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The presidential race looks tight in Pa.: How the polling this year is different from 2016

Candy Woodall
USA TODAY Network Pennsylvania Capitol Bureau

The presidential candidates began the last campaign week before the election with four stops in Pennsylvania, further signaling the importance of the battleground state with 20 electoral votes up for grabs. 

Republican President Donald Trump visited Lehigh, Lancaster and Blair counties on Monday, while Democratic challenger Joe Biden made a surprise stop in Delaware County. 

Both candidates shared messages that appealed to their top strengths in polls. For Trump, it's the economy. For Biden, it's the coronavirus. 

As the coronavirus has remained the top issue among Pennsylvania voters who are surveyed, Biden has maintained a 4- to 7-point lead in the state, according to polls. 

Some analysts say the race is tightening in Pennsylvania, while others believe Biden's lead is solid. Yet they all agree neither candidate can be counted out as the race gets down to the wire. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump are on opposite sides of the vote-by-mail issue.

The Republican view

Trump has said the polls are "fake" and has predicted another upset victory for himself, like in 2016 when he unexpectedly defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania by little more than 44,000 votes, or less than 1 percentage point. 

The president on Monday repeated his allegations that he and his supporters would only lose Pennsylvania if the election is "taken away from us." 

Trump also took aim at Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who the president blasted for installing coronavirus mitigation efforts and accused of counting the ballots, which is not accurate. 

"We're watching you, Gov. Wolf, very closely," Trump said in Lehigh County Monday.

Counties oversee elections and count ballots in Pennsylvania, not Wolf. 

The president also reaffirmed his disdain for mail-in balloting, even as his campaign had encouraged his supporters to get their mail-in ballots before the Monday deadline in Pennsylvania. 

At every campaign stop in Pennsylvania, Trump has made claims of "massive fraud" in the 2020 election, setting up the narrative to couch a potential loss.

He issued the same warnings ahead of the 2016 election, which he ultimately won. 

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Lancaster Airport in Lititz, Pa., on Monday, October 26, 2020.

Republican strategist Charlie Gerow, the CEO of Quantum Communications in Harrisburg, said he predicts another win for the president, based partially on his own enthusiasm. 

"I reluctantly voted for him four years ago," Gerow said. "This year, I'm all in for President Trump."

He said there are many others like him who like how Trump handled the economy and delivered strong gains before the pandemic, and they also like his foreign policy record. Meanwhile, they are unmotivated by what they see as a "far left agenda" among Biden supporters.

Trump was also viewed as the better candidate for the economy in 2016, and warnings swirled around Clinton, who Republicans saw as advancing an agenda that was too progressive. 

But a difference this year is that Republicans have lessened the Democratic voter advantage in Pennsylvania. 

In 2016, Democrats led Republicans by about 916,000 voters.

As of Monday, that advantage has been trimmed to about 687,000 people. 

Republicans in the last four years have added about 230,000 voters to their rolls.

"That's a huge difference," Gerow said. "Republicans have added enough voters to make up a small city. That can't be underestimated in this election."

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The Democratic view

Biden on Monday drew a sharp contrast to his political rival. 

Unlike Trump, who said he could only lose if the election is rigged, Biden chose not call his shot too soon. 

"I just want to make sure we can earn every vote possible," Biden said. 

The former vice president is ahead by less than 4 points in Pennsylvania, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. That's within the margin of error in nearly every poll.

But it's worth noting that his lead, which hovered between 5 and 8 points throughout most of the election season, was brought down by right-leaning polls. 

Biden also holds tight leads in Nevada and Arizona. He has a 6-point lead Minnesota, nearly an 8-point lead in Wisconsin and nearly a 9-point lead in Michigan. The Democratic challenger also has a small lead in traditionally red states North Carolina and Iowa. He's tied with the president in Georgia and is trailing by just 2 points in reliably red Texas. 

The polls have Biden favored to win, but the sting felt by Democrats four years ago, when Clinton had a lead in battleground states and lost, is not a distant memory.

"You know me, I am not overconfident about anything,” Biden said. 

Biden said he hoped to carry Pennsylvania “by the grace of God” and winning here, in the state where he grew up, is personal to him.

In a short speech outside of a Delaware County voting center, Biden focused on what Trump didn't during his Pennsylvania campaign stops: the coronavirus. 

"Trump said we're learning to live with it. No, he's asking us to learn to die with it," Biden said, repeating one of his most quoted lines in the campaign cycle. 

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa., Tuesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Therein lies the biggest difference for Democrats when this presidential election is compared to 2016. 

"The fact that we are in the middle of a public health emergency that's surging again makes a huge difference," said Jesse White, a political strategist at Perpetual Fortitude, a Democratic consulting and digital management firm in Harrisburg.

But he's not describing it as a political win for Democrats. 

"You can't call it an advantage when thousands of people are dying," White said. "If Biden inherits this, he's going to have a lot of work to do because the Trump administration has failed to get it under control." 

Biden seemed to acknowledge as much about the president this week.

“I don’t know what we’ll inherit on Jan. 21," Biden said Monday in Pennsylvania, "but at the rate he’s going, it’s not going to be good.” 

Each time Biden is in Pennsylvania, he draws a contrast to the president on the handling of the coronavirus. For example, Trump had thousands of supporters at his three Pennsylvania stops on Monday. Biden limits the size of his crowds to comply with state and federal health guidelines designed to stop the spread of disease. 

"We're not putting on superspreader events," Biden said. 

The Democratic challenger has said, as president, he would "shut down the virus and safely open up the economy."

“We can in fact end this crisis,” Biden said of the coronavirus. Trump “is not doing what needs to be done.”

What the polls say

Consistent polling data can be a key to determining the outcome of a presidential race, according to Terry Madonna, veteran pollster and political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. 

A closer look at the nonpartisan, statewide Franklin & Marshall College Poll, formerly the Keystone Poll, shows Biden has consistently maintained a double-digit lead among surveyed voters who were asked about the candidates' handling of the coronavirus. Trump has consistently maintained about a 1- or 2-point lead on the economy. 

Biden's lead in the Franklin & Marshall poll has hovered between 5 and 9 points in the last year. 

"There hasn't been a huge shift," Madonna said. "Biden has consistently held onto his lead in the state." 

Madonna frequently hears people — usually reporters — point out that Clinton had a lead in the polls four years ago and still lost. 

So why should anyone believe the polls now? 

Madonna and other pollsters said they have made corrections to their polling this year, including doing their polling closer to the election. 

In 2016, the Franklin & Marshall poll was out nine days before the election and had Clinton 11 points ahead. Trump won by less than one point. 

The poll didn't catch the 15 percent of voters who made last-minute decisions or factor in the enthusiasm for Trump, who was a known celebrity but new to the political stage. 

Now, Trump is an incumbent with a record to run on. 

"There aren't many undecideds in this race," Madonna said. "People either think he's doing a good job, or they're going to vote against him."

But being out in the field too early before election day proved to be the biggest problem in 2016.

Since then, the Franklin & Marshall poll accurately predicted the outcome of the 2018 midterms, which included a gubernatorial race and U.S. Senate re-election bid in Pennsylvania. 

"I’m confident the problems from four years ago won't be an issue this time," Madonna said. "I would be stunned if we had the same problem this year."

Another difference this year is a Democrat who is polling higher among women. In 2016, Trump had a 5-point lead among white women and Biden has a 12-point lead. 

The gap between the candidates among women voters is even larger in suburban Philadelphia, which is one of the most crucial areas in battleground Pennsylvania. 

"Trump has a big problem with college-educated women," Madonna said. "They are the reason he trails in the polls. Biden's lead with them is bigger than Clinton's. It's a huge element in this election."

One more Franklin & Marshall poll is expected before Election Day, as Biden continues to hold onto a lead in Pennsylvania and the coronavirus is surging.

"Right now Biden is the favorite to carry the state," Madonna said. "But you can't rule it out that Trump could still win."

Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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