WASHINGTON — Every Tuesday and Thursday for the past month, more than 40 Democratic volunteers from Nassau County have spent their evenings at home calling prospective voters in suburban Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.
The swing state county twice voted for Barack Obama for president but flipped to help Donald Trump narrowly win Pennsylvania in 2016, and has since been flooded with get-out-the-vote efforts organized by Democrats looking to boost former Vice President Joe Biden’s 7-percentage point lead, and Republicans seeking to repeat Trump’s victory in a must-win state.
Luzerne County and suburban enclaves throughout the country are the battleground in which the race between Biden and Trump is being fought, as their campaigns look to win over what has historically been a swing voting bloc: white suburban women.
"They're the engine of political turnout," said Lauren Leader, CEO of All In Together, a nonpartisan group focused on increasing civic engagement among women.
A poll conducted by the group last month of 1,273 women voters found only 2% of suburban female respondents said they did not plan on voting in the election.
"Women are not sitting this out," Leader said. "Women have been more likely to be registered to vote, and more likely to turn out in every election since 1980, and I think in this election, it’s even more so now."
Four years ago, buoyed by support among white suburban women, Trump narrowly flipped Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan clearing the way for an Electoral College victory despite losing the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
In 2016, 61% of white women without a college degree voted for Trump and 44% of white women with a college degree voted for him, according to exit polls.
This election cycle, amid a pandemic, the president has seen his support among suburban white women dip by double-digit polling percentages, allowing Biden to open leads in those swing states and others while forcing the Trump campaign in the final stretch to spend time and resources in states typically seen as a lock for Republicans including Georgia and Texas.
Biden has a 28-point national lead over Trump among suburban women, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll of 725 likely voters that was released on Oct. 11. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points and reflects other national polls that show double-digit margins.
Trump campaign officials have routinely dismissed the polls, arguing that the president trailed Clinton in 2016 polls.
Biden and Trump have each made distinct appeals to women voters, with Biden focusing on the federal response to the pandemic and Trump billing himself as a "law and order" candidate who rolled back Obama-era fair housing regulations.
Trump’s recent pitch to female voters at a Johnstown, Pennsylvania, rally: "Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood."
Biden’s pitch during last month’s first presidential debate: "What really is the threat to the suburbs and their safety has to deal with COVID. They're dying in the suburbs."
The full-court press to win over women comes as economic data shows women have been more adversely impacted by the economic fallout of the pandemic than men. Between August and September nearly 800,000 women dropped out of the U.S. workforce, compared with 216,000 men, according to labor statistics.
Economists contend that women were more likely to work in industries affected by the shutdowns, including hospitality, education and retail, and have also left the workforce to care for their children as schools turned to virtual learning in response to the pandemic.
"The defining issues are not a matter of political rocket science," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean at Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. "It’s all about the pandemic and its impact on the health and finances of millions of suburbanites who might have been persuaded to stay with Trump but have been turned off by both the tone of his rhetoric and the lack of consistency and respect for expertise, such as science, in his policies. Suburbanites tend to shy away from what they see as extremism of any stripe, whether it’s from a Democrat or Republican, a liberal or a conservative."
Suburbanites tend to shy away from what they see as extremism of any stripe.Lawrence Levy, Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies
Steve Israel, a former Long Island Democratic congressman now advising the Biden campaign said national elections are won "based on what suburban voters in battleground states are talking about at their dinner tables."
"Trump wanted them to be talking about a booming economy," Israel said. "Instead, they’re talking about COVID, the boarded up businesses in their communities, whether their kids are safe when they go to school and how to manage working at home while their kids are also learning at home."
Former Suffolk GOP Chairman John Jay LaValle, who sits on the Trump campaign’s national finance committee, argues that Trump’s "law and order" message will resonate with suburban voters who view public safety as a top concern.
"This is a president who will not cower," said LaValle.
Trump and Biden have both routinely touted their selection of women for key leadership positions. Biden chose Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate and has promised to nominate the first Black female Supreme Court justice if elected. Trump nominated conservative federal judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy left by the late liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
"Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination proceedings has brought the issue of filling Supreme Court vacancies and the issue of abortion to the surface and that could mobilize some voters more strongly around Trump," said Katherine Cramer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Trump won Wisconsin by a 0.77% margin in 2016, but Biden leads by an average of 6.3 percentage points according to an analysis of polls by the poll-tracking website Real Clear Politics.
In Michigan, where Trump won by a 0.23% margin in 2016, Biden holds an average lead of 7.2 percentage points.
Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by 44,292 votes — more than half of those votes were from Luzerne County, where he won by about 26,000 votes. Biden holds an edge of 7 percentage points in the state.
Luzerne County Democratic Chairwoman Kathy Bozinski said Democratic groups across the country have been offering help via virtual phone banks such as the one organized on Long Island by Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove). She said Democrats who show up at the county’s headquarters in Wilkes-Barre looking to volunteer are "mostly women."
"They are all here because they don't like the direction or they're very upset about Trump's leadership, especially with regard to COVID-19," said Bozinski.
Suozzi, who has dubbed the phone bank operation "From Long Island to Luzerne," said volunteers using a phone app deployed by the Biden campaign have a goal of reaching 20,000 voters by Election Day on Nov. 3.
"Certain places, no matter what you do are going Democratic, certain places are going to go Republican no matter what, but Luzerne County is one of those key swing counties in a swing state that is suburban … so we're right in the sweet spot," Suozzi said.
The Luzerne County GOP did not respond to an interview request, but the Trump campaign touted its own use of an internal web-app called "Trump Talk" that allows campaign volunteers to call prospective voters from their own homes and a data collection program that allows it to tailor messages to individual voters.
"Democrats have to target large voting blocs and demographics — like the suburbs — as monolithic groups because they lack data to do otherwise," said Samantha Zagar, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign. "But our $350 million data program allows us to individually target voters to ensure they’re receiving the right message the right way — and that’s how we’ll deliver President Trump to victory."