Why Did Pennsylvania Flip Blue?
Pennsylvania likely decided the 2020 presidential election. But the deciding factors weren’t what you think.
Credit: Photo by Sylvia Zhao

tephen Pettigrew went into election night anticipating a tough race in Pennsylvania. As the director of data science at the Penn Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies (PORES) and senior analyst for NBC’s Decision Desk, Pettigrew thought he knew what to expect. But the narrow electoral margins and long days ahead surpassed even his imagination.

Like Pettigrew, millions of Americans sat glued to their televisions for hours on Nov. 3. Amid grueling races in several swing states, many only succumbed to sleep well past midnight the next day, with former President Donald Trump still ahead in a handful of races—including Pennsylvania. These states were pivotal in the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. For weeks leading up to election night, many analysts closely watched the few that might offer a tipping point for the candidates, where a victory would likely deliver them the presidency.

Across the country, eyes were on Pennsylvania.

In 2016, former President Donald Trump narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton, flipping the state red for the first time in six elections by a slim 0.72% margin. The previous Democratic trend and sudden Republican flip in 2016 made the battleground state’s outcome in 2020 more ambiguous than ever.

On Nov. 6, 2020—over 72 hours after election day—Decision Desk HQ called Pennsylvania for Biden. A day later, most major news outlets followed suit. Pennsylvania certified the results on Nov. 24.

"Extremism on either end is very distasteful to Pennsylvania voters. The state likes a moderate."
Jamie Perrapato
President Joe Biden. Photo by Alec Druggan
Owen Voutsinas–Klose. Photo by Sophia Dai
"It was this really large coalition of young people, people of color, labor unions, and then even some moderates in Philadelphia suburbs that really put Biden over the edge."
Owen Voutsinas–Klose

When President Joe Biden won the state—although by a slim margin—voters and analysts alike assumed that the state’s reliably Democratic metro hubs, like Philadelphia, had tipped the scales. But a look at the data unveils that Philadelphia County had shockingly low voter turnout this election cycle, and parts of the city even shifted further to the right. It was actually moderate suburban voters in Philadelphia’s surrounding counties that helped bring Biden to victory.

“If somebody had told me on the day before the election ... that turnout in Philadelphia was going to be awful, and that Trump was going to outperform his performance last time around, I would have said Trump was getting reelected pretty easily,” Pettigrew says.

So why didn’t he?

As Pettigrew points out, it’s all in the margins. Trump’s 2016 victory in the state was slim—Pennsylvania’s narrowest margin for a presidential election in 176 years. Many thought it wouldn’t take much for him to lose the state.

“Any momentum against [Trump] was going to be enough,” Pettigrew says.

Executive Director for Turn PA Blue Jamie Perrapato witnessed this momentum firsthand. Through canvassing, phone banking, online training events, and speaker series, the organization raised over $800,000 for Democratic candidates this year and engaged volunteers nationwide. As an organizer, Perrapato feels that Trump’s far–right policies turned off many centrist voters.

“Extremism on either end is very distasteful to Pennsylvania voters,” Perrapato says. “The state likes a moderate.”

Biden’s moderate policy stances—advocating to fight mass incarceration, while rejecting calls to defund the police; expanding on Obamacare; and rejoining global climate agreements without pursuing the Green New Deal—helped propel him to victory in one of the regions most critical to his win: the Philadelphia suburbs.

During the 2018 midterm elections, suburbs trended blue nationwide, which led analysts to expect the same trend of votes in these areas in 2020. But that wasn’t the case. Many suburbs across the country that had voted for Democrats in 2018 shifted red in November.

Unlike other suburbs, though, Philadelphia’s surrounding counties—Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Bucks—saw a blue wave that was crucial for Biden's win in Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia suburbs have trended blue for years, but their leftward shift this past election was unprecedented in its scale.

Pennsylvania is often decided by less than 100,000 votes. In those four counties, Biden received about 287,000 more votes than Trump, outperforming Clinton's 2016 lead on Trump by almost 100,000 votes.

Montgomery County, which is immediately northwest of Philadelphia, saw a large percentage of this surge, with 57,000 votes of Biden’s 100,000 vote lead coming from the county alone. Chester County, historically a Republican stronghold, saw an eight–point shift to the left, delivering the largest percentage gain to Biden of any Pennsylvania county, with a margin of over 17 points.

Analysts are now putting together why Pennsylvania’s suburbs saw an uptick in Democratic votes.

Shoshanna Israel (W ’20) and Aaron Davis (C ’20), organizers at Pennsylvania Stands Up, attribute it in part to Trump’s confrontational style as a politician. They highlight the Democratic candidate as a refreshing presence for voters who had grown tired of Trump.

“[Biden] represented a meaningful difference in policy and in temperament that I think a lot of voters responded to,” Shoshanna says.

According to Pettigrew, Trump’s more abrasive features turned a few pivotal groups of voters away from his camp, including college–educated voters, many of whom live in suburban areas. In exit polls, Biden garnered 57% of the college–educated vote, compared to Clinton’s 52%.

Photo courtesy of Penn Dems
"People were voting less so for Biden and more so against Trump. I was one of those people."
Emilia Onuonga

"Biden is a household name. Many folks don’t know what state representatives and state senators do."

Steph Drain

Also heading to the polls for Biden in 2020 were many voters disillusioned with the 2016 election. Some were Obama voters who skipped the 2016 election because of a distaste for Clinton. Others were a smaller subset of traditional Republicans who were lukewarm Trump voters in 2016.

It’s because of them that Biden was able to offset the gains Trump brought in from rural areas.

Owen Voutsinas–Klose (C '21), the former president of Penn Democrats who led the group during the election, attributes the Biden win in Pennsylvania to a Democratic coalition of voters who put aside their differences to elect the candidate.

“It was this really large coalition of young people, people of color, labor unions, and then even some moderates in Philadelphia suburbs that really put Biden over the edge,” he says.

Sitting Vice President Emilia Onuonga, who is also a former opinion columnist for The Daily Pennsylvanian, echoes this sentiment, adding that “the width of the ideological spectrum within the Democratic Party” helped push Pennsylvania towards Biden, along with anti–Trumpism.

“Democrats had a common foe—and that foe was Donald Trump,” she says. “People were voting less so for Biden and more so against Trump. I was one of those people.”

Organizers across Pennsylvania watched these shifts happen firsthand.

Aishi DeBroy, coordinator for the Sunrise Movement's Berwyn hub, a chapter of the national climate–focused political action group, says that, although the group primarily spoke with Democrats, the Republicans she interacted with were willing to cross party lines.

Aishi met many of these voters through phone banking and organized protests—called “actions” at the Sunrise Movement. She saw a lot of “discontent” on both ends of the political spectrum, and she often talked to voters who, despite being right–leaning, felt that they were losing the United States to Trump’s policies.

“These are lifelong Republicans that are talking about voting for Biden and voting blue for the first time,” she says.

Steph Drain, a member of the Steering Committee at Reclaim Philadelphia, a progressive organization in the city, is one of the voters who skipped the 2016 election but voted for Biden in 2020. He recognizes the role of voters like himself and of grassroots organizations in mobilizing such groups.

“We engaged the folks that didn’t vote in 2016,” he says. “I think there was an activation.”

The statewide blue trends in Pennsylvania are also a collateral consequence of COVID–19. Democratic votes increased because many felt Trump mishandled the federal response to the pandemic. Pettigrew says that the pandemic was at the forefront of many voters’ minds, and these voters went “overwhelmingly” for Biden.

Data from Pennsylvania exit polls shows 20% of respondents selected COVID–19 as “the most important issue to their vote.” 91% of these respondents voted for Biden. Similarly, when asked how the United States’ pandemic response was going, 34% of respondents picked “very badly.” 96% of these respondents voted for Biden.

The pandemic also widened voting accessibility with the use of universal mail–in ballots. Over 2.6 million Pennsylvania voters returned mail–in ballots in 2020.

“Expanding the electorate by making voting easier by having universal mail–in ballots really helped push Pennsylvania blue,” Aaron says. He notes that mail–in voting allowed many groups who may not have otherwise voted to cast their ballots, such as working–class voters.

Shoshanna adds that many working voters “can’t just take off half a day to go stand in line.”

The increase in working–class turnout meant an increase in votes for Biden. He expanded on Democratic favorability among Pennsylvanian voters with incomes under $30,000. Exit polls showed that Biden widened the winning margin with these voters from Clinton’s 56% to 60%.

Pennsylvania’s legislation on mail–in ballots misled many Americans to believe that Trump would win the state on election night. Because mail–in ballots, which were predominantly Democratic votes, weren’t counted until election day, Trump led Pennsylvania with an 11–point lead at 7 a.m. on Nov. 4.

Pettigrew says that if mail–in ballots were counted earlier, election night would have looked different. Biden would have likely been ahead in Pennsylvania with around 90% reporting.

Emma Wennberg. Photo by Sophia Dai

"We really had to get to the local issues that the Republican candidate was just not acting on, like the environment, education, and the economy."
Emma Wennberg

In the 2020 sea of Pennsylvania blue, Philadelphia County stood out in an unexpected way. In addition to seeing low levels of voter turnout, the county also grew redder by over two percentage points. Republican gains in 2020 were greatest in North Philadelphia neighborhoods affected by poverty and the opioid crisis.

Another factor contributing to Philly’s rightward shift was the noticeable absence of students from college campuses this past fall.

Although youth votes increased statewide, campus closures at Penn and other universities meant that first–year students and upperclassmen who hadn’t previously registered in the state couldn’t vote in Pennsylvania. Pettigrew suspects that many of these students voted in their home states or not at all, thereby contributing to the Republican surge in Philadelphia.

He also points to the missing impact of on–campus political action groups. Although many of these clubs continued their work through the pandemic, it was much more difficult with fewer students on–campus.

“Usually, there are lots of different student–run organizations that are running voter registration drives and doing all of these efforts,” he says. “There were those efforts going on, but their tasks this time around were so much harder because they couldn’t stand in the middle of campus and talk to everybody walking by.”

Penn Dems is one such organization. Owen says that, due to the pandemic, the club had to center their student engagement around those already residing in Philly. Penn Democrats participated in phone banking and door–to–door efforts for down–ballot candidates, as well as expanded accessibility to mail–in ballots.

“We had to do our best to reach Penn students who are already registered and are already here,” he says.

He notes the substantial drop in turnout in Pennsylvania's 27th ward, Penn’s neighborhood. The absent piece was college students.

In addition to endorsing Biden, Penn Democrats maintained a focus on down–ballot candidates, including Rep. Dwight Evans, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Auditor General Nina Ahmad, and state Rep. Rick Krajewski.

Photo by Sylvia Zhao

Photo by Sylvia Zhao

President Joe Biden. Photo by Son Nguyen

Despite a presidential Democratic victory, down–ballot Pennsylvanian races split at unusually high rates, with many Biden voters electing local Republicans. Democrats lost a net of three seats in the Pennsylvania State House, and two out of the three major statewide Democratic candidates lost their races.

Owen says that many of the voters he spoke to were willing to vote blue for the presidential race, but voted for Republicans in other races as a “check on Joe Biden.”

Drain also attributes the split down–ballot to a lack of public awareness around local races.

“Biden is a household name,” Drain says. “Many folks don’t know what state representatives and state senators do.”

Emma Wennberg (C ’24) spent last semester campaigning for a down–ballot race. As financial instructor and voter engagement director for Pennsylvania State House candidate Paul Friel, she faced a similar challenge of separating Friel from Biden and nationally recognizable Democrats. Friel ultimately lost his election.

“You say you’re a Democrat, and they automatically start talking about socialism, and Nancy Pelosi, and defunding the police,” Emma says. “We really had to get to the local issues that the Republican candidate was just not acting on—like the environment, education, and the economy.”

Biden’s moderate position drew in these voters. However, they remained apprehensive about the Democratic Party as a whole.

“[Republicans] would cross over to vote against Trump,” Perrapato explains. “But they already voted for one Democrat. That's more than they were comfortable doing in the first place.”

After Hillary Clinton’s unexpected defeat in 2016, analysts like Pettigrew learned not to rely on any one outcome. Still, they were surprised by Biden’s slim margin of victory in Pennsylvania—only 1.2%.

There are a lot of unknowns about upcoming elections: Will Pennsylvania continue to have slim margins? Will the return of college students to campus swing the state blue again? Will the rise of the progressive movement pit more left–leaning Democrats against moderate incumbents like Biden?

Like always, Pennsylvania’s role in the Electoral College is significant because its voting patterns are unpredictable. No interest group can claim Pennsylvania as a stronghold—not establishment Democrats, not Republicans, and not emerging progressives. The state may have flipped blue in 2020, but its diversity means there are no guarantees for the next election.