Pennsylvania's small-town Trump defectors: Rare — but possibly decisive

Jonathan Allen
·5 min read

FORKS TOWNSHIP, Pennsylvania — It's hard to find a man like Victor Dennis in this evenly divided, deeply polarized, heavily courted corner of the county that most precisely mirrored President Donald Trump's statewide victory here in 2016.

All but a relative handful of voters in this small Northampton County town, 75 miles due west of the Statue of Liberty and 20 miles northeast of Allentown, have voted — or will vote — the same way they did four years ago. There isn't much room for a change of heart in the town or in a county that Trump won 50 percent to 46 percent four years ago.

That's what makes voters like Dennis, 91, only a little more common than dragon-riding leprechauns. But the race is so tight here, and across the state, that just a small number of crossover voters could make the difference.

"First time in my life, I voted for a Democrat," Dennis, a longtime resident of Forks who now lives in a retirement community in nearby Nazareth, told NBC News on Friday after he finished packing groceries into his car in a strip mall parking lot. "I like a lot of the things Trump did, but I couldn't stand his bloviating."

Half an hour later and a few blocks away, a truck bearing roughly a dozen Trump flags and a banner reading "Vote Republican in Person" drove through a neighborhood in which Trump placards decorated most lawns.

Just a mile or so from that neighborhood, though, in the hills overlooking Easton's Lafayette College, signs promoting Joe Biden, the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ rights abound in similar numbers.

Election experts say the result in Pennsylvania is most likely to determine which candidate wins the presidency. This region — with its mix of bedroom communities for New York and Philadelphia, a health care economy that rivals its historical manufacturing base and rural stretches dotted with small towns — is one of the most heavily contested in the country.

Trump held a rally just west of here in Bethlehem on Monday, a city that straddles the border of Northampton and similarly swingy Lehigh County, one of seven stops in the state in less than a week. On Saturday, he had rallies planned in Newtown, Reading, Butler and Montoursville, which are spread across the state.

Biden, who plans to campaign in Pennsylvania on Monday, has bombarded airwaves across the state with television ads costing nearly $1.5 million per day — compared to about $500,000 a day for Trump — according to data compiled by NBC News' Ben Kamisar.

In one of four Forks precincts, comprising a little more than 2,000 voters, Trump won 48.24 percent to Hillary Clinton's 47.58 percent four years ago — almost identical to his 48.17 percent to 47.45 percent statewide margin. Trump won with 52 percent in a second precinct, and he split the other two with Clinton, both by margins of less than 4 percent. Like the county and the state, Forks leaned ever-so-slightly toward Trump.

An Allentown Morning Call/Morning Consult poll released Saturday showed Biden with a 49 percent to 44 percent lead statewide, but as Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, which conducted the survey, noted, it's "a good number" but "not a comfortable number" for Biden.

"It allows one to see paths by which the president could repeat his victory here in 2016," he said.

Going into the final days before that election, Clinton held a slightly smaller lead over Trump. She ended up losing by about 45,000 votes.

Teryn Hill, 37, a special education teacher from Forks, is backing Biden even though she had preferred Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the Democratic primary. But she is concerned that her pick for the general election will lose here.

"Trump will win," she said. "That's the pulse of what I feel in the area where I live."

The truth is the margins were so small last time, and expected to be so small this time, that it's impossible for anyone to know with any certainty how Forks Township, Northampton County or the state will perform for Trump and Biden on Election Day. Trump is focused on mobilizing fans of his who didn't vote for him in 2016. The Biden campaign has done more of a mix of persuasion and base-mobilization efforts.

If all else held even, Biden would need a net of only about 23,000 Pennsylvania voters, out of more than 6 million statewide, to flip from Republican to Democrat by Tuesday. On a micro level, that means seven or eight voters out of the 2,000-plus who went to the polls in Forks Township's "Western 2" precinct, replicated across the state.

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Trump is counting on his base of voters like Sharon Lahr, 67, of Martins Creek, and Jeff Geake, a veteran of Operating Engineers Local 542 in Fort Washington, to carry the day.

"I don't believe in abortion," Lahr said. "That's the big thing." But, she said, she also sees Trump as a strong leader and said she believes "Kamala Harris will step in" if Biden is elected because, at 77, "he's too old."

Geake is voting for Trump again, he said, because, "I like the way he talks to the media," and, "the media has too much control of our lives." Trump has called members of the news media "enemies of the state."

But it's Trump's talk that has alienated some voters, like Dennis, who would otherwise be inclined to support him. It wasn't any of Trump's policies or his handling of Covid-19 that turned Dennis into a circumstantial Democrat.

The long-held fear of Republican elites who back Trump is that there will be enough voters like Dennis to tip the balance of the election in Biden's favor.

"His big mouth turned me off," Dennis said.