BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Sarah Moore thought Donald Trump was a joke four years ago. Now she is terrified he won’t win another term in the White House.
A big reason for her conversion is the future of the U.S. economy.
“Now I am full-fledged. I even have a Trump mask in my bag,” the mom of three school-age children said recently in downtown Bethlehem, which sits at the heart of a county that swung hard from Democrat to Republican in 2016 and helped seal Mr. Trump’s upset victories over Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania and thus nationwide.
Mr. Trump likely needs a repeat performance in November to recapture the Keystone State and stay in the White House.
“I never would have seen this coming,” said Mrs. Moore, an independent voter. “I thought he was the biggest joke on the face of the Earth but I was so happy that he beat all of them. Now, if he doesn’t win, I’m going to feel like there is no hope left in this country.”
Mrs. Moore joins the majority of voters in Pennsylvania and other battleground states who trust the billionaire businessman more than Democratic challenger Joseph R. Biden to restore the economy, despite questioning Mr. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and race relations.
The economy, which remains the top issue for most voters in the country, keeps Mr. Trump competitive in swing states such as Pennsylvania, where the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls has him trailing Mr. Biden by 4.3% percentage points.
A recent NBC News/Marist poll of likely voters in Pennsylvania gave Mr. Biden one of his largest leads at 9 points, but it also underscored Mr. Trump’s dominance on the economy question.
The voters preferred Mr. Trump’s stewardship of the economy by 10 points, 51% to 41%, while favoring Mr. Biden by double digits to handle the pandemic and race relations.
“Joe Biden should be very concerned about that — very concerned about it,” veteran Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said. “What it also tells you is that if that economy continues to grow, the polling distance between Trump and Biden should probably be reduced pretty quickly.”
Pennsylvania voters continue to put their economic faith in Mr. Trump despite lagging behind the rest of the country in the rebound from the coronavirus lockdowns.
The state’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country. It rose from 13% in June to 13.7% in July, according to the most recent state data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The national unemployment rate ticked down last month to 8.4%, which is still high compared to the 3.5% in February before the virus hit but far below the doomsday predictions of Great Depression figures of 20%.
Aubrey Figueroa, a waitress at a popular diner in Bethlehem, continues to struggle. She had to give up shifts because her young children are not in school full time.
“I’m afraid the economy will change drastically and not in a good way if Trump is not elected,” said Mrs. Figueroa, 32, a registered Republican.
She said Mr. Trump could have better handled the coronavirus crisis, but didn’t blame Mr. Trump for economic pain from the pandemic.
“I do not blame him. I blame China,” she said.
Pennsylvania was the linchpin of Mr. Trump’s strategy in 2016 to draw support from blue-collar workers to put several Rust Belt states in the GOP column for the first time in a generation.
Bethlehem and surrounding Northampton County were pivotal in his win. The county in Lehigh Valley sided with President Obama in 2012 by 4 percentage points and 6,000 votes. Mr. Trump took the county by 5 points and just over 6,000 votes.
Big swings in the vote in places such as Northampton County resulted partly from Mr. Trump’s ability to tap into the frustration felt by working-class Americans.
The region struggled for more than two decades to recover from the closing of Bethlehem Steel but has experienced a revival in recent years with a conversion of the mill into a SteelStacks arts campus and a Sands Casino Resort.
Despite the promise of economic expansion from a succession of presidents from both parties, they struggled with stagnant wages and dwindling job opportunities.
Under Mr. Trump, the economic outlook had brightened in the region until the coronavirus pandemic prompted Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, to ordered people to stay at home and shut down businesses and schools.
Before the coronavirus crisis, Mr. Trump presided over the return of nearly 500,000 manufacturing jobs to the U.S., a feat considered unimaginable before he took office.
By comparison, during the eight years of the Obama administration, with Mr. Biden as vice president, the U.S. lost about 300,000 manufacturing jobs.The campaigns know the economy will make or break them.
Mr. Biden pummels the president with accusations of causing the recession and being out of touch with workers. He offers a “Build Back Better” agenda to revive the economy with green jobs and an environmentally-minded infrastructure program.
“The painful truth is, we just have a president who just doesn’t see it, he doesn’t feel it, he doesn’t understand, he just doesn’t care. He thinks if the stock market is up, then everything’s fine,” Mr. Biden said in a recent speech.
Mr. Trump boasts of the recovery that is underway and promises a return of the rip-roaring economy from before the virus. He also warns that Mr. Biden would usher in an economic collapse.
“Joe Biden would terminate this recovery,” Mr. Trump told a rally crowd in Nevada, noting his rival’s promise to shut down the economy again if scientists say so. “You can’t just listen to your professionals, you have to have some sense, you have to make a decision.”
In Pennsylvania, voters still associate Mr. Trump with the good times before the pandemic, said Christopher Borick, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“While our research shows that the president’s overall job approval ratings, personal favorability, and handling of the COVID-19 situation are all viewed negatively by a majority of voters in the state, including those in Northampton County, his standing on economic matters remains strong and largely unchanged since February,” he said.
The institute’s polling in August found that 40% of Pennsylvania voters said their financial situation was better than when Mr. Trump took office, compared to only 10% that said it was worse and 50% who said it was unchanged. That was identical to the same poll in February.
“Given that the economy remains the number one issue for voters, [it] helps explain how the president remains competitive here despite his major struggles in other areas,” Mr. Borick said.
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