Scranton, Pennsylvania — He may have left Scranton at age ten, but Joe Biden has kept his birthplace memories alive throughout his long political career by invoking Scranton frequently, offering parables drawn from his blue-collar past.
Before Biden announced his third presidential campaign, he visited his Scranton "homestead" with a camera crew to reproduce his upbringing, according to Ann Kearns, the owner of his childhood home. His Scranton stories were long-winded on the campaign trail, but last month he began to shorthand the tales with references to "Scranton versus Park Avenue."
"Look, I view this campaign as I've said before and I'll say it again, between Scranton and Park Avenue, between Toledo and Park Avenue, all Trump can see from Park Avenue is Wall Street," Biden said, offering a message of economic populism in Ohio this week.
This middle-class mantra speaks to the Scranton area, which remains majority Democratic today. This year the challenge for Biden is not only to win Northeast Pennsylvania, but to run up the numbers in order to prevent President Trump from repeating his statewide victory in the last presidential election. Hillary Clinton, who also had Scranton family connections, won Lackawanna County in 2016 by 3.5 points, a fraction of the 27-point margin won by former President Obama and Biden in 2012.
In 2016, onlookers saw how Mr. Trump's economic message resonated with working class and non-college-educated workers in the area.
"He promised to a couple-thousand person audience that he was going to reopen the mines," said Dr. Gretchen Van Dyke, political science professor at The University of Scranton. "People cheered, they believed; he promised and he offered them something they could chew on."
It was the very opposite of what Hillary Clinton promised. "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business," she said in March 2016. Though she was talking about transitioning to clean and renewable energy, it caused a backlash that lasted for the rest of her campaign and cost her blue-collar support.
"I think the Democrats learned a lesson," Van Dyke said, adding, "The burden is on the Democrats to turn out and deliver in a major way the city — in a way that didn't happen for Hillary Clinton."
Democrats are hopeful Biden can win back a greater share of working-class votes this year.
"I don't care if he was from Timbuktu," kindergarten teacher Mary Pat Burke, 55, said during a front porch interview a few doors down from Biden's childhood home. "It just seems that he seems very in tune with the needs of the middle class."
But Burke, like other Democrats in the area, said there is no guarantee. "After last election, I don't want to be too overly confident."
Interviews with more than two dozen ardent Biden fans and political operatives reveal both a depth of support but also a pervasive weariness over whether the Scranton of Biden's youth will be able to push him to victory.
"You have to give Republicans tremendous credit. They have defined the narrative…as a 'liberal' that is a bad word," history teacher and Biden supporter Bill Burke said. He added that in places like Scranton, the GOP has "muddied the waters" on issues like election security, the Second Amendment and racial equality, potentially motivating even more conservative voters this November.
Former Scranton Mayor Jimmy Connors, a vocal Biden supporter, said he was unnerved when a recent commercial touted Biden as falsely supporting defunding the police. "I was getting calls from the parents of police officers saying to me, 'Jimmy, is it true that Joe wants to defund the police?' I said, 'No, not at all!'"
"I frantically called everybody in our campaign to tell them this commercial has legs," Connors said.
Election energy is palpable throughout Scranton, as left and right turns reveal what voters call "Bidenvilles" and "Trump Lanes."
Of course, signs don't vote, but local leaders in both parties say this year has yielded the most political signage in recent memory. Local Democrats are going door-to-door in Scranton passing out Biden-Harris campaign signs and white "Scranton Loves JOE!" placards.
The local Republican Party said its offices distributed more than 15,000 Trump campaign signs in recent weeks. Recent Republican convert Dave Mitchko said that since June, he has distributed almost 26,000 Trump signs out of his garage in nearby Olyphant.
"Where I'm at is a true Democratic area, has been since as far back as you can remember," said Mitchko, 53 and disabled. He explained his Democratic "blinders" were opened by Mr. Trump's strict immigration and trade policies.
"I'm kinda embarrassed over it but I voted for Barack Obama twice," he said. "I didn't even know who the vice president was."
Back in the city, Elizabeth McDonald, 39, said the visible level of support for the two candidates "really differs from block to block." For her house she requested a "bigger-the-better" Biden-Harris sign and bolted it like a billboard high above her entryway.
"When you see that, you see what we stand for," said McDonald, a critical care dietician. "This house, when you drive by, is 100% for the environment. We believe Black lives matter. We believe that masking helps prevent those from contracting the virus."
Down the street, the four Trump signs and flag fortressing Tom Moran's house is a partial rebuke to Bidenville. "I think people have this overblown sense of importance that somehow Biden is a Scranton guy 'cause he keeps saying that," Moran said, "That's just a political ploy and some people are uninformed enough to believe it."
Moran and other Scranton Trump supporters said their signs have repeatedly been stolen, pushing some to install security cameras to keep watch over the signs. The county GOP said the sign stealing is so pervasive their lawyers are crafting a $500 reward for information about the culprits.
Like other parts of the country, Scranton has not been immune from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wendellyn Feddock, 53, recently lost her job of 22 years as a JCPenney manager due to plummeting retail sales, but remains frustrated with Mr. Trump's economic focus during the public health crisis. "I don't think opening up the country just because of the economy is a good idea because we have to get the virus under control first."
Feddock said three of her friends are voting for the first time: two for Trump and one for Biden.
Even if some additional support for Mr. Trump has been under the radar in this more than 90% White area, recent Pennsylvania polling indicates Biden may have offset these potential GOP gains.
As of last week, Biden led Trump 52% to 46% in Pennsylvania, according to the. Voters' views of Biden personally have also improved since August, while around two-thirds of voters in the state said they dislike how Trump handles himself personally.
With three weeks to go until the November election, Republicans are gearing up to fight for Scranton.
"I do believe we are beating them," Lance Stange, Jr., chairman of Republican Party of Lackawanna County said. "In Scranton, they may have an edge or maybe we're even, but when you get outside of Scranton, there is no contest." The chairman pointed to the 1,880 Democrats in the county who switched their party registration to Republican, compared to 741 Republicans registering as Democrats. Plus, the Trump campaign boasts more than 1.6 million doors knocked, an activity the Biden campaign said it started only last week because of public health concerns this summer.
Since June, Biden has made 12 visits to Pennsylvania compared to Mr. Trump's seven stops, a commitment the Biden campaign said underscores its drive to win. These stops are supplemented in the area by phone banks, local campaign events, and outspending the Trump campaign with television and Facebook advertising by more than $2.3 million in the state, according to Kantar/CMAG data. The campaign also noted that of the 960,000 new voter registrations since 2016, 44% have been Democratic versus 30% Republican, according to an analysis by Target Smart.
And even if some Democratic voters are anxious, Biden is confident. "I will win Scranton. Listen to me. I will win Scranton," Biden said in his last visit to the city in September for a town hall. "This is home. I know these people."