Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Can We Trust Pennsylvania’s Polls?

BENSALEM, Pa. — Two men, one in a Ford F-150 truck bedecked with Trump decals and the other in a Chevrolet Malibu, were stopped at a traffic light, arguing about politics. The light turned green, the truck pulled into a parking lot and the Chevy followed. The man in the truck jumped out, brandishing a trailer hitch head like a war hammer.

The parking lot led to the Trump Store, a tiny shop selling MAGA merchandise. It has turned the strip mall here in Bucks County, north of Philadelphia, into a never-ending Trump rally. This was Saturday afternoon. Less than an hour later, someone leaned out of the window of an S.U.V., punched a Trump Store customer in the face, and took off.

“It feels like I’m surrounded by Trump people,” said Kendall Messick, 25, a warehouse worker for a phone company who was sitting in the passenger seat of the Chevy Malibu, which had moved to an adjacent lot when a store manager threatened to call the police as the argument escalated.

“Look where you are,” said the car’s driver, Jamear Seals, 27, a Peloton employee. He gestured toward the growing group of Trump supporters with whom he had nearly come to blows. “You’re in a Philadelphia suburb.”

This town and others like it will decide which way Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes will swing in next week’s election. President Trump won the state by less than one percentage point in 2016 and pretty much can’t eke out a victory again without it. “We win Pennsylvania, we win the whole thing,” he said at a rally an hour from here on Monday.

Saturday morning, before the contretemps at the Trump store, Joe Biden was just down the road, speaking at a community college. “It may come down to Pennsylvania,” he told the crowd.

Polls show Mr. Biden leading by five to 13 points, but I grew up around here and am dubious. This place — the land of hoagies and Bradley Cooper and Rocky Balboa worship and Tina Fey’s “Cousin Karen” accent — has transmogrified into Trumplandia.

“He has so much more support than in 2016, because it’s been four years of accomplishments,” said Darinna Thompson, 49, a homemaker who was talking with a group of women outside the Trump Store. They were part of a caravan that had just encircled the Democrats’ rally “to say bye-bye to Biden” and let his supporters know they were outnumbered.

“We just drove all around and people were coming out of their houses and cheering us on as we paraded through their neighborhoods,” Ms. Thompson said.

Pollsters say that suburban women are President Trump’s kryptonite, that they’ve turned on him. At another Pennsylvania rally, the president pleaded, “Suburban women, will you please like me?”

“I feel like that’s wrong — we’re the majority,” said Jennifer Girard, 41, a single mother working in consumer goods who was standing near a pink Dodge Challenger emblazoned with “Women for Trump.” Ms. Girard said that she was part of a group that raised enough money to erect a “Women for Trump” billboard over the stretch of 1-95 that crosses from the city into the suburbs.

Isn’t she bothered by the president’s loud mouth and tetchy Twitter fingers? “There’s a shock factor, for sure,” Ms. Girard said, “but I think we know what to expect now.” She added, “He’s not a politician, and that’s why he works for us.”

What about his flirtation with white supremacists? “I’m sick of people coming to me and telling me I’m a racist because I’m Republican,” Ms. Girard said. “My son is half Puerto Rican. I don’t understand where that comes from.”

Granted, these women were voluntarily at the Trump Store, but there seemed to be nothing about the past four years that gave them pause. Not Charlottesville. Not the Bob Woodward tapes. Not the pathetic pandemic response and the ruinous economy. Not the president’s suggestions that he might not accept the results of the election. A schoolteacher in the group said, with a shrug, “This is Trump country.”

On Monday, footage of Philadelphians joyfully dancing in long lines to vote early went viral. But by nightfall, different videos began circulating: There was another police shooting, and West Philly was tearing itself apart. The scenes of mayhem that suburbia — speckled with “Back the Blue” and “Support Our Police” yard signs — awoke to could serve to help this president, who has built his campaign on racist tropes about “anarchist” cities.

My parents, who are divorced and haven’t agreed on anything in 20 years, both plan to vote for Joe Biden. They say that, in their respective circles, this makes them unique. My father’s wife will vote for Mr. Trump (“401(k),” she says), as will all his friends. My mom says many of her girlfriends will go for Mr. Trump, and she hasn’t been able to match with any man on Bumble who isn’t a Trump voter.

She lives in Montgomery County, just southwest of here, and went to the same high school as Jill Biden. The front yards of the houses flanking my mom’s, the one across the street and three more on the block feature Trump signs. There is one Biden sign on the street. One of my mom’s acquaintances recently held a Trump-themed birthday party for her child. Icing on each cookie read, “Make ninth birthdays great again.”

On Sunday, I went back to visit the neighborhood I grew up in, in Hatboro, where the most febrile of Fox News talking points are in bloom on many of the front lawns. One house, belonging to Richard Gottshall, is in a league of its own. Hand-painted posters sprout like weeds from every corner of his yard. “We the people are tired of the dirty Demo-rats,” says one. “Liars idiots troublemakers news media as well the best is yet to come.”

Mr. Gottshall, a retired carpenter and volunteer firefighter, said that some 20 like-minded people had congregated on his lawn that morning to show support for their candidate. His neighbor was not pleased about the gathering.

“The people across the street here, they’re Democrats,” said Mr. Gottshall. “They tried to outdo me — they had 29 signs. They called the police.” But, he added, “First Amendment.”

Mr. Gottshall explained to me how the media was corrupt. I told him I grew up on the next street over. He offered me a hot dog. I asked him if posting signs calling his neighbors “rats” was crazy. “Not really, because it’s on television,” he pointed out. “Judge Jeanine, she calls them that. They don’t like it? That’s tough.”

A few doors down was a pad with an even nuttier setup. Trump 2020 flags billowed in the wind and a digital sign crawled a message in the front window: “Bidens received millions of illegal money from China, Russia, Ukraine. Biden is a crook — should be locked up.” It belonged to — who else — Mr. Gottshall’s twin brother, William.

A couple unloading groceries in their driveway around the corner said that they planned to vote for Mr. Biden but were too intimidated to talk openly about it. The whole neighborhood, they said, seemed to be going for President Trump.

This is what everyone is trying to figure out: Is the Trumpmania here restricted to a fortissimo minority circling the drain, or is it a blinking red warning sign that the polls are, once again, badly discombobulated?

One thing is for sure: It is a florid expression of how many Americans feel alienated from the system. They were here last time and they will remain here no matter what happens on Tuesday.

Lochel’s bakery in Hatboro has become an overnight Oracle of (Phila) Delphi, selling red “Trump 2020” and blue “Biden 2020” sugar cookies. Whichever cookie sells the most will predict how this area, and thus the state, and therefore the election, will turn. Supposedly.

The shop’s owner, Kathleen Lochel, says enthusiasm for the president has drawn people from as far as West Virginia. Eric Trump stopped by last week.

Ms. Lochel said Pennsylvania is unknowable. “If I was a gambling woman,” she said, “I wouldn’t gamble on this.” She doesn’t disclose her political views and said, with utmost seriousness, that “the bakery does not make an endorsement.”

So far, the count stands at 3,367 blue cookies, 18,241 red.

“I do think that Trump supporters are more competitive,” said Dan Rutledge, standing in line outside of the bakery in the spitting rain on Sunday. Mr. Rutledge, 44, a manager at a clinical research organization, was there to snag some red cookies. “I’m hopeful that he’ll win PA, but I don’t see it happening myself,” he said.

“Trump has turned so many people anti-him — he’s a little arrogant,” said Mr. Rutledge. But he “liked that in a leader.” He added, “It’s going to be closer than people say.”

Shawn McCreesh is an editorial assistant for the Opinion section.

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