PHILADELPHIA (AP) – When President Donald Trump told the world that “bad things are happening in Philadelphia,” it was in part a clear assessment of his party’s struggles in the sixth most populous city in the country.
For decades, Philadelphia has been the cornerstone of democratic victories in the battlefield state. The Democratic margins are so massive that winning nationwide has been a longshot for most Republican presidential candidates.
But it’s a longshot that Trump took in 2016 and is trying to repeat it all over again. His disdain for the city of brotherly love debate, which quickly inspired memes and t-shirts, underscored his campaign̵
This fight included legal challenges and disputes in the state house over mail-in votes and polls watching. Efforts that Democrats characterize as voter repression.
And it came when Trump openly stated, failing to cite any evidence, that the only way to lose Pennsylvania to former Vice President Joe Biden is through a massive fraud committed by Democrats in the city of 1.6 million people.
But Trump can’t change the basic political math in the state: one in eight registered voters lives in Philadelphia, a city that is getting bigger and bigger Democratic margins, routinely casting one in five votes for Democratic presidential candidates, and causing a left-wing drift in the densely populated suburbs around them .
“Trump is right, bad things happen in Philadelphia, especially for him,” said Bob Brady, chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party. “And bad things are going to happen for him in Philadelphia on election day.”
Recent polls show Trump and Biden had a single-digit lead in a match in Pennsylvania or Biden in a Trump state with just over 44,000 votes – less than one percentage point – in 2016, a single-digit lead.
Trump’s victory was the first by a Republican presidential candidate since 1988 and shocked the Pennsylvania Democrats to the core.
In Philadelphia, Biden’s campaign puts a lot of effort into eliminating black and Latin American voters, and gets former President Barack Obama to camp there. Trump’s election campaign appeals to black and Latino voters and hopes for even better results with his white working class base.
Brady predicted Philadelphia will carry the rest of Pennsylvania and make a bigger profit margin for Biden than the 475,000 it produced for Hillary Clinton in 2016. That gap was slightly smaller than the historic margins that Obama had in 2008 and 2012.
The Biden campaign has several “voter activation centers” in town, not to mention Biden’s campaign headquarters.
Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, opened offices in the starkly black west of Philadelphia and the starkly white northeast of Philadelphia.
Thanks to a year-long state law that significantly expanded postal voting, people now have weeks to vote, and turnout is buoyant at newly opened city polls where voters can fill out and cast ballots.
That gives hope to Philadelphia Democrats after the city’s mostly black boroughs did not do as much for Clinton as they did for Obama in 2016, including some who cast 10% fewer votes.
“The line went around the block,” said Rep. Chris Rabb, whose district is 70% black, of a newly opened electoral office there. “It wasn’t something I’ve seen since 2008 and I’ve been doing the polls for 16 years.”
In a city that is 42% black, the belief that Trump sparked a racist upswing is widespread.
Dexter Ayres, a lifelong Democrat, said he had already voted for Biden in hopes of improving the treatment of blacks in America.
Some of his friends are skeptical that the vote will change anything. Ayres, who is black, admitted wondering, “Wow, why did I vote?”
“But then I see it like, ‘Well, maybe my voice makes a difference,'” Ayres said. “I just pray and leave it in God’s hands.”
Latoya Ratcliff, a Democrat, sat on her porch in west Philadelphia this week and said she would vote for Biden. She sees more enthusiasm in her neighborhood to vote Trump out than in 2016 to vote for Hillary Clinton.
The dominant theme for Ratcliff, who is black, is racism.
“They understand a little more about how to get out and how to vote,” said Ratcliff, 39.
In northeast Philadelphia, Trump saw unexpectedly strong support from an area reputed to be home to unionized construction workers, police officers and firefighters. Republicans now expect even stronger support for Trump.
In some parts of the city there are signs saying “Back the Blue” and flags with thin blue lines. The city’s police union again endorsed Trump, and the city’s firefighters and paramedics union also endorsed him, breaking the international association’s endorsement of Biden.
Lifelong Democrat Joe Dowling recently left his northeast Philadelphia home to go shopping and said he would vote for Trump after supporting Clinton four years ago. The problem that changed his mind was the violence after George Floyd’s death and a backlash against the police.
“It’s out of control,” said Dowling, 60, who is white. “There is no reason for anyone to disregard the police.”
Democrats admit they slipped in northeast Philadelphia in 2016 – up from around 11,000 voters as of 2012.
Still, the area returned for Democrats in 2018, and U.S. Representative Brendan Boyle, who represents it in Congress, said he expected Biden to do better than Clinton there.
He recalled a file destruction event in his office last fall that was attended by hundreds in the parking lot of the plumbers’ union office in northeast Philadelphia.
“I was surprised by the animus towards Trump. People were unsolicited, ‘I have to get him out of there, he’s a disaster,” said Boyle, a Democrat. “And it was different. I didn’t hear that a few years ago. “
Stephen Lomas, a longtime registered Republican who lives between two Trump supporters in northeast Philadelphia, said he would vote for Biden.
The 84-year-old Lomas, who is white, said Trump and members of his administration “are tearing down our belief in the system. … They are crooks through and through. They are almost traitors to our constitution. “
In addition to postal voting, another feature of these presidential elections is a network of allied liberal issues and community groups in Philadelphia, say organizers, that has a long-term focus on reaching people who are unlikely to vote in predominantly black and Latin American areas.
Briheem Douglas, vice president of Unite Here Local 274, an association of casino, food service and hotel workers who support Biden, said he is advertising harder than ever.
36-year-old Douglas tells a personal story to everyone he meets who does not want to vote: He looks after the toddler of his 21-year-old niece Brianna, who died of the coronavirus in September.
“So I’m concentrating more than 2016 on acquiring lasers,” said Douglas.
Levy reported from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter and Mike Catalini at www.twitter.com/mikecatalini
AP’s Advance Voting Guide tells you how to vote early by mail or absenteeism from each state: https://interactives.ap.org/advance-voting-2020