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This Pennsylvania county picks presidents. Here's what it can tell us about 2024

ERIE, Pa. - On a recent weeknight in Erie, Pa., the local minor league hockey team hosted a playoff game for the first time in years. The home team Erie Otters faced off against the Kitchener Rangers from Ontario, Canada.

But even as fans watched the action on the ice, another kind of face-off isn't far from the minds of Erie County residents.

"You go down different blocks or different streets and you see something, you know, Trump or Biden," said 34-year-old Bekah Mook, who was at the game. "You can't even have a glass of beer unless something is mentioned Democrat or Republican."

"It's everywhere you turn," she said.

While most counties across the country predictably lean Democrat or Republican, Erie County, in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, is what election watchers call a "boomerang county." It boomeranged from Democrats to Republicans and back in recent presidential election cycles.

The county went for former President Barack Obama twice, then former President Donald Trump in 2016, and narrowly for President Biden in 2020.

Now everyone is trying to predict what will happen this year.

'How Erie goes, Pennsylvania goes'

Biden won Erie County in 2020 by less than 1,500 votes, or 1.03 percentage points. In 2016, the margin was less than 2,000 votes for Trump.

Mook, who works in a mental health practice, is one of those voters who flipped. She comes from a family of Christian Republicans, and once considered herself solidly in that camp. She supported Trump in 2016, largely due to her opposition to abortion.

But her feelings changed as she watched Trump in office.

Campaign signs sit in the Erie County Democratic Party office in Erie, Pa.
/ Don Gonyea/NPR
Don Gonyea/NPR
Campaign signs sit in the Erie County Democratic Party office in Erie, Pa.

"Now I'm looking at everything else. And there are so many more issues than just abortion," she said.

One thing that particularly bothered her was Trump's policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the images of children being kept in detention at border facilities.

"I have 19 nieces and nephews, no kids right now, and I'm just a kid person," Mook said. "So when I see kids like that I'm just like, 'Oh, that's disgusting.'"

As for this year, Mook says she's still going back and forth with her presidential vote. She's currently leaning "60% Democratic." Another Erie County voter at the arena that night, 22-year-old Ethan Haynes, says he's an independent, but this year he's all in for Biden. For him, democracy is on the ballot.

"I think that with Trump and his messaging has very much shown that he is unwilling to give up power if he gets it again," Haynes said.

Head out to the more rural parts of the county, outside the city of Erie, and you find a much more conservative type of voter. After finishing his breakfast at a classic old diner in Girard, Pa., 66-year-old Tim Stevenson said he'll be backing Trump.

"We can't go through another four years of Joe Biden," said Stevenson, a retired township police officer who now runs an auto repair shop. "I don't think he has the capability to run an ice cream stand."

It's all about turnout

The local political party chairmen in Erie have long histories in the county, and both know that this place could be pivotal in November.

Erie County Democratic Party Chair Sam Talarico is focused on boosting turnout ahead of the November elections.
/ Don Gonyea/NPR
Don Gonyea/NPR
Erie County Democratic Party Chair Sam Talarico is focused on boosting turnout ahead of the November elections.

"Erie County actually mimics the state very closely demographically," explained Sam Talarico, the Erie County Democratic Party chair.

"We have an urban core, we have suburban areas. And if you go south of Interstate 90, it's rural," he said. "So that's why we're kind of a bellwether county. We see how Erie goes, Pennsylvania goes. And that's that's been true in the last few elections."

Talarico says his job this year is to drive turnout. That means the grunt work of campaigning: door knocking, phone banking and voter registration drives.

"I think most people have already made up their minds because both of these candidates have been in the White House and they know who they are," he explained.

"So our real challenge is to find new voters and, you know, hopefully get them on our side," Talarico said.

Mail-in voting might make the difference

Across town at the local Republican Party headquarters, county Chair Tom Eddy has a different goal: getting more Republicans to vote by mail.

Democrats currently have a massive advantage when it comes to mail-in ballots. While Biden won Erie by just over a single percentage point in 2020, he won 75% of the county's mail-in ballots. The same dynamic played out for Democrats in the 2022 midterms and 2023 state judicial elections.

That's a big problem for the GOP. Eddy puts it in very blunt terms, saying Republicans have been losing elections they could have won because voters in his party don't believe in mail-in balloting.

That rejection of a type of voting that is legal and in wide use in the state comes in large part because the practice has been loudly vilified by Trump, who has repeatedly lied and called it a major source of voter fraud, falsely citing mail-in voting as a cause of his 2020 defeat. There is no evidence of any such problems with mail-in ballots.

Erie County Republican Party Chair Tom Eddy says his party must embrace mail-in ballots in order to compete in Pennsylvania.
/ Don Gonyea/NPR
Don Gonyea/NPR
Erie County Republican Party Chair Tom Eddy says his party must embrace mail-in ballots in order to compete in Pennsylvania.

Eddy, without himself completely dismissing or dispelling the incorrect claims of mail-in ballot fraud, does insist it's time for Republicans to move on. He says it's time to play to win, and that needs to include embracing mail-in voting.

"I still have people that are adamant against them (mail in ballots), they say, 'Well, it's it's it's an avenue for fraud.' And I said, 'Yeah, it could be,'" Eddy said. "But we've got to play that game. Otherwise we lose. We can't win an election without them."

Eddy and Talarico both see advantages when it comes to mail-in voting: It allows voters more flexibility and makes it easier to vote, thus boosting turnout.

It also allows party officials to focus their "get out the vote" efforts. Applications for a mail-in ballot are public information, and so is whether or not those ballots have been submitted. That means campaigns can reach out to voters directly and remind them to turn in their votes.

Voters can also check a box and have a mail-in ballot automatically sent to them for all future elections, making it even more likely they'll vote in the future. That's a huge help to political parties, and right now an area where Democrats enjoy a huge edge. As a Republican, Eddy describes that option this way: "If you can get people to check that [box], that's the best thing in the world."

Lies about voter fraud stoke Republican skepticism

But as Eddy tries to spread the gospel of mail-in voting to Republicans, he knows he's facing an uphill battle. He tells the story of what he encountered when he tried to hand out mail-in ballot applications at a Trump rally in Erie last summer.

"I started at 6:30 in the morning, and I went to everybody that was lined up, all 10,000 people, and I asked them, 'Here's a mail in ballot,' and I gave them my reasons why. And the majority of those people said, 'No,' because, one, Donald doesn't endorse it and two, it's fraud," Eddy remembered.

He says that he only managed to get about 300 people in that crowd of thousands to sign up. Trump's lies about widespread fraud in the 2020 election that he lost have been convincing.

Democrats are hoping to keep their advantage in mail-in voting. This sign encouraging the practice hung in the Erie County Democratic Party office.
/ Don Gonyea/NPR
Don Gonyea/NPR
Democrats are hoping to keep their advantage in mail-in voting. This sign encouraging the practice hung in the Erie County Democratic Party office.

That why it's easy to find that distrust in mail-in voting when you talk to Republican voters.

"I think you should go to the polls with your license and prove who you are and vote. That's it," Tim Stevenson, the auto repair shop owner, said.

Stevenson plans to vote in person.

State Sen. Dan Laughlin of Erie thinks that mindset leaves a lot to chance — bad weather or a flat tire on Election Day could keep you at home.

Laughlin was a rare Republican supporter of mail-in voting back in 2020, and he says former President Trump does Republicans a disservice by continuing to bad-mouth mail-in ballots.

"If by chance, you use this clip in your interview and it gets back to him and he hears it, I hope he's listening," Laughlin said. "Because he's the only one that can fix it. Because the rest of us are trying, right?"

If Republicans don't get competitive on mail-in ballots, Laughlin said, "We're going to get our clock cleaned."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Lexie Schapitl
Lexie Schapitl is an assistant producer with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces, the NPR Politics Podcast, and digital content. She also reports from the field and helps run the NPR Politics social media channels.