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Joe Biden PA
Matt Rourke/AP

The Biden Campaign’s Plan to Win Pennsylvania on the Margins

The president’s campaign is putting more resources earlier than ever before into counties he’ll almost certainly lose. Democrats say there’s a logic to it.

Shari Jacobson crunched the numbers: Democrats in Union County, Pennsylvania make up just .002% of registered Democrats across the state.

Tucked in central Pennsylvania about an hour and a half up the road from Harrisburg, it’s a county that has never chosen a Democratic presidential candidate. Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2-1. In short, President Joe Biden has a near-zero chance of winning there.

Despite all of that, Union County is the site of one of two dozen coordinated campaign centers the Biden campaign has opened in the last month in a statewide effort to close the gaps in exurban and rural parts of Pennsylvania that will no doubt go for former President Donald Trump.

Jacobson, chair of the county’s Democratic committee, said Union’s ruby red voting record doesn’t mean it should be overlooked.

“The bulk of voters, of course, come from larger centers, like the collar communities in Philadelphia County and Allegheny County, obviously. I mean, these are filled with Democratic votes,” she said. “But improving the margin in the mid-state, in the rural areas, that’s usually what it takes to get people over the finish line.”

Ten of the Biden campaign’s 24 offices in Pennsylvania are in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the neighboring suburbs, areas with the highest number of Democratic voters, who will be make-or-break for who will win the state — and thus the country.

But there are also staffers heading to Union and similar counties, leaning on messages around healthcare, prescription drug prices and infrastructure. Organizers said they’re taking advantage of a slow start from the Trump campaign, which has not publicly opened any offices in the state.

“Donald Trump’s campaign is nowhere to be seen in Pennsylvania, and with each passing day, he alienates more and more voters with his MAGA extremism. Meanwhile, our campaign’s committed to reaching voters in every corner of the Commonwealth, including Democrats, Republicans and independents,” Biden Pennsylvania campaign manager Nikki Lu said in a statement.

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Lancaster County, which Trump won by 16 points in 2020, is also where Biden’s campaign opened one of its first offices in the state. County Democrats Vice Chair Stella Sexton said getting an office opened this early in the cycle is crucial to decreasing that margin.

“It’s harder and harder to get people to pick up the phone. It’s harder and harder to get them to respond by text, and of course our media diets are so much more fragmented than they were. It really is going back to the old-fashioned method of literally showing up at people’s doors and trying to talk to them,” Sexton said.

Her goal is for volunteers to knock on doors multiple times, first to see which voters need to be persuaded, and then again closer to the election to get them out to vote.

“All of that takes a while. And so if you’re not starting like now, even in late spring, early summer, even with all of the resources and the organizers and the volunteers, you’re just not going to get through multiple passes if you don’t start now.”

To Sexton, flipping Lancaster is certainly a goal, but it’s “a stretch case.” It’s more realistic in her mind to move the needle from the 41% Biden won in 2020 to somewhere in the mid-to late-40s.

These more remote offices don’t just stand to benefit Biden. In Cumberland County, which stretches just west of Harrisburg, Democrats are using the national resources to help boost Democrat Janelle Stelson, who’s campaigning to replace Republican Rep. Scott Perry.

The county, a mix of suburban and rural, is one of the fastest-growing populations in the area, yet one where Republicans still outnumber Democrats. Trump won it by 10 points in 2020, but two years later Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and Democratic Sen. John Fetterman beat their conservative opponents.

Matt Roan, chair of the Cumberland County Democratic Committee, said that success for Biden and downballot Democratic candidates in the county hinges on outreach to those moderate Republicans.

“The more time we have, the more weekends and evenings we’re spending knocking on doors and making phone calls,” he said, “the more voters we’re able to talk to and have interactions with face-to-face, person-to-person to make sure that they see the importance of this election and that they make it a priority to cast their vote.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Union County party chair. The chair is Shari Jacobson.

Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.