In 2020's homestretch, NJ Democrats cross the Delaware to secure Pennsylvania | Stile
NORTHAMPTON, Pa. — Mike Beson, a longtime fixture in Monmouth County, New Jersey, Democratic Party politics, was equipped with the basic tools required for a Biden volunteer: a smartphone app with voter lists, a stack of door hangers and civic zeal.
"I would walk over broken glass barefoot in the hot sun just to vote,'' the onetime mayor of Neptune said as he scrolled through his phone — on a quest for his next potential target.
But on this muggy late-October afternoon, Beson wasn't barefoot, but striding in running shoes on paved suburban driveways in a quiet, suburban Bucks County, Pennsylvania, enclave, 60 miles from his home: the Jersey Shore.
Beson was part of a wide-scale Democratic canvassing effort at the epicenter of the 2020 presidential election on Thursday. He was a scout for his candidate — former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, who followed him to Bucks County on Saturday.
Beson is among the legions of New Jersey volunteers eager to channel their partisan energy into a handful of battleground states that could determine the outcome on Nov. 3 — and beyond.
"I think people have had enough,'' said one Northampton resident, who cautiously greeted Beson at the door and who would only give her first name, Bernadette. She worried about antagonizing some of her pro-Trump neighbors.
Still, it didn't take long for her to shed her caution.
Through the threshold of the doorway, she held forth — more like gushed forth — about the sorry state of politics in the Trump era. Bernadette also lamented the sorry state of Trump, his lack of empathy, what she called the "cult" that supports him and the senators who have enabled him.
"You've made the case quite eloquently,'' Beson said, striking an encouraging note. "We survived the Civil War, 9/11 and ..."
Bernadette interjected. She wanted to say more. She did.
All in all, for Beson, his conversation with her was a successful encounter. It's what he drove west to Pennsylvania to do.
Confident that the former vice president and Democratic challenger will trounce President Donald Trump in New Jersey — and, in turn, pocket the state's 14 electoral votes — Garden State Democrats are enlisting as foot soldiers in toss-up states like Florida, Ohio and, most crucially, Pennsylvania, where Trump's narrow, 44,000-vote victory paved his way to the presidency.
This year, Biden has maintained a consistent lead in Pennsylvania, with RealClear Politics, the political tracking website, giving him an average 5.1-point lead over Trump. But after the 2016 election, a day of darkness that lives in political infamy in the hearts of Democrats around the nation, nobody is taking much comfort in Biden's lead.
Bucks County in the crosshairs
In Pennsylvania, the outcome will largely be determined by which party is better at driving their base voters to the polls.
For Biden, that means turning out voters in solidly Democratic precincts — especially Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and their affluent suburbs — where 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton rang up large margins. These same cities and suburbs were ground zero for the "blue wave" revolt powered by college-educated women and millennial voters in the 2018 midterms.
Democrats captured three of the four congressional seats in the Philadelphia suburbs two years ago. But Clinton squeaked by Trump by a mere 2,700 votes in Bucks two years later, Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate Republican, beat back the blue-wave trend by winning the Bucks-centric 1st District House of Representatives seat.
Bucks County has nonetheless trended Democratic since, with the party seizing control of county government and Democratic registration outpacing the GOP. It is now a main target for both Trump and Biden.
Scoring a commanding victory in a purple county like Bucks could tilt the difference in a race that is expected to be close. Biden's visit to the county Saturday underscored its importance.
"Let's face it: You don't need big differences when you are dealing with somebody [Trump] who won by less than 1 percentage point,'' said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "I don't think you could exaggerate the significance."
Reaching voters, not wooing them
For Trump and Biden's campaigns, the time to convert fence-sitters has long passed. Now their goals are fairly straightforward.
For the Democrats, the strategy is to make contact with likely voters and prod them to get their ballots in the mail for Biden and down-ballot candidates as soon as possible. At the very least, operatives need to convince likely voters to acknowledge that they voted or confirm that they intend to.
Democrats are resorting to every means of voter contact at their disposal. The Biden campaign linked up dozens of volunteers from the Princeton Community Democratic Organization with phone banking software via Zoom. This effort proved so successful that Princeton Democrats enlisted in the effort were soon calling voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania and reading a script f from their computer screens.
Elyse Pivnick, who helps run a community development nonprofit in Trenton, had been mobilizing before the pandemic, participating in Turn PA Blue, a nonprofit formed in Philadelphia that is seeking to expand Democratic control over the Pennsylvania State House. She told this columnist that she has been on the phone nonstop to support Biden.
The fear factor
Motivating most New Jersey Democrats to cross the Delaware to support Biden's campaign is pretty much the same factor that is rippling through their party's ranks around the country: fear.
It's a fear of being lulled into the same false sense of complacency by the polls that suggested a comfortable Clinton win. Most New Jersey and Pennsylvania Democrats I've spoken with openly fear that Trump will steadily dismantle the foundations of American democracy if he is given another four-year term.
"I came from the Soviet Union. Now I feel like I'm back from where I came from,'' said Anna Schwartz, a Northampton resident who emigrated to the United States from Israel and Canada before becoming a civil engineer at the New Jersey Department of Transportation. She and her husband, Allen, were among the few who came to the door last week to greet Beson.
"I was stunned and shocked by the outcome of the election and then just watching daily one norm of politics after another falling,'' said Pivnick, the community development organizer from Trenton who began organizing Turn PA Blue meetings in February before the pandemic hit.
For Beson, his shoe-leather canvassing was more than simply fulfilling his duty to the party. He said his 14-year-old son, Evan, recently came out as gay, and Beson and his wife worry that the tide of intolerance unleashed by Trump will only intensify and destroy gains that have allowed LGBTQ people to flourish in society without fear of persecution.
"Those things could go away,'' Beson said. "He stacked the deck. These judges that he appointed are going to be there for a long time. Maybe we need a president and a [Congress] to enact things to make them permanent."
But some of the mechanics of campaigning have also heightened anxieties.
A steady uptick in Republican registrations in Pennsylvania in recent months has added a frisson of anxiety. And then there is concern that the Biden campaign, sensitive to the concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, waited too long to launch its more conventional ground game, while the Republicans have been at it for months. Democrats began ramping up the door-to-door contact only several weeks ago.
"The Biden campaign has been nowhere while the Trump campaign is everywhere,'' Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh boasted to ABC News. "The president’s 2.3 million volunteers have made more than 110 million voter contacts. You can’t just parachute in a month before the election and hope to make up ground."
Democrats concede that they are late to the game — but say Biden's caution was largely shared by voters in the Democratic base, who have tended to support lockdowns and social distancing measures.
Constrained by COVID-19
And although Democratic organizers are now hitting the streets with phones and apps detailing targeted voters, precautions are still very much baked into the plans. Since senior citizens are a high-risk group for the virus, Democratic canvassers are urged not to ring their doorbells.
Beson, though masked, kept a respectful distance. He gently asked if senior voters had either voted or received their mail-in ballots. Small talk was kept to a minimum in most cases. A quick exit reduced any concerns of infection.
At one point, Beson reminded a homeowner, who was wearing a Philadelphia Eagles T-shirt, that he was an out-of-towner and in potentially hostile territory — at least when it came to football. It was also an attempt at a graceful exit.
"I'm a Giants fan, so good luck tonight,'' Beson said Thursday, noting that the Giants were playing the Eagles.
Philadelphia fans have enjoyed the satisfaction of that win. Nov. 3 awaits.
Charlie Stile is a veteran New Jersey political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.