What do Pa. voters want? Some say Biden, some say Trump, some want a better choice

Gun Rights

Barbara Boucher is the type of voter the Biden and Trump campaigns are both worried about. 

The 43-year-old mom was among thousands of voters who helped President Donald J. Trump win Lawrence County by 27 points over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

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Boucher was a first-time voter in 2016 and chose Trump in an area where a lot of blue-collar workers in northwest Pennsylvania opted for a Republican instead of a Democrat. 

But this year, Boucher might not vote in the Nov. 3 general election. 

“I wish they had somebody else,” she said of the two major parties. “I don’t know who to vote for.”

Boucher said she doesn’t like everything Trump is doing, and she believes “Biden has dementia,” though his recently released medical report was clear. 

“I don’t like either of them,” she said. “Trump degrades people, and I don’t like him being on social media. And with Biden, I just think there’s something wrong with him.”

Adding to her lack of enthusiasm this year is an ongoing pandemic that she thinks neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have properly addressed. 

“There’s been a lot of mistakes by everyone,” Boucher said. 

As a mom of children with special needs who can’t wear masks, the biggest public health crisis in 100 years has been especially challenging. 

The growing partisan divide and ongoing pandemic has led Boucher to a perspective on the election that no presidential campaign wants to hear. 

“It’s very possible I will sit this one out,” she said. 

Boucher is one of several voters interviewed by USA TODAY Network reporters in an effort to share the voices of various types of voters in battleground Pennsylvania — a state that multiple analysts have said could be the tipping point that decides the election.

As Trump, Biden and their surrogates blitz the state with campaign stops to tell Pennsylvanians why they should get their votes, we wanted to hear directly from the voters about what they are looking for in a candidate this year. 

Boucher is an undecided and disenfranchised voter who sees two parties that seem to care more about making each other look bad than working for Pennsylvanians, she said. 

Other voters say they’ve made up their minds. 

These Somerset County voters didn’t vote R or D in 2016, but they are this year.

Harold Shaulis, a 69-year-old crop farmer, has spent the majority of his life voting for Republicans. 

He voted for both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. He supported Mitt Romney and John McCain when they ran against Democrat Barack Obama. 

But he isn’t voting to re-elect the Republican president in November. 

“Trump is a party all his own,” Shaulis said. “He has hijacked the party.” 

Shaulis said he saw it coming in 2016. He didn’t vote for a president in that election, when Trump defeated Clinton.

But this year he is voting for the Democrat. He knows it’s an unpopular decision in Somerset County, where “Trump” signs are nearly as frequent as mailboxes along the road. 

He also knows that many other farmers likely don’t agree with him. 

“This is not the response you are going to get from most farmers,” he said, “because, honest to God, they are not doing their homework.” 

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The Biden campaign is courting farmers with its “Plan for Rural America,” and a Lancaster County farmer was featured during the Democratic National Convention. 

Shaulis aligns with Biden on issues like trade, mail-in voting and the coronavirus. On the latter topic, Shaulis said Trump has failed the country on nearly all fronts, specifically leadership.

“We have to bring decency back,” he said. “Everybody needs to treat each other like human beings. No more bullying, no more name calling and lies. That needs to stop.”

That sentiment is echoed by Nick Russian, a 71-year-old retired Penelec engineer who has been voting no party for the last 30 years.

He said that Trump does have the edge when it comes to economic issues, but he’s unlikely to re-elect him. 

“He is just a divisive person,” Russian said. “I think we need somebody else.”

In 2016, it was the divisiveness of both candidates that caused Russian to cast a vote for a third-party candidate. 

“I didn’t like Trump,” he said. “I thought Hillary (Clinton) was a little bit better. But she was just going to divide the country too.”

This year, Russian is leaning toward the Democrat, with the environment, economy and national debt among his top concerns.

“Right now, I would vote for Biden,” he said. “I think he is more concerned about the environment than Donald Trump is. As far as the national debt and the economy, I don’t think either one can do much about the national debt.” 

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This Bucks County voter used to be a Democrat, but now votes Republican

Bill Woodward is proud to say he’s voted “all my life.”

The 82-year-old retired telephone worker used to vote Democrat in his younger days. 

“But now I vote Republican since I got my head on straight,” Woodward said. “Once you have a family and children, I think the Republican candidate becomes the better choice.”

He chose the Republican candidate in 2016, and he’s choosing Trump again this year “without a doubt.”

“Just look at what he’s done for the stock market,” Woodward said. “Democrats just want more government and more taxes. That would be a disaster for the country.”

Another disaster has been the Democratic viewpoint on the pandemic, he said. 

“Shutting down America is totally wrong,” Woodward said. “Trump has not wanted to shut America down, and I commend him for that. The president has done a good job during the pandemic against all the bickering.”

Woodward said he will be voting in person and looks forward to putting up signs and doing what he can to volunteer with the Republican Party.

This Erie County voter picked Trump in 2016, but now she’s voting for Biden

Erie County in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania was a pivotal swing county in 2016 that supported Trump by a slim margin after twice backing Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Trump won the county by 1,957 votes out of more than 118,000 cast. Clinton swept all 69 precincts in the city of Erie, but only won eight precincts outside of it. Trump won 68 of the county’s 149 precincts and tied Clinton in four others.

Since 2016, Democratic voter registration has remained flat at just over 97,500, while Republican registration has increased by 3,150 to just over 70,000. Independent and third-party voter registration has also increased by 2,500 voters, to 27,600.

Despite a realignment of the electorate, four polls of Erie County voters conducted by the Mercyhurst University Center for Applied Politics since 2016, including one released in February, have shown Trump losing support here. Those polls, the most recent taken before the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic collapse, have identified Trump’s handling of the economy as his strong suit.

Karen McLellan, a 54-year-old resident who lives outside of the city of Erie in Harborcreek Township, took a chance on Trump four years ago. She backed Clinton when she first ran in 2008, but controversy over the Clinton Foundation and other factors drove her away from the former first lady, senator and secretary of state four years ago.

McLellan decided to give Trump a chance.

“He was known publicly, but he was unknown politically and I just thought, well, how bad could he be? And then he spent the last four years proving how bad he can be,” she said.

McLellan is a registered Democrat “so I can vote in primaries,” but considers herself a left-leaning, moderate independent.

Among her disappointments in Trump is his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which she says the president politicized when he called it a “Democratic hoax.”

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“He’s handled it pretty abysmally,” said McLellan, a fitness instructor. “He has really just caused his supporters to question everything, assume that people are lying and look for conspiracy theories. I mean, if the world hates you that much that they’re going to make up a virus and lockdowns and everything to get rid of you, you really have a problem.”

McLellan identified public health and public safety as her key concerns this election.

“We have the coronavirus and then we have all of the racial discord going on,” she said. “African Americans don’t feel safe and we have these protests happening. That’s really my biggest concern, is safety.”

Biden wasn’t her first choice out of the Democratic field, but she’ll support him out of concern that another four years of Trump would likely result in a lopsided U.S. Supreme Court.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg is going to retire and there will probably be another opening,” she said. “I really don’t want a 7-2 conservative Supreme Court, nor would I want a 7-2 liberal Supreme Court. That’s probably my biggest issue.”

A first-time voter in Allegheny County is ready to make her choice

Madde Gopal, a 20-year-old Democrat from Moon Township, Allegheny County, will be voting in a presidential race for the first time this year.  

A junior at Slippery Rock University, Gopal, who is white, said her main issue is the Black Lives Matter movement and its demands for reform.  

“I feel that it is important for people to understand that, yes, all lives do matter,” she said, “but, just like the quotes say, Black lives need to come first because they are in danger.” 

When it comes to this issue, Gopal said there is a clear distinction between Trump and Biden.  

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“Donald Trump is racist,” she said. “Biden … respects everybody no matter their race, culture, anything. I feel that he is just a kind-hearted person. He’s more humane, whereas Donald Trump just sort of instigates this stuff and he doesn’t really care.”  

She said Biden also represents her overall values and she likes his stance on healthcare.  

Although she could not vote in the 2016 election, Gopal said she remembers watching the debates with her mother and being “disgusted” at how Trump spoke to and about Clinton and other women.  

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic still raging across the country, Gopal said Trump has “definitely handled it poorly” and exacerbated the problem by not championing masks.  

“There’s definitely a lot of people that have it that shouldn’t have it,” she said.  

Gopal said she and her family plan on voting by mail, but they will drop-off their ballots at the Allegheny County elections office rather than rely on the Postal Service, which has been at the center of controversy after Postmaster General Louis DeJoy made changes that affected mail service. 

These Black voters say the choice is clear

Paul Jones wasn’t planning to vote for Trump, but it became a certainty after a story in The Atlantic reported the president referred to members of the military as “suckers” and “losers” — a report that Trump has denied.

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Jones, a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran in Lebanon County, said he hasn’t liked Trump’s comments on the military, including when the president said he knew more than the generals. 

“You didn’t serve, Mr. President. How are you going to say that?” he said. 

Jones identifies as an African-American voter who typically votes Democrat, but he’s not sure if he’s voting for Biden. “I need to learn more about him,” he said. 

But he’s already sure he’s not voting for Trump. 

Jones was in the Army during Vietnam from 1967 to 1970, and Trump’s comments about the late Sen. John McCain and other veterans did not sit well. 

“I know a lot of guys who’ve served. We lost a lot of friends in war,” Jones said. “We weren’t treated right when we came home from war, and now the president is not treating us right again.”

Michael Pope, a 53-year-old Black voter in Beaver County, said he is tired of people labeling Black Lives Matter as a “hate group,” but he has also come to realize that Black Americans cannot rely on Trump or others to make changes happen.  

“We can’t depend on the president,” Pope said. “We have to do it ourselves.”  

A registered Democrat, Pope said he voted for Clinton in 2016, but described himself as more independent than many others in his party. “I listen and I think,” he said.  

One example of that independent streak is Pope’s stance that there should not be widespread vote-by-mail, which has become a Democratic tenet amid the pandemic.  

Calling himself “old school,” Pope said he voted in-person in the June 2 primary and will do the same on Nov. 3. “I’m showing up,” he said defiantly.

Pope said he is worried about Trump’s stance on Social Security and the program’s viability for himself and family, “so my daughter and my grandkids can have something to look forward to.”  

A nursing home dietary aide from Beaver Falls, Pope said Trump has handled the COVID-19 pandemic “very poorly” and he has seen the deadly result at the facility where he works.  

“I’m very frustrated about it,” Pope said of Trump’s approach. “He did nothing. Completely nothing.”  

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The last four years have been exhausting for a country that, he said, is sliding toward being a dictatorship.

“These last four years have been a joke,” Pope said. “I’m proud to be an American, but I’m also embarrassed at the same time.” 

Addie Hickson voted by mail in the Pennsylvania primary, but the Black voter in her 80s said she will go to her polling place in Philadelphia and cast a ballot in person on Election Day. 

“Too much is at stake,” she said. “I want to know my vote counts immediately.”

Hickson said she is “definitely voting for Biden.”

“Trump has been a mess,” she said. “Hopefully Biden can get us out of that mess.”

Hickson believes the president is “prejudiced against Black people and so many different races. He’s not thinking about anyone but himself.”

She’s telling everyone she sees that they “better vote this time,” Hickson said. “With the coronavirus and racism, our lives really depend on it.”

These women live in the ‘Trump Country’ section of Luzerne County

Cheryl Gregorio lives in rural Luzerne County, where Trump signs and flags are frequently placed throughout the northeast corner of Pennsylvania and she sees trucks waving Confederate flags. 

“There are Trump supporters all around me, and it worries me that Pennsylvania will probably go toward Trump again,” she said. 

The 63-year-old Gregorio has lived in the county her entire life and she’s watched it change from a reliably blue Democratic stronghold to gradually more Republican. 

“I blame it on Rush Limbaugh,” she said. “I used to work in a factory here, and everyone would listen to him all day. I think it changed people’s views. They started listening to him and stopped thinking for themselves.”

As those around her started trending more Republican, she bucked the trend. In the late 90s, she switched parties from Republican to Democrat. 

Gregorio will be voting for a Democrat again in 2016 because she’s looking for a candidate who is civil and decent to “bring peace to the country.”

“I live in Trump Country, but I’ll be voting for Biden,” she said.

Cheryl Whitesell lives just outside of Wilkes-Barre and is proud of the “Trump Pence 2020” sign in her front yard. 

The 70-year-old retail worker is a retired small business owner, and Trump appeals to her because of his business background. 

“He helps the American economy, stands up for pro-life, the (National Rifle Association) and evangelical Christians,” Whitesell said. “All the good stuff that America used to be.”

She believes the president deserves four more years to fulfill his 2016 campaign slogan and “Make America Great Again.”

Even though things may not be great right now, as the biggest public health crisis in 100 years and the biggest civil rights movement in 50 years converge at the same time, Whitesell believes Trump has met the moment. 

“I think he’s handled it fine,” she said. “I think he did what he felt he had to do. The virus is a real thing, and I think he did the best he could

Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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