US election: candidates ‘leave it all on the field’ in Philadelphia
Pennsylvania is Clinton’s ‘checkmate’ state and Trump’s biggest possible steal
Supporters in Berwyn, Pennsylvania where Melania Trump was campaigning for her husband. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Micki DiBell, of Delaware County, at the speech by Melania Trump. Photograph: Simon Carswell
Nancy Scioli and Leona Moore of Delaware County, Pennsylvania waiting to hear Melania Trump speak. Photograph: Simon Carswell
On Wednesday, the scale of the Republican presidential nominee’s challenge was clear. The reliable Quinnipiac University poll found that Trump’s Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton had a 20-point lead among Pennsylvania women, outweighing Trump’s 12-point advantage among men.
Overall, Clinton’s poll advantage in the Keystone State, which a Republican has not won since 1988, has fallen in the wake of the revived FBI inquiry into her personal email server as secretary of state, but it still stands at a reasonably healthy four to five points. Geographically, Trump dominates in rural parts, especially western Pennsylvania, while Clinton has a commanding lead in Philadelphia.
In between are those suburban areas around Philadelphia, and between 20 and 25 per cent of the state’s electorate.
The Trump campaign’s response to his poor standing among women was to send his wife, the Slovenian-born former model Melania, to Chester County, one of the four critical “collar” counties around Philadelphia, for her first solo appearance of the campaign.
The stay-at-home mother speaking about doing homework with her 10-year-old son and the importance of protecting the country’s children in cyberspace on Thursday was designed to soften the candidate’s image among the suburban mothers turned off by his misogynist remarks.
“Oh dude, I am a suburban woman,” said die-hard Trump supporter Micki DiBell at the Melania rally, challenging the suggestion that the Republican nominee had turned those kinds of voters off.
Wearing a cowboy hat and a Trump-Pence T-shirt, and holding a “Women for Trump” sign, DiBell dismisses the allegations about Trump’s groping. Women do it too, she says.
“I groped two Secret Service men while I was here. I groped their butts,” she said, referring to a previous Trump rally she attended in the Philly suburbs. Thinking that I had misheard her, I asked her to repeat herself and she grabbed my backside to explain what she was talking about.
“If I was a man, I would be in jail today for the little gropings that I did and I am more guilty than Donald Trump is for the claims,” she said, referring to her 19 years working for the government.
DiBell likes Melania because she raises her son on her own. “She is an immigrant, which tells me Donald Trump isn’t against all immigrants because he married one,” she said.
“My mother came from Ireland. She did it the right way: she came over, got her green card and became a citizen,” said Leona Moore, who is in her 60s, from Delaware County.
Sitting opposite her as they wait for Melania to speak is her friend Nancy Scioli, of Italian descent. Scioli likes Melania, who would be the first foreign-born first lady in 187 years.
“I think she is very sweet, very classy,” said Scioli, but even the high-profile visit is not making her confident that Trump can win suburban Pennsylvania. “I think there’s a chance.”
There are large numbers of swing voters, college-educated whites and registered independents making these parts fertile grounds to harvest votes.
“Clinton is clearly hammering Trump in the suburbs,” said US congressman Brendan Boyle, a Democrat, whose district covers part of Philadelphia and a large swathe of the suburbs.
“He is underperforming every previous Republican nominee in my lifetime in suburban Philadelphia. The flip side is he is overperforming in more rural parts of the state. The question is whether he will do well enough in suburban Pennsylvania to win state-wide. I still think she would still be able to win by four or five points.”
If Trump wins everywhere Mitt Romney won in 2012 and adds Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire – where the race is either tight or he is ahead – he would reach a tie at 269 electoral votes, one shy of the winning 270, putting the presidency in the hands of a House of Representatives vote. Of the blue northern industrial states he has focused on in recent days – including Wisconsin and Michigan – Trump has the best chance in Pennsylvania, which has 20 electoral votes up for grabs.
Clinton knows this. Pennsylvania is her firewall, her “checkmate” state, and her camp too is throwing everything at it in the final days of campaigning in a state that has no early-voting, which tends to favour Democrats. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama will join Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton at an event in Philadelphia on Monday to try to drive up her urban vote, while vice-president Joe Biden will hold four events across the state this weekend.
Even Trump’s supporters in the Philly suburbs are doubtful of his chances here. One sign of this was the attendance at Melania Trump’s event. It was less than half-full, and organised only a day in advance.
“I don’t see him winning,” said Leona Moore. “This area is just not for him. The women are not for him because of what he has said, the sexist stuff that he has said.”