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How Trump could repeat his 2016 upset in Pennsylvania

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You might yawn and click on for deeper election punditry if I told you that a prominent Republican consultant in Pennsylvania predicts that Trump will pull an upset victory that surpasses his miracle win there in 2016. But Charlie Gerow is so well tuned to the ebbs and flows of momentum in every corner of the Keystone State, from the soccer sidelines in the Philadelphia suburbs to the saloons of the fracking patch, that it’s well worth hearing why he believes Trump’s poor poll numbers way understate his chances.

“I’d say we’re where we were four years ago, maybe slightly better,” Gerow told me. “Of course, an incumbent should be very far ahead at this stage if they’re going to win. But Trump’s a special case. I believe there’s a significant under-vote that doesn’t show up in the polls. A lot of Trump supporters don’t want to be visible.”

Gerow adds that the polls aren’t catching the surging enthusiasm for Trump in the state’s western oil tier. “These counties that were traditionally rock-ribbed Democratic are registering Republicans, a sign of a Trump victory bigger than last time,” he says. “It’s hard to fathom the support for Trump in the western region until you see the yard signs and talk to the folks in the bars and after church.”

Gerow served on Ronald Reagan’s staff during all three of his presidential runs, and worked as a surrogate for George G.W. and George W. Bush on their campaigns for the White House. I first met Gerow by chance one evening at the New York steakhouse Smith & Wollensky, where he was dining with his former boss Ed Rollins, Reagan’s top political lieutenant during his first term. Rollins regaled us with stories about how Nancy Reagan would spend the day calling her wealthy socialite friends in New York and Washington to glean gossip they’d heard at galas and cocktail parties on schemers planting stories to undermine her husband or his favorite aides; then she’d pepper the political team with warnings of alleged plots and plotters. (Rollins is now a partner in Gerow’s firm, Quantum Communications, based in Harrisburg.)

Trump won Pennsylvania by just 44,300 votes, or 0.57% of the total, in 2016, notching the first Republican victory in the state in 28 years. Gerow notes that Hilary Clinton carried the five heavily populated counties that encompass Philadelphia and its suburbs––Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, Chester and Bucks––by 70% to 30%, gaining a 660,000-vote margin out of the total of 6 million cast. Three other urban counties also went to the Clinton column: Allegheny, Lackawanna and Dauphin, respectively homes to Pittsburgh, Scranton and Harrisburg. Trump actually did worse than Mitt Romney in the Philly suburbs, losing Chester, a Republican win in 2012, by 10 points. His coup was taking 56 of 67 counties, sweeping the rural and rust belt corridors, by 58.3% to 41.7%, amassing 250,000 more votes outside the cities and major suburbs than Romney captured four years earlier.

As Gerow points out, the hurdle for Trump is once again garnering a gigantic margin in blue collar and rural communities to offset his big deficits in the metros. The polls are predicting he can’t do it. “I’d say he’s the same or a bit weaker than the last time in Philadelphia and the suburbs,” he says. “But he’s much stronger in the southwest.”

Trump is big in ‘The T’

Gerow predicts that Trump will win five counties in the region south of Pittsburgh––Washington, Greene, Fayette, Westmoreland and Cambria, home to Johnstown––by a wider margin than his 66% win in 2016. He thinks that he’ll also outrace 2016 in the northern farming and forestry tier, known as “The T.”

The southwestern counties form an industrial belt loaded with healthcare and defense manufacturers where Trump’s “America first” trade policies, Gerow says, resonate strongly. “Those were traditional, rock-ribbed Democratic strongholds until the last couple of elections, and Trump has gone much farther than past Republican candidates in turning them red,” says the operative. Trump also flipped Erie County in 2016, and Gerow thinks he’ll expand his 1.5% margin there this year.

Nothing exemplified the 2016 reversal of fortunes better than Trump’s showing in Luzerne County, whose largest town is Wilkes-Barre. The area’s economy was pummeled by the fall of anthracite coal mining, but has rebounded as a hub for distribution centers. In 2012, Romney lost Luzerne by five points. Four years, Trump won by 19%, scoring a 24 point reversal. Gerow believes Trump will win by more this time. He also reckons that Trump’s blue collar wave will capture Lackawanna County, which encompasses Scranton—the city where Joe Biden was born, and that Trump narrowly lost in 2016.

Gerow cites fracking as perhaps the biggest issue in Trump’s favor. “Biden and Harris have flip-flopped on fracking, and voters think that based on their past opposition, they’re fibbing when they say they won’t ban it,” he says. “Their position isn’t lost on a state where several hundred thousand jobs depend on safe development of natural gas.” The roustabouts, rig operators, and mud loggers of the fracking region, he observes, aren’t inclined to the Green New Deal. Gerow also believes that African-American voters in the cities will vote for Trump in much bigger numbers “than the national media would ever think.”

Most of all, Gerow thinks that voters respond more to symbolism than to policies, and Trump is projecting a far more powerful, energetic image than Biden. “The physical difference is a huge plus for a president,” he says. “I’ve worked for three presidents, and after their first term, they’ve all looked a hell of a lot worse. They all get weighed down by the gravity of the office.” He marvels that Trump lives on junk food, doesn’t exercise, and grows ever more overweight, and yet “He thrives on the combat. You may hate him, but he’s the only president who looks better than four years ago.”

Trump’s energy level also astounds this political veteran. “You can say what you want about Trump, but he’s got more stamina than most 20 year olds. After the bout with COVID, he was chomping at the bit to get out. Now he’s buzzing all over the place.” For Gerow, the image of a robust Trump raging at rowdy nightly rallies “connects with voters as no words can.”

Trump’s now trailing by 4.4% in the RealClear Politics average of Pennsylvania polls. But he’s gained 2.7 points from his 7.1% deficit from October 7 to 14. Gerow is predicting a super-close, “knife edge” race that Trump will win by a hair more than the last time. No mystery in politics is more compelling than how the pull of Pennsylvania’s cities and suburbs versus the push of the farming and industrial regions, so closely matched, will play out on November 3.

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