The 2020 presidential primary in Pa.: What did we learn? | Analysis

Key: Blue - Biden received more votes; Red - Trump received more votes. (Map by Nick Field via Dave’s Redistricting)

It was an election unlike any other in Pennsylvania history.

The new law expanding mail-in voting was in place even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, setting up an unprecedented shift for the Keystone State towards mailed ballots. With the count at last completed, we’re left to search for meaning in the final totals. 

I tested some theories and assumptions I held about the results, but found the most important lesson of the 2020 primary concerned its length and what that portends for November.

The Results

Despite what you may have initially heard, Joe Biden collected more votes (1,264,624) in his primary than Donald Trump (1,053,616) did in his. 

There were four additional candidates on the ballot, two in each party. Bernie Sanders secured 287,834 votes compared to Tusli Gabbard’s 43,050. On the GOP side, the totals were smaller with William Weld getting 69,427 and Roque De La Fuenete pulling in just 20,456.

Biden’s and Trump’s totals are the highest for a presidential primary candidate in PA since the Clinton-Obama battle in 2008. Nonetheless, fewer Pennsylvanians voted in each party’s primary than in 2016.

As for percentage totals, Trump finished with 92.14 percent to Weld’s 6.07 percent and De La Fuente’s 1.79 percent. Biden meanwhile secured 79.26 percent to Sanders’ 18.04 percent and Gabbard’s 2.70 percent.

Now we’re left to ask, what did we learn from these numbers? Well, that’s not an easy question.

2020 vs 2016

Take the map that opened this piece for example. If November’s map looks like that, then Joe Biden is quite likely going to be the nation’s 46th [resident. Looking back at the counties where Hillary Clinton out-performed Trump in the primaries four years ago, however, revealed a bit of disconnect.

Clinton put up numbers in Pennsylvania’s bluest counties like Philadelphia, Allegeheny, Montgomery, Delaware and Lackawanna counties (Sanders got more than Trump in Centre County). Yet she failed to secure three other counties where she out-performed Trump in the primaries: Beaver, Erie and Fayette counties.

At the same time, Trump actually did better in several counties he would go on to lose in November including Bucks, Chester, Dauphin and Monroe counties.

With all that in mind, Beaver being blue now appears as a red flag that these results are not the best indicator of the future. Of course, it’s not inconceivable Beaver County could flip. After all, Casey and Wolf were both able to win it in 2018. Still a Biden victory there would be a sign of a major blue wave.

So there’s a valuable lesson about just how strong the correlation is between vote totals for the primary and general elections. 

Geographical Trends

Another aspect of the results I set out to examine was a possible geographic pattern to presidential protest votes. Specifically if the Acela/Appalachia divide could be seen in these results. Would William Weld perform better in formerly red and increasingly blue southeastern Pennsylvania? How about Bernie Sanders in formerly blue and increasingly red southwestern Pennsylvania?

On the first point, Weld received quite a few protest votes in SEPA. He scored 11.05 percent in Philly, followed by 10.92 percent in Montgomery County, and 10.87 percent in Chester County. This suggests that there are still some Never-Trumpers left in the GOP here.

Conversely, I was surprised to see that Bernie saw no appreciable bounce in the Appalachian areas in the Southwest.

His strength tended to lie in the most rural counties, like Blair (21.29 percent) and Huntingdon (20.20 percent), as well as the most populous ones, such as Allegheny (20.69 percent) and Philadelphia (19.15 percent). His best county was Centre (24.92 percent), likely thanks to Penn State students and facility.  

It remains to be seen whether Joe Biden can reach the young and liberal supporters of Bernie Sanders. The Vermont Senator’s efforts to still accumulate delegates despite dropping out means that we don’t yet know how many will stay on the sidelines or refuse to vote for Biden on November 3rd.  

The few real protest votes out in the southwest actually went to Tulsi Gabbard. She saw a bump there, reaching as high as 8.34 percent in Cambria.

Altogether these protest votes match the larger trends in voter registration, suggesting we’ll see the divide between the two regions continuing to grow in the future.

The Long Count, Voting by Mail and the Man in the Oval Office

As mentioned before, the influx of mail-in balloting significantly prolonged the ballot counting period. When all was said and done, it took five weeks for the vote to be certified. This will likely be much worse in November with millions more voting and the eyes of the nation potentially on us.

Biden recently expressed the concern that we wouldn’t know who won Pennsylvania until a month after the election. CNN is preparing for their results coverage to take days instead of hours. Nate Silver says we’re currently the tipping-point state in the Electoral College. 

This has led many to question the consequences of a long count. For instance, what if Trump leads in Pennsylvania on Election Night, only to be overtaken by Biden as the counting continues over the following days?

On Election Night 2016, Trump did not hesitate to call for revolution when the results didn’t go the way he wanted. Those protesters and reporters who were gassed and beaten in Lafayette Square can surely testify that he’s capable of anything.

In fact, the incumbent is already seeking to make mail-in voting more difficult in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania with a lawsuit aimed at the ballot drop boxes.  

So it’s imperative for Pennsylvania’s representatives in Congress to pass a bill to protect our rights to vote and to submit that ballot by mail.  

Our legislators in Harrisburg also need to create new rules to allow mail-in ballots, like early votes in other states, to be counted by counties as soon as they’re received. This would cut down on the confusion and uncertainty expected for Election Night.

Hopefully it won’t matter, but in the Trump Era every precaution becomes necessary. 

Correspondent Nick Field covers Philadelphia and its suburbs for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @Nick_Field90.