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Democratic canvassers defy virus, Trump supporters, indifference

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Nov 02, 2020 - 05:50 AM

COPLAY — In Pennsylvania, dedicated Democrats endure brush-offs from Republicans, shrugs of indifference, and householders wary of coronavirus as they make a final push for votes in a battleground state that could secure Joe Biden the presidency.

“It’s crunch time. We’re pulling out all the stops,” says 43-year-old Juniper Leifer, one of three activists braving torrential rain as they knock on doors in an 11th-hour bid to win over any last-remaining undecided voters.

Leifer — and friends Heather Lipkin and Jamie Saye — are pounding the streets of Coplay, a small borough in Lehigh Valley, in the heart of eastern Pennsylvania’s historic rust belt.

Lehigh Valley is a swing region in a state that President Donald Trump carried by little more than 44,000 votes in 2016, making it hugely significant for his re-election prospects.

Trump won one of the valley’s counties four years ago, while Hillary Clinton took the other, making it quintessentially “purple” rather than Republican red or Democratic blue.

“We’re pretty evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans,” explains Lipkin, 47. “It’s razor-thin margins, so every vote counts.”

Both presidential candidates have targeted the industrial and manufacturing belt, where old steel mills and cement kilns still dot the landscape.

Trump held a rally in the main city of Allentown on Monday, while the husband of Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris met supporters there on Wednesday.

Wearing badges emblazoned with “Biden-Harris 2020” and masks, Leifer, Lipkin and Saye work from a clipboard holding a list of 97 doors they plan to knock.

The list contains householders’ names and ages, as well as which party they are registered with. Some are marked “U” for unaffiliated. Can they be swayed?

Coronavirus fears 

An early knock heralds an independent who says he is voting for Biden. Cheers from the women go up, but the mood quickly dampens as they encounter a few Trump supporters.

“He’s done a great job with the economy. Everything was booming before coronavirus,” says 40-year-old Mark Hartman, who blames Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor for shutting down his bar during the height of the pandemic.

They also come across 28-year-old Christine Vargas who says she will be voting for Jo Jorgensen of the minor Libertarian Party.

“Both Trump and Biden are horrible,” she says.

Moving swiftly on, the volunteers fail to convince a couple of residents who say they see no point in voting.

“That’s the most disappointing thing,” says Leifer.

The pandemic has curtailed doorknocking across the US, with Lipkin saying they have increasingly relied on phone banking instead.

The three hang pamphlets on the door handles of anyone aged over 70 rather than put them at risk.

“People don’t answer their door a lot because of Covid,” says Lipkin. “We don’t get to talk to as many people but we’re still active.”

The women’s focus is to make sure every registered Democrat votes by ensuring they know how to do so, amid confusion about early voting and postal ballots.

But they are also aiming to influence voters who swung to Trump last time, many out of dislike for Clinton.

Democrats here hope Biden’s roots in nearby Scranton will strike a chord with Lehigh Valley’s army of white, blue-collar workers.

“We’re trying to persuade people that are maybe moderate Republicans,” says 48-year-old Saye.

Trump was propelled to the White House by undecided voters who embraced him in large numbers late on in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Trump’s shy voters? 

Experts say he benefitted from being the outsider candidate after eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency but faces a fight to hold on to many of them.

“It’s a smaller group of undecided voters than four years ago, and the chances that this group will break as strongly to the President seem lower,” says Christopher Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

A short distance away, at the offices of the Lehigh County Republican Party, organizer Wyatt Monte Paden is confident a “silent majority” who don’t admit to voting for Trump will re-elect the billionaire.

“This is a working class area. For so long people here felt sold out by establishment politicians. Trump was really the first to address them,” he says.

Latest opinion polls put Biden several points ahead of Trump nationally and in Pennsylvania.

But in Coplay, the Democrat activists are taking nothing for granted, still wounded by Trump defying the polls in 2016.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Lipkin. “But I’m still canvassing like we’re behind.”

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