tilting city can have consequential outcomes for what is expected to be another narrow finish in the race for the 20 electoral votes in Pennsylvania, a state seen by many as the most important of the election. 

In 2016, almost 109,000 Philadelphians voted for Trump, about 12,000 more votes than Mitt Romney mustered in 2012. While Hillary Clinton won about 584,000 votes, it was nearly 5,000 fewer than Obama received four years earlier.  

Those swings bucked trends in much of the city's suburbs as people in Delaware, Chester and Montgomery counties voted more heavily Democratic in 2016 than in 2012. Bucks County saw a small Republican gain from 2012 in 2016.  

Ultimately, Trump won Pennsylvania by a margin of 44,000 votes, helped by significant favorable shifts in Philadelphia, as well as counties such as Erie and Luzerne.

Now, less than two weeks before the next presidential election, the open question is how new political trends may form in Philadelphia.

Given the city was hit harder than average by the pandemic and social unrest, it may not follow Pennsylvania's overall shifts most recently measured by state presidential opinion polls showing Biden holding onto a roughly 5% lead over Trump.  

Lanzilloti said he has seen Trump supporters more vocal this year than in the past. 

"They’re firing up people that were angry before Trump was even a thing here," he said. 

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Lindsay Doering, an attorney and Republican leader of Philadelphia's 8th Ward, said he expects a shift to Trump to continue in 2020. Helping Trump, he said, is the impact of "burning and looting" that occurred alongside recent racial justice protests.

Hurting him could be new voting methods implemented in the city this election cycle, such as widespread vote-by-mail, he said.

Republican City Councilman David Oh said predicting Philadelphia's marginal shifts, unlike those in its suburbs, is a near-impossible task. It depends heavily on hyper-local issues of gentrification and what Oh described as a potential backlash to recent progressive shifts in city government.

He said there are minorities of vocal progressives and Trump supporters. The former will vote reliably for left-wing candidates, such as District Attorney Larry Krasner, and the latter will vote for the president.

But looming over the election are questions of turnout among potentially dissatisfied people in Black communities — and the number of white working-class people in Democratic strongholds who will vote for Trump, he said.   

"These are Democrats that are so pissed off that they became Republicans for Trump," Oh said. "They're not that different from the people who voted for Obama ... they hate politics in America."  

Democratic Party pushback against any such potential shifts, however marginal, likely fueled Obama's decision to stage his first live rally in support of Joe Biden in Philadelphia on Wednesday. 

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks Monday during a Columbus Day gathering at a President Donald Trump campaign field office in Philadelphia.

Rudy Giuliani's choice to hold a smaller gathering, called an “Italian Americans for Trump” rally, earlier this month in the Republican stronghold of Northeast Philadelphia was also likely motivated by a similar political calculus.  

The events, aimed at committed partisans, may not have had an impact on many voters wavering between candidates. While staged at Citizens' Bank Park near to some of the city's more pro-Trump neighborhoods, Obama's speech was attended only by invited guests.   

Republican demonstrators outside the stadium also didn’t provide much indication of political trends, as their numbers were small, but loud. One protester drove a bus with bullhorns mounted to the top around the ballpark in an apparent attempt to shout down the former president speaking in the adjacent parking lot.  

A sign posted outside Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia Wednesday describes a "special event" where President Barack Obama was to speak to supporters in cars.

Lanzilloti, who describes himself as a Philadelphian who likes a "good fight," said such activists should adopt a more empathetic approach.

“Without empathy, you have nothing,” he said.    

Contact Karl Baker at kbaker@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2329. Follow him on Twitter @kbaker6.