Knockout Punch

If Pennsylvania goes as Northampton goes, Joe Biden will win the state – and maybe the whole shebang


In a neighborhood park in Easton, a statue of former heavyweight boxing champion and hometown son Larry Holmes towers over the surrounding Northampton County landscape.

Nicknamed the “Easton Assassin,” Holmes grew up in the county seat and went on to win 69 career bouts as a pro, including one over “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali.

Forty years after that win, Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden will try to land his own knockout punch against President Donald Trump in the 2020 election by winning his native state of Pennsylvania.

What’s the significance of the home of the “Easton Assassin” in this election?

It’s hard to envision Pennsylvania not mirroring the results of Northampton County, which lies along the state’s eastern border in the Lehigh Valley north of Philadelphia. In the last century, going back to 1920 when Republican Warren Harding defeated Democrat James Cox, Northampton voters have selected Pennsylvania’s winner all but twice. And in those two races, Northampton voters correctly chose the national winner, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and Harry S. Truman in 1948.

Pennsylvania County Map ::

In 2016, Hillary Clinton suffered a more painful blow in Pennsylvania than one of Holmes’ infamous left jabs: She lost to Trump by a mere 44,292 votes. Trump won Northampton County 49.6% to 45.8%, with 71,736 votes to Clinton’s 66,272. Trump also got 12,494 more votes in the county than Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney received in 2012.

When the dust settled in 2016, Trump had flipped three bellwether counties that hadn’t voted for a Republican nominee since the 1980s: Erie, Luzerne, and Northampton.

“We saw some that were first-time voters, that were in their 60s and 70s, some who had never been registered before…got registered to vote for him,” said Matthew Munsey, chair of the Northampton County Democratic Party. Munsey called the 2016 election “unchartered territory,” saying both candidates were unpopular, especially his own.

“You had Democrats that had bought into 25 years of attacks on Hillary Clinton,” he said. “They didn’t like [Trump] but they weren’t sure if they could bring themselves to vote for [Clinton].

Lee Snover, chair of the Northampton County Republican Party, said that Clinton’s unpopularity was “definitely a factor” in 2016, but she said she does not foresee voters looking any more favorably upon Biden.

“There’s still no energy,” Snover said of the former vice president’s campaign.

Munsey disagreed, alluding to a shift in attitudes amid the specter of a global pandemic

“We’re seeing a huge amount of enthusiasm and it’s sort of a pent-up enthusiasm because people want to be – they kind of want to be out there, they want to be loud, and meanwhile there are no rallies, there’s nobody getting together, all the events are virtual,” he said.

Snover said that energy for the incumbent has surpassed 2016 levels, citing Republicans’ willingness to have limited in-person events. Local flag-waves are held practically daily.

“People are so crazy for the president,” she said.

Munsey sees a sense of stability in the race, unlike in 2016 when uncertain voters tended to break for Trump by a wide margin. He said he does not anticipate anyone making a last-minute switch this time around.

“I think a lot of people have figured out that it’s this race-baiting, fear-baiting rhetoric, and either they’ve already bought into that rhetoric, or they see it for what it is,” he said. “We’re seeing people that – they may not even be that enthusiastic about Joe Biden, but they’re enthusiastic about voting for him to get Trump out so we have a chance to make some progress.”

Meanwhile, Snover is not only confident in her party’s base, but she is convinced that Trump will “absolutely” win over undecided Democrats and Independents because of superior economic policy and his ability to connect with the average Northampton voter better than any nominee in decades.

“He speaks directly to the American people,” she said.

Amid the partisan clamor, Dr. Christopher Borick, a longtime Pennsylvania polling expert and the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, sees an opportunity for Biden if he’s able to capitalize on Democratic momentum.

“Since [Trump] got elected here, and probably in no small part because he got elected here, [Republicans] have been devastated locally,” he said

Northampton County voted for Democratic Senator Bob Casey and Democratic Governor Tom Wolf in 2018 by double-digit margins, but Borick, a Northampton resident himself, pointed to local races that further illustrated the Democratic Party’s resurgence.

Just last year, Democrat Terry Houck won the race for district attorney, defeating Republican Tom Carroll 55.5% to 44.5%. In the race for county controller, Democrat Tony E. Bassil beat Republican Hayden Phillips by a margin of 52.4% to 47.5%.

“It’s been a disaster for Republicans since,” he said.

Borick isn’t sure that Trump, who won the state by 0.72 percent in 2016, has done enough to retain his full coalition of support needed in another razor-thin contest

“I have more evidence that he’s marginally lost some folks than marginally gained,” he said.

Ultimately, Biden will need to win the turnout game in Northampton County to boost his margins in the state, according to Borick.

“The expansion of the electorate in 2016, and the potential, perhaps on the Democratic side to do a little of the same in 2020, is the driver,” he said.

If Democrats can expand the electorate and take Pennsylvania in November, Biden will likely find himself in the Oval Office in January. FiveThirtyEight, a polling analysis company owned by ABC News, gives the state a 27.2% chance of being the “tipping point” state(as of October 20th), meaning it would be the state to give either candidate the electors needed to reach the critical 270 threshold. (Wisconsin is a distant second, with only a 14.1% chance.)

Munsey is cautiously optimistic that the motivation exists to turn Northampton and, along with it, Pennsylvania, back to blue.

“People are fired up by the reality, they’re fired up by the mishandling of the pandemic,” he said, “[and] about the failed policies of the past three years.”

~ 10.22.2020

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