‘I’m not voting for personality’: why this Pennsylvania county is the one to watch

Nina Lakhani in Easton, Pennsylvania
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

A steady stream of voters arrived to deliver their sealed ballots at an early voting drop-off box inside the courthouse in the Pennsylvania city of Easton, a diverse community in Northampton county which could be pivotal in deciding who wins the key battleground state – and the White House.

Northampton county, a mixed rural-urban area with about 300,000 habitants, has backed the winning presidential candidate all but three times since 1920. As Northampton county goes, so do Pennsylvania’s precious 20 electoral votes, according to electoral history.

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It is the political bellwether county in a crucial swing state which helped deliver victory to Donald Trump in 2016. Northampton county was among just 206 out of 3,141 nationwide that backed Barack Obama twice and then flipped for Trump.

But with less than a week to go before election day, the polls here are mixed and too close to call. The campaign signs scattered across the picturesque county seem pretty evenly spread between the president and Democratic challenger Joe Biden, and so do the votes being cast at the courthouse.

Voting for Biden is Shelene Monroe, a 48-year-old business analyst. “Trump has divided us as a nation, severed relationships with our partners while aligning himself with dictators, and shown a total lack of leadership,” said Monroe, who voted for Democratic candidates in the down-ballot races.

“Elections are always about choosing the less of two evils, no candidate will be 100% for your issues, but contemplating another four years of Trump disgusts me and should concern everyone who cares about healthcare, police brutality, the rights of workers, people of color and LGBTQ rights,” added Monroe, a Black woman originally from Brooklyn, New York.

On the other side but equally adamant is Kim Boucher, a middle school teacher who cast her ballot for Trump and Republican candidates for local and state government.

“I’m not voting for personality, I’m voting for the economy and the second amendment and against the opposition … Biden hangs around with too many socialists like AOC and Bernie Sanders who want more government control,” said Boucher, a 58-year-old white woman who supports basic healthcare for all and abortion with some restrictions.

An inflatable figure of Donald Trump stands on a porch int he Northampton county borough of Stockertown.
An inflatable figure of Donald Trump stands on a porch int he Northampton county borough of Stockertown. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

“It’s fantastic what President Trump achieved with the economy and in the Middle East, but he’s been under attack for three and a half years,” Boucher added.

Analysts agree that Pennsylvania is a must-win state, which is why both candidates have made multiple campaign stops here in recent weeks.

An average of national polls on Thursday showed Biden leading Trump by almost nine percentage points, but only 5.1 points in Pennsylvania, according to the website FiveThirtyEight.

Early in-person voting ended in Pennsylvania last Tuesday – a week before election day – so folks like Monroe and Boucher who are worried about Covid but spooked by efforts to slow down the postal service and discount votes by mail, are hand delivering their ballots in record numbers.

Trump has made fracking a campaign issue in Pennsylvania by falsely claiming Biden will destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs by banning fracking. Meanwhile Biden has tried to convince floating voters concerned about global heating and the economy that his ambitious $2tn climate plan is also an ambitious jobs plan.

Robert Fry, 32, a factory worker, is voting for the first time after recently concluding that it is his duty as a Christian to do so. He worries about the climate crisis but voted Republican because of what he sees as Christian values on abortion and same-sex marriage.

“Trump could have a better climate control plan, but Biden goes back and forth on fracking so much that I’m not clear about either side’s plan. Trump is a prideful stubborn person, he exaggerates, but I don’t believe he’s mishandled the pandemic,” he said.

An advertisement for Donald Trump&#x002019;s re-election campaign plays as people sit in a diner in the Northampton county city of Easton.
An advertisement for Donald Trump’s re-election campaign plays as people sit in a diner in the Northampton county city of Easton. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

The numbers tell a different story. As of Thursday evening, Pennsylvania had suffered at least 208,087 Covid cases including 8,828 deaths, according to the New York Times database. The average daily case count is up 54% compared to two weeks ago. The unemployment rate is 8.15% – slightly higher than the national average and twice the pre-pandemic rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Northampton county, a former heavy manufacturing and agricultural region, is 76% white but rapidly diversifying as a growing number of Black Americans and Latinos are priced out of New York and New Jersey.

It’s part of the Lehigh Valley, the state’s third most populous metropolis after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where Biden must appeal to people of color in order to stand any chance of winning as former Democrat rural strongholds in Pennsylvania continue to turn red.

But registration drives have been impeded by Covid restrictions and some voters are still waiting on their ballots, according to Ivan Garcia, a grassroots organizer with Make the Road Pennsylvania.

“The Latinx community is an important voting block which is mostly voting in person because this administration has done a good job attacking the integrity of postal voting even though the president votes by mail. Every vote needs to be counted, the next phase will be challenging ballots after November 3,” Garcia said.

The county – and the state – are too close to call, according to Tara Zrinski, 45, a Democrat running for state congress on an anti-corruption, healthcare for all, and green energy transition platform.

Zrinski, a Northampton county councillor and environmental justice advocate who has fought against expansion of fracking, said: “Pennsylvania cannot become an extractive state where natural resources are exploited for the benefit of corporations. But people here are very independently minded and stubborn, they don’t like being told what to do. That’s why the county is pivotal and the state swings.”