The Bellwether County to Watch in Pennsylvania

Because Erie is the bellwether to the state that is most likely to pick the president in November.

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Why you should care

Because Erie is the bellwether to the state that is most likely to pick the president in November.

There is a reason Donald Trump has visited Erie County three of the last four years, and it’s not for the views. In fact, the northwestern Pennsylvania blue-collar town is a far cry from the president’s Trump Tower tastes. No, Trump has visited Erie County for the same reason that Joe Biden visited Erie County a few weeks back, and other presidential candidates before them — because it is the bellwetheriest of bellwether counties in Pennsylvania, the state most likely to cast the deciding votes in November.

Erie County is the only county in Pennsylvania that has backed the correct winner in each of the past seven statewide elections

Cue the president, who landed Air Force One at Erie International Airport to a rowdy crowd of thousands of supporters in late October … and quickly made clear his reason for showing up. “Before the plague came in, I had it made. I wasn’t coming to Erie. I mean, I have to be honest, there’s no way I was coming,” Trump said in his hourlong speech. “I didn’t have to. … We had this thing won.”

Trump was right that Erie is key to his electoral hopes. However, there are signs that the progress he made there in 2016 — winning the county by about 1.5 percentage points after Obama carried it by 16 points in 2012 — was already shifting even before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2018, Erie County favored Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey by 21 and 18 points, respectively, over their Republican opponents. If Erie, a union town long known as reliably blue, truly has abandoned Trump, it would be perhaps the biggest sign yet that Biden really is winning in Pennsylvania, as statewide polls give him a narrow advantage on average.


Supporters cheer at Trump’s Oct. 20 rally at Erie International Airport.

“In Erie, you’re going to talk to some of those famous Obama-Obama-Trump voters, and there is a question mark of where they’re at right now,” says Daniel Mallinson, a political scientist at Penn State’s Harrisburg campus. “If they like what they got from the president — or not.”

Democrats in Erie argue the answer to that question is a resounding no. Even as Trump led a pre-pandemic economy that saw almost 3 percent GDP growth at its height, little of that prosperity was felt in the manufacturing hubs like Erie that Trump promised to revive. Between 2017 and 2018, the median income dropped even as economic output increased. There was optimism that residents would start sharing part of that boom at the beginning of 2020, with millions in investment expected to spruce up the waterfront and downtown. However, those hopes were dashed with the pandemic.

Unemployment rates jumped to almost 17 percent in April, around the time the Wabtec plant laid off 300 locomotive workers as national rail traffic halted. That number has settled around 8.2 percent in October, but Wabtec announced it was going to fire another 150 people four days before Trump’s visit … adding insult to injury a week after a WalletHub study found Erie to be the the slowest-growing city in the nation.

He definitely needs Erie.

Kasia Ferry, Trump supporter

“The bottom line is that Trump made a lot of promises to a lot of people” but hasn’t lived up to them, says Jim Wertz, the chair of the Erie County Democrats. “The folks who were looking for some alternative to career politicians, or whatever trope they throw at it, see now that perhaps wasn’t a wise decision.” Trump benefited in part from his opponent in 2016, Wertz says: “When you had a Clinton on the ballot, a lot of the manufacturing folks, union members, had some strong feelings about NAFTA. … They don’t seem, by and large, to feel that way about Joe Biden.”

Still, there are plenty in Erie and its surrounding counties who still back the president enough to keep him competitive, as evidenced by the large attendance at his airport rally. “I’m just infatuated with him,” says Tammy Anderson. “I like the fact that he’s trying to bring all the businesses back to America, bring back oil, gas, fracking — Biden wants to get rid of that stuff. I’m just fearful the economy will go to ruins.”

Standing in the foggy Erie night while waiting for the president, his fans know exactly how crucial their support could be: “Let’s face it: Democrats thought they had it last time. But David slayed Goliath with one stone, and with God behind Trump, I think he can do anything,” says Kasia Ferry, a 69-year-old who backed Trump in 2016. “He needs Erie though. He definitely needs Erie.”

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