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How Party Leaders Get Ready For The Election In Pivotal Pennsylvania County


Erie County, Pa., a working-class area in the northwestern most corner of the state, has long been solid territory for Democrats. Then in 2016, Donald Trump eked out a narrow victory. Now in 2020, the county is again seen as pivotal. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea sat down with Republican and Democratic leaders in the county.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Jim Wertz, a 41-year-old college professor, was named Erie County Democratic chair two years ago. He wasn't in charge when Trump won here. Still, he's fixated on the numbers.

JIM WERTZ: Just 1,967 votes so a really narrow margin - and so for me, for the last couple of years, it's been staring at those numbers.

GONYEA: There are so many what-ifs. What if Hillary Clinton had run a better campaign? What if there'd been better turnout in the city of Erie? But Wertz also gives the Trump campaign credit for its use of digital targeting, for getting people to make personal contact with friends to find new voters for Trump.

WERTZ: Factor in their social media presence and their online presence and the kind of targeting they did in some cases with the help of foreign actors and others. It had a very significant psychological role.

GONYEA: Wertz says the Democrats' goal this year is not to mimic that Trump campaign. It's to build on the enthusiasm Democrats showed in the 2018 midterms and to reach beyond the traditional base. To that end, Erie County Democrats have set up field offices out in rural communities. Wertz talked as he unloaded boxes of lawn signs from the back of his Jeep at one such office.

WERTZ: We've made a lot of efforts over the last two years to really talk to and connect with rural voters. And these offices were an opportunity to help us put some roots down in places that we should have been for a long time.

GONYEA: As for Democratic strongholds, voters are highly motivated this year, he says, and having a woman of color - Kamala Harris - on the ticket helps boost energy as well. He adds that with COVID driving unemployment up to 14.8% in the county, that should also give some blue-collar voters who backed Trump last time second thoughts.

Now to the GOP effort.

VEREL SALMON: Stickers, these, you know, ceramic coasters, tiles, you know, whatever and hats, we've just gone through...

GONYEA: That's county chairman Verel Salmon, a 73-year-old retired school superintendent and farmer showing off Trump merchandise at county headquarters. They even have Trump 2020 masks despite the resistance of many Trump supporters to wear them. Both Republicans and Democrats are having to find new ways to reach voters amid the pandemic. One GOP tactic - a Trump boat regatta out on Lake Erie. But Salmon says they're still doing as much old-fashioned door-knocking as ever, maybe more.

SALMON: If there's a newspaper box out by the road, they'll put it in. But otherwise, they go to the door and knock, leave the bag on the door. If somebody comes, they stay, you know, way back and with a mask on and so forth.

GONYEA: Democrats, meanwhile, are being more cautious on that score. Salmon says he thinks voters see Trump as better at rebuilding the economy post-pandemic. He acknowledges that Joe Biden, with his Pennsylvania roots, is a very different candidate than Hillary Clinton. There is no Biden equivalent to the lock-her-up chant at Trump rallies.

SALMON: Biden - I think he's a nice enough older fellow, but look at his record. We've got enough years. We've got four or five decades to look at, and it doesn't compare.

GONYEA: Both of these party chairs know that Erie County is in play. And even with the pandemic limiting traditional campaigning and providing a powerful political issue, they insist they can still do what they need to do to reach the voters they'll need to win.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Erie, Pa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.