Full Episode: Special Report on the 2020 Election

Oct. 30, 2020 AT 8:48 p.m. EDT

With President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden crisscrossing the country to win over voters, our Washington Week panel discussed the final push to Election Day. Plus, we take a road trip to the key battleground state of Pennsylvania to talk to people about the top issues motivating them to vote.

Get Washington Week in your inbox

TRANSCRIPT

Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Tonight, a special report inside the final days of this campaign.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) If I don’t sound like a typical Washington politician, it’s because I’m not a politician.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We need a president who’s going to bring us together, not pull us apart.

MR. COSTA: The future of America on the line as record numbers vote early and outbreaks spike in key states.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) What’s his closing argument? That people are too focused on COVID. He’s jealous of COVID’s media coverage.

MR. COSTA: Democrats hope for a revival of the Obama coalition and push into the South and Sun Belt, but it all could come down to Pennsylvania.

JOANNE KOGOY: (From video.) What is Trump giving you? He’s giving everything to the rich.

TINA HAMILTON: (From video.) I think that he’s more for America than anybody I can think of right now.

MR. COSTA: Next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: Good evening and welcome to a special hourlong edition of Washington Week kicking off the final weekend of a campaign that has left this nation tense and divided. In our first half-hour we will discuss the latest on the fight for the White House and Congress, and in our second half-hour – which will be carried by many PBS stations – we will take you on a journey across Pennsylvania.

But first we begin with three trusted reporters who have been friends of this program throughout the campaign: Kristen Welker, White House correspondent for NBC News and co-anchor of Weekend Today – she also served, as you know, as the steady and sharp moderator of that final presidential debate; Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, and today we learned the winner of the National Association of Black Journalists Award for journalist of the year – congratulations, Yamiche; and Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post. So glad to have you all here on this important Friday evening.

Let’s begin with a quick listen to the closing arguments on the pandemic, which has killed nearly 230,000 Americans. And as case numbers spike, here is what they’re saying.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) If you vote for Biden, it means no kids in school, no graduations, no weddings, no Thanksgiving, no Christmas.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I’m not going to shut down the economy. I’m not going to shut down the country. But I am going to shut down the virus.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID. By the way, on November 4th you won’t hear about it anymore.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Dr. Fauci called last week for a mask mandate. This isn’t a political statement; it’s patriotic duty, for God’s sake.

MR. COSTA: Kristen, when you’re talking to your sources at the White House, do they believe the president’s argument on the pandemic is breaking through or are swing voters, women in the suburbs not convinced?

KRISTEN WELKER: Well, Bob, thanks for having me and thanks for that introduction. Look, I think there is some trepidation about President Trump trying to turn the page on the COVID crisis even among some of his closet advisors and allies. Yes, they acknowledge that they want him to try to project confidence, but they don’t want him to appear out of step with the reality on the ground. And what are we seeing as we head into the final four days of this race? Cases of COVID spiking in key battleground states, Bob, and all across the country, frankly. They want his message to be clear. They want it to be targeted. They also want him to focus more on the economy. We got a strong report on the GDP growth earlier this week. They want him to stay focused on that. As you know, he’s spent a lot of time on the campaign trail in these key battleground states taking aim at some of his political rivals, and so not staying focused on what they think continues to be his strongest talking point, which is the economy. And I can tell you, I was out talking to voters and those who support him continue to go back to that argument. They say, look, we think ultimately he is going to be the best person for our bottom line, for our business, and so that’s why his advisors want him to stay on track, want him to stay on message, Bob.

MR. COSTA: And Yamiche, you’ve spent a lot of time talking to voters in Florida, such a critical state. What have you learned?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: What I’ve learned is that if you’re a supporter of President Trump then you get onboard with this idea that the coronavirus has had too much attention and it’s occupying too much space in the media landscape. You get onboard with the idea that even if you get the coronavirus that it’s not that bad, that it won’t kill you. You get onboard with the idea that it’s somewhat like the flu. What we do know, of course, as Kristen just said, is that the coronavirus is spiking all across the country; 47 states. Today we passed 9 million cases overall in the United States. So if you’re a Trump supporter you’re looking at those numbers and saying, well, those numbers are bad, but it doesn’t matter who is president these numbers would still be bad. What I hear from supporters of Joe Biden is that they feel as though the president’s message is callous. They think that it’s ridiculous for the president to be walking around talking about the fact that he got the coronavirus and he’s OK because, of course, he had access to some of the best medical care. And I’m hearing from Biden supporters a real nervousness that also, when they look at the polls, that while they don’t like the president’s message – President Trump’s message, they’re worried that the person that they are supporting, Joe Biden, that he might not get the turnout needed in key battleground states like Florida, like Wisconsin, like Pennsylvania to make sure that this election goes his way. When you talk to supporters of the president, also the one thing that I’m really stuck by is the way that you view this election is really life or death and the way that you view the coronavirus, it goes hand in hand with the way that you view who you’re voting and who you’re supporting in this election.

MR. COSTA: Dan, those are high stakes. You study polls as closely as anyone. Is the Biden campaign nervous that the pandemic might not be the driver in terms of voter energy that they hoped in terms of getting swing voters and independent voters to listen closely to the vice president?

DAN BALZ: I think, Bob – and first of all, let me just say congratulations to Kristen and to Yamiche. Those are – those are both wonderful things that they’ve done and I congratulate them.

Back to the polls, I think the Biden campaign feels as though they are in a good place, but given what happened in 2016 there has to be nervousness. If you talk to people around the Biden campaign, they express confidence but there are many Democrats who are nervous. I talked to a Republican strategist today and he said, you know, in many ways if you look at the polling you could argue that this campaign is in pretty good hands for Biden to win it, and yet, he said, because of what happened in 2016 many people are unwilling to do that. There is still a path for the president to win this, and so there’s nervousness all around. But in the key states at this point, the Biden campaign feels as though they go into election day and with the early voting in a pretty decent position.

MR. COSTA: Let’s get into this idea of turnout on the Democratic side and energy. And one of the moments this week that really mattered in my notebook is when President Obama returned to the campaign trail in Orlando, Florida, as Democrats try to revive the Obama coalition.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) We’ve got to turn out like never before, Orlando. We have to leave no doubt. We can’t be complacent. We were complacent last time. Folks got a little lazy, folks took things for granted, and look what happened.

MR. COSTA: Kristen, what does President Obama’s reentry onto the scene mean for Democrats in places like Philadelphia, your home city, and in places like Georgia in the Deep South?

MS. WELKER: Well, there’s no one who energizes Democrats and, frankly, the coalition that put President Obama into office like Mr. Obama. He is the person who energizes the Democratic base, also brings together some independents, those suburban women that are going to be so critical, that this election is ultimately going to turn on. And don’t forget he is the best character witness for Joe Biden, and so he is there taking aim at President Trump in ways that we have not seen, frankly, until he has hit the trail in recent days, and really serving to underscore Biden’s key point, which is that he thinks he’s going to be better at fighting COVID-19. So this is going to be critical, particularly as we are seeing rates of early voting that we did not see in 2016 – Democrats outpacing Republicans, that is what you would expect.

So the question is going to be, can Republicans match that turnout and beat it on election day? Democrats are feeling confident though about these early numbers. It’s worth noting that by election day, Bob, we’re expecting two-thirds of the expected electorate to have already voted. That is significant. The question is, where are those votes going? But undoubtably former President Obama is going to be significant in terms of energizing that coalition of voters to the polls.

MR. COSTA: And what about that Bernie Sanders coalition, Yamiche? You’ve covered Senator Sanders for years. I noticed Senator Harris, Vice President Biden’s running mate, has been campaigning with him this week. Are the Sanders voters going to come out, based on your reporting?

MS. ALCINDOR: Based on my reporting the Sanders voters see Joe Biden as a more palatable person that they can back, as opposed to Hillary Clinton in 2016. We saw a real anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment among former Biden – former Sanders supporters, rather. They were people that never really got on board with Hillary Clinton. I’m not seeing that same feeling when I talk to former Sanders supporters. I was in Miami talking to a young Black man who said: I’m voting for Joe Biden. I’m not enthusiastic. He wasn’t my first pick. I was really hoping Bernie would get in there, that he would be able to have a more progressive tone, that the Democratic Party would go more to the AOC wing with the Green New Deal and banning fracking, and all sorts of things.

That being said, the voters, especially in the Democratic Party, they see President Trump as an existential threat. They see him as a threat to democracy. They also see him as a threat to their daily lives, when you think about not only the coronavirus but also police killings and criminal justice in this country. So my feeling on the ground is that the progressives are more energized by Joe Biden than they were Hillary Clinton.

The big question, of course, is can Joe Biden run up the numbers enough so that the coalition that he built – which will likely be different from the coalition from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – can he build a coalition that outpaces the coalition that we’re seeing in the Trump campaign. The Trump campaign feels very good about their numbers when it comes to places like Florida. They feel like they can run up White non-college educated Americans. Suburban women they still feel good about. But the big question is, can they turn out the Trump coalition that came out in 2016 again? And of course, that is the big question.

MR. COSTA: Dan you’ve written a column this week about Wisconsin, and Michigan, and the Midwest. What is the outlook there? We see this blizzard of polling, but what is your veteran perspective on what’s going on in the Midwest?

MR. BALZ: Well, Bob, those are the three keys to this election. There are many states in play. There’s a lot of competition in a lot of places. But I think most people believe that this race is likely to come down to those three states. If the president is able to hold everything in the South that he won before, wins again in Ohio and Iowa, both of which are competitive but which he won pretty easily last time, then those three states that you mentioned are the keys to the outcome. Throughout the fall Vice President Biden has held a lead – a lead of four points, five points, six points, eight points – you look at different polls they’re in different places. But he’s held a fairly steady lead.

But it is not necessarily an insurmountable lead, because we don’t know what the composition of the electorate ultimately is going to be like. We’ve all been poring over these early vote numbers, trying to – you know, trying to read clues, and get signs and signals. But it’s very difficult, because we don’t know what’s left among the people who haven’t voted and how they’re going to break. We assume that the election day vote will be much more heavily in favor of President Trump. We know that the early vote in many places has been more heavily in favor of Biden. But in those three states, this is – these could be close, or Biden might have a lead that’s sustainable and gets him through.

The other thing to know about those states is that none of them is likely to have full results on the night of the election. They have a lot of unprocessed mail ballots that will take hours and perhaps days before they’re fully counted.

MR. COSTA: Dan, just to be clear, you’re talking about Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

MR. BALZ: Correct, yes. Those three states. None of them – none of them can begin to process until Michigan on Monday and the other two on Tuesday. So it will be a slow process. Everybody needs to be patient.

MR. COSTA: Let’s talk about that point, because the courts, they are the cloud over all of this. And Judge Amy Coney Barrett this week became Justice Barrett, as the Senate confirmed her on a 52 to 48 vote. Democrats remain outraged about that process, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has certainly been taking a victory lap. Justice Barrett has not yet participated in election cases. But that could change in the coming weeks amid the court challenges referenced by Dan on vote counts.

Kristen, when you look at the court challenges on the horizon, what’s the preparation going on in both parties?

MS. WELKER: Oh, boy, a lot of preparation, that is for sure. And of course, questions to Justice Amy Coney Barrett, would she recuse herself, and she’s declined to answer that question. But that alone could energize voters to come out, and perhaps the president’s supporters to turn out. But we do know that both campaigns already have a robust effort in these critical states. They are ready if and when there are legal challenges to meet those legal challenges. And again, they are underscoring to voters that the key here is patience.

I have to tell you, I spent time in Florida this week as well, in Tampa, and of course that is a part of a critical swing district. And I spoke with election officials there. And what’s significant about Florida, of course, is that they are already counting those early votes. And so they say it is likely we will know the results of Florida if not on election night, soon thereafter. That is a big, big prize with its 29 electoral votes. But in those other critical states, that is where the action is going to be. And both sides say they’re ready for it.

MR. COSTA: Yamiche, I spoke to Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, this week. And he expressed a lot of concern about voter suppression in his state of South Carolina. Jamie Harrison, the Democrat, trying to topple incumbent Lindsey Graham, the long-time Republican senator. You track voter suppression around the country, what are activist groups and Democratic leaders saying behind the scenes about what they’re detecting on the ground?

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, there’s a lot of nervousness about voter suppression, especially looking at states like South Carolina, looking at states like Georgia. People are very worried that the Republican legislatures – which of course are many and plentiful in this country – that they will somehow find a way to have legislation as well as backing of voter suppression efforts. They’re very worried that there are polling stations that are going to be closed. They’re very worried about long lines. People have faced hours – sometimes four hours, six hours – to vote in this country.

Republicans have been the party that historically has had the most voter suppression in terms of allegations. We all remember that North Carolina judge saying that in that state Republicans targeted Black voters with surgical precision to try to suppress their vote. So I think there’s a lot of nervousness among Democrats. That’s why you’ve heard Joe Biden say, as well as Michelle Obama, as well as Barack Obama, vote early. Make a plan. Because Democrats understand that they might be up against voter suppression efforts, and they want an electorate that understands that this is an election that they want to see a blowout with, because any sort of issues with voter suppression, any sort of close elections, that makes people very, very nervous. That makes people feel like there might be litigation.

As Kristen said very smartly, both campaigns have amassed numbers of lawyers to get ready for this. The RNC telling me just tonight that they have $20 million set aside already for legal battles ahead. So what you see is both campaigns being very, very nervous. But on the Democratic side in particularly being nervous about voter suppression.

MR. COSTA: Dan, when we all wake up on Wednesday morning – we may end up staying up all night, of course – what’s your outlook for the U.S. Senate majority and the U.S. House? Does it remain in Democratic hands in the House and in Republican hands in the Senate? I mean, you look at some of these Senate races, Dan, like Michigan, very tight up there, Montana pretty tight, South Carolina also in the mix.

MR. BALZ: Bob, I think everybody believes that the Democrats will continue to hold the House and might in fact add to their majority in the House. In the Senate, Republicans are quite nervous about their ability to hold onto their majority. There are several races that they have pretty much given up on – Colorado being one, Arizona being another. We know that in Maine Senator Collins is in real trouble. We know that in Iowa Senator Joni Ernst is in trouble. There are – there are any number of races – and there are two in Georgia that look very close at this point and are likely to, one or both, go into a run-off. So I think at this point Republicans are fearful that the majority that they have will disappear on election night. But it’s certainly not a given.

MR. COSTA: And, Kristen, it appears the president’s running his own campaign. He was there in Arizona with Senator McSally. He brought her on stage for what seemed like a minute, and then she got off the stage.

She of course had a moment at a debate a few weeks ago where she wasn’t clear when she was asked whether she is proud to stand with President Trump.

MS. WELKER: Well, absolutely, and all of those senators who are in tough spots are being pressed on what they think about President Trump’s handling of the COVID crisis, and so that has created some real tensions. And I think that moment that you reference underscores exactly what we are seeing in these key races.

Here the president had her on stage – barely a ringing endorsement from President Trump for her. She was just there for a minute, as you say. And so it just speaks to how precarious some of these seats actually are. You talk about Georgia and that race between John Ossoff and Perdue, for example. Those are one of the – that’s one of the races that undoubtedly is going to drive turnout in that state. That’s one of the reasons that you saw Biden campaigning there earlier this week; not just because he believes he potentially could pull off a win in reliably red Georgia, but also because he wants to drive up the turnout for those critical Senate races in that state.

MR. COSTA: Let’s do a lightning round. We’re on the eve of the election – at least Washington Week – a few days before the election. Yamiche, what will you be watching on election night?

MS. ALCINDOR: Since we’re coming to a close, the first thing I just want to say is I’m so excited to be on this panel, especially with you and Kristen. So I will be watching all of you covering this race because I feel like all of you have just, I think, really approached this with such grace and such smartness.

That being said, I’m going to be watching this because I feel it’s a race about how people are feeling about the empathy that people are feeling because this is a race that is really life and death. When I was talking to voters, it’s not about policies and about the different political platforms, it’s about whether or not people feel like whoever they are supporting will help them survive and thrive in this. That’s something that’s different from past elections that I’ve seen. So I’m going to really be watching how people emotionally react to all that’s going on, and how people tell people about how they voted, and how they made their decisions based on their hearts and minds rather than on policy.

MR. COSTA: Kristen, you will be part of NBC’s special coverage on election night starting at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. What will you be watching?

MS. WELKER: Well, Bob, and I return the compliment to Yamiche and all of you – looking forward to seeing all of your coverage.

I’m going to be watching to see what the Latino turnout will be. There has been so much focus in these closing days on trying to drive up the Latino vote. We just saw Vice President Biden announce that, if in fact he is elected, he’s going to form a taskforce on day one to try to reunite those children – some 500 children who are separated from their parents under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, it’s a policy that has been reversed, but there are still those hundreds of children that haven’t been reunited with their families.

Was it too late to announce that type of initiative? Or will it have an impact? The Latino vote is going to be so critical in a number of these states, particularly in the Sun Belt – Florida; also states like Arizona. So that could make a big difference in terms of who winds up pulling out a win in these critical states.

MR. COSTA: Dan Balz, what will you be watching?

MR. BALZ: Well, Bob, in addition to watching the main battlegrounds like everybody in this panel tonight and everybody around the country, I’m going to be watching Texas. Texas is a fascinating story this year. We don’t know how it’s going to come out. I think at this point you have to say President Trump would still be the favorite.

But there has been an amazing amount of early voting in that state. Texas passed nine million early votes yesterday, continuing to add to it. They have already had more people vote early than who voted in all of the 2016 election. Every major urban county, with only a couple of exceptions, has already surpassed its 2016 total vote, and the ones that haven’t will be there certainly within a day or two or three.

So what is going on in Texas is the transformation that we’re seeing across other places in the Sun Belt – Arizona and Georgia being part of it. There’s a demographic change. There’s economic growth. There’s influx of new people. There’s the changing suburban vote that we’re seeing in other places around the country that’s also affecting Texas. So this has turned a state that Donald Trump won by nine points four years ago and that other Republicans have won by double digits for many, many years now being a competitive state. And if you talk to people on both sides, as I’ve done today, they each believe that they can win.

MR. COSTA: And what I’ll be watching as a reporter is what President Trump says. Does he declare victory or not as many states still wait for the count of their vote? How does he handle this crossroads for him politically, personally, someone who cares so much about his brand? It’s something to watch on election night at a critical moment for democracy. But we’ll have to leave it there for now.

Many thanks to our reporters: Kristen Welker, Yamiche Alcindor and Dan Balz.

And after a quick break, we will continue our special tonight on many PBS stations, and go deep into the battleground of Pennsylvania.

I’m Robert Costa. See you soon.

(Break.)

MR. COSTA: Inside battleground Pennsylvania with the voters who could decide it all. Will President Trump stun the political world once again, or will Vice President Biden win the state and the White House? The pandemic, of course, is a key issue.

ELIZABETH PARKER: (From video.) It was political for our president from the very beginning.

MR. COSTA: But so are debates on rights and race.

MICAH REAM: (From video.) He has been one of the most pro-life presidents of our generation.

ZOE STURGES: (From video.) I would like police officers removed from Philadelphia schools.

MR. COSTA: And the economy, it hovers over everything.

GUY BERKEBILE: (From video.) My company has lost literally dozens of jobs to the Chinese.

JOANNE KOGOY: (From video.) The working man is getting nothing.

MR. COSTA: Coming up on Washington Week’s Special Report.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: Good evening and welcome to this special edition of Washington Week. We’ll soon be joined by Kristen Welker, White House correspondent for NBC News. But first we begin a reporting journey into a state that’s more critical than ever: Pennsylvania. Its voters have been courted in recent days and at the center of the nation’s debate over voting rights amid a pandemic. The Supreme Court has even weighed in, allowing some mail-in ballots to be counted up to three days after election day. But tonight’s trek, it’s what we call a follow in the newsroom – a follow of the story I published four years ago in The Washington Post. I drove across my home state to hear from voters in small towns and cities, and those exchanges revealed so much. They hinted at President Trump’s coming victory. So this year I decided to go back, linked remotely this time by a camera crew, and we begin in western Pennsylvania – starting in the same place as last time.

Aliquippa was a thriving steel town until the J&L Mill closed in the 1980s. Now downtown is almost deserted, a union hamlet that went for Hillary Clinton, but it’s nestled in a county won by Trump and it’s the kind of place Biden needs to do well – but it won’t be easy.

John, it’s good to see you. It’s been four years.

John Rita’s father and two uncles worked at the steel plant, and so did he for a while. He told me in 2016 that he was skeptical of Trump, but this time around he’s leaning toward the president.

JOHN RITA: (From video.) I’m leaning towards Trump because he’s got a pulse on everything. I mean, he’s rude, he’s crude, he’s obnoxious, but you know what? Biden, he’s just – he’s just there. He said he’s from Scranton, but I don’t know.

MR. COSTA: John credits Trump with improving the economy here, which includes a new plastic plant on the banks of the Ohio River, and he worries the Democrats’ drift left could pull Biden along.

JOHN RITA: (From video.) He wants to give everybody free hospitalization, free college. Hey, man, nothing’s for free.

MR. COSTA: But Aliquippa’s mayor, Dwan Walker, backs Biden and says many here won’t buy the president’s populist pitch again.

Mayor, when I was driving through your city four years ago I heard a lot about China, I heard a lot about trade. President Trump convinced many people in that region on that front. Do you believe he could do the same again in 2020?

ALIQUIPPA, PA MAYOR DWAN WALKER: (From video.) Listen, there’s people sitting in bars right now in Aliquippa hoping the steel mills come back, but to say that you will be the one person that bring it back, nah, you set the bar too high for that. You made a promise you could not keep.

MR. COSTA: The economic drivers in the region are health care and energy, including fracking. Both parties claim credit for the new jobs.

Chris, you voted for President Trump in 2016 and plan to do so again in 2020. Why?

CHRISTOPHER BRETT: (From video.) What I’ve seen over the last, you know, three years has been a tremendous transformation. This was all dilapidated in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but when you drive by here, hiring, hiring, hiring – and even, you know, with the pandemic.

MR. COSTA: Elizabeth Parker didn’t vote in 2016. She thought Clinton was a shoo-in. This time the pandemic is top of mind.

ELIZABETH PARKER: (From video.) I’m a hospice nurse, and I think the saddest part of this pandemic is that it hasn’t been controlled and it’s been let loose.

MR. COSTA: Do you blame President Trump?

ELIZABETH PARKER: (From video.) I blame the rhetoric that is used right now. It’s almost cult-like the way his supporters are acting.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) All I know is I took something, whatever the hell it was, I felt good very quickly. I don’t know what it was, antibodies – antibodies. I don’t know. I took it and I said I felt like Superman.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) He says it is what it is. Well, it is what it is because he is who he is.

MR. COSTA: Next stop, Pittsburgh. Long known for football’s Steelers and steel, it’s been known in recent years as a hub for tech and medical innovation. But on the north side, which I visited in 2016, many were struggling then and now.

JACQUELINE THOMAS: (From video.) I’m going to vote for Joe because I think he’s wonderful and honest.

MR. COSTA: And Black Lives Matter matters here.

HAROLD WOOD II: (From video.) Pittsburgh has a problem. You’ve got policemen who only live in a certain area. How the hell are you going to communicate with people that you say you live in Pittsburgh with but you don’t know their neighborhood?

VERNICE JOHNSON: (From video.) Well, to me Trump is – I’m just going to say it – to me he seems like he’s for the rich and famous, and he’s racist.

MR. COSTA: Dr. Benjamin Davies lives in a Squirrel Hill section right near the Tree of Life Synagogue, where 11 people were murdered in 2018. Some voters here say the president’s rhetoric on immigration fueled the violence.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This is an invasion.

BENJAMIN DAVIES: (From video.) It does bring up that issue that people are really more able to express racist propaganda. That day still is just – makes me nauseous, and in fact three of my patients passed away. So yeah, I mean, I still – people still walk around with that haze, you know, from that event.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) There is no place for hate in America.

REGINA DONAHUE: (From video.) Christopher, oh, yes!

MR. COSTA: For Regina Donahue, the abortion debate is front and center. A mother of five and a Catholic, she was troubled by Trump’s character in 2016 but voted for him anyway, and she’ll do it again.

REGINA DONAHUE: (From video.) I’m a pro-life feminist and I believe that the Trump administration is – it believes that America is capable of providing women with the resources that they need to choose life.

MR. COSTA: Next stop, Somerset County – Trump country.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) It is great to be here in Somerset.

REPORTER: (From video.) Vice President Mike Pence greeted hundreds of people at the Guy Chemical facility in Somerset.

MR. COSTA: Guy Berkebile is a Trump supporter. He’s actually the Guy in Guy Chemical and says manufacturers like him are being hurt by China.

GUY BERKEBILE: (From video.) These are the unfair trade practices that we’ve been seeing for years and no one did anything about until President Trump came into office.

MR. COSTA: Guy, one thing I noticed when I was driving around Pennsylvania in 2016 is sometimes it would take me two to three to even four questions to get a person to reveal their support for then-candidate Trump. Do you believe those so-called quiet supporters are there again in Pennsylvania?

GUY BERKEBILE: (From video.) Yes, and I believe the silent majority is here in Pennsylvania and we believe in law and order. What a lot of the Trump supporters are afraid of is retaliation, that somebody’s going to come up and smack them against the head.

MR. COSTA: Mike Ream is a 20-year-old Evangelical Christian who is voting for Trump.

What about his character, Mike?

MICAH REAM: (From video.) Some of the things he says, some of the actions he does in his personal life I may not condone, but to me that’s not a key issue for a public servant. It’s really his actions, not what he says.

MR. COSTA: But in western PA there is also Democratic outrage over the Republican rush to install a new justice on the bench.

What went through your mind when you heard Justice Ginsburg had died?

ERIN SHIFFLETT: (From video.) It was a moment of profound sadness and then followed quickly by a moment of profound fear. My concern is that any justice that is put through by this administration will be a conservative justice who is not going to interpret the law appropriately, but instead will make sure that the ideals of this administration will be fulfilled.

MR. COSTA: And we met Everett Sechler. A former schoolteacher and tree tapper, he makes his own syrup.

Everett, you supported President Trump in 2016. Are you going to support him again?

EVERETT SECHLER: (From video.) I certainly am.

MR. COSTA: Why?

EVERETT SECHLER: (From video.) The present-day Democratic Party should be honest with Americans and change their name to the Socialist Party.

MR. COSTA: Everett, Vice President Biden keeps telling voters he’s a pretty down-the-middle Democrat. You don’t buy it?

EVERETT SECHLER: (From video.) I don’t buy it. We know that Bernie Sanders and AOC is going to lead him around by the nose.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) He has handed control to the socialists and Marxists and left-wing extremists.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I’m running as a proud Democrat, but I’m going to govern as an American president.

MR. COSTA: Our final stop out west was to Rick Telesz’s soybean farm in Volant. Rick voted for Trump in 2016. He says the trade war with China has hurt soybean farmers. He has not only decided to switch his vote, but went so far as to appear at the Democratic National Convention.

RICK TELESZ: (From video.) Past experience is if something doesn’t work for you it’s time for a change, and that’s why I’m supporting Joe Biden all the way. I’ll tell you, Donald Trump, whenever he campaigned in ’16, he gave us a hell of a sales pitch, promised us a lot of changes, everything positive, and I see nothing positive come from his administration over the years. So yeah, I mean, to me Joe Biden’s an easy choice.

MR. COSTA: Joining me is Kristen Welker, White House correspondent for NBC News and co-anchor of Weekend Today. She served as the moderator of the final presidential debate. Kristen, what’s your takeaway after you heard from those voters?

KRISTEN WELKER: What a great report, Bob, and I think it captures what is happening in Pennsylvania. You have some of President Trump’s staunchest supporters who aren’t going anywhere and you hear some of what we hear from President Trump on the campaign trail coming out of their mouths, concerns about Joe Biden and potentially a socialist agenda, which of course he would argue is not the case at all, and then you have some of those voters – the farmer who you interviewed who said he feels as though he’s been hurt by the trade war with China. So that is the tension, and of course those critical voters in the suburbs, particularly suburban women. That is where this race is going to turn, I think, in Pennsylvania, so we’ll be watching closely to see what happens in the suburbs. And then Philadelphia. This is a region that Hillary Clinton just didn’t get the same numbers that Barack Obama did. She was about 4,000 short, and so that allowed President Trump to run up the numbers in some of those more rural areas of the state. So a lot is at stake here, but that’s why you have Joe Biden, his top surrogates focused on Pennsylvania. President Trump, as well, he’s going to be there the day before election day. So the significance of the Keystone State cannot be overstated, Bob.

MR. COSTA: Kristen, I grew up in Bucks County outside of Philadelphia. You’re from Philadelphia. And that city, it’s a great city, City of Brotherly Love; it’s been roiled by protests and anguish following the police shooting of 27-year-old Black man Walter Wallace Jr. It’s been a tragic event, and Kristen, you pressed the candidates to speak directly to Black and brown Americans at the debate you moderated. As you track what’s going on in Philadelphia, our home city, what do you think this crisis means for the campaign?

MS. WELKER: I think that that critical city that you mention – and you’re absolutely right – has been devastated by those protests, by those who have lost their lives, and so I think that that is going to be one of the motivating factors undoubtedly on election day and in the early voting process as well. It will undoubtedly energize African American voters who, of course, are going to go to the polls not all voting for the same person, but again they will be voting, some of them, on that issue of Black Lives Matters. And those peaceful protests – the ones that have been peaceful – who will be energized to come out who are calling for change. Now, Joe Biden has said that he understands the message. He is someone who has said that he believes in the Black Lives Matter movement. But very different messaging from President Trump on this topic, as you know. In fact, he has put the focus on those who have tried to capitalize on the peaceful protests and have turned those protests violent. And so President Trump has used that to underscore what he calls his law and order messaging, to appeal to some of those suburban voters. So the question is, will he be able to offset what will likely be a large turnout in Philadelphia and the surrounding region, for all of the reasons that you’re laying out? That’s the key question.

MR. COSTA: And when you talk to your sources at the White House, what are you hearing about the final days as the president goes to Pennsylvania? Will it be about law and order only? Will other issues be discussed?

MS. WELKER: Well, look, if it were up to his aides and advisors, President Trump would put the focus on the economy, and he would have a very directed message, and try to argue that he is the candidate to turn the economy around and to help with the comeback, essentially. And of course, as we’ve noted before, he has spent a fair amount of time talking about the strong GDP number that we got earlier this week. But as you know, when he goes into these cities – particularly Philadelphia – and when he goes into Pennsylvania he has stressed that law and order message. So, yes, I think we’re going to hear more of that.

I also think you’re going to hear more of the type of language that we heard earlier this week, when he talked about you have to watch the governors. You have to watch what they’re doing, trying to essentially raise questions about the very validity of the election process, despite the fact that there’s just no evidence suggesting that there’s any fraud or that any of the votes have been miscounted. And so you have Democratic leaders of the state, the governor there Tom Wolf, pushing back against that narrative very strongly. And I do think that that type of messaging runs counter to what a number of his advisors feel is his most effective message. Voters think that he is strong on the economy, so they want him to stay on track and on that point.

MR. COSTA: I was talking to some strategists today, Republican strategists, and they said: The president wants to run against Governor Wolf, but it’s hard to run against Governor Wolf, they privately confided, because Governor Wolf is so low-key. He’s not like Governor Whitmer of Michigan, who’s in the headlines. Many Pennsylvanians aren’t really familiar with Governor Wolf.

MS. WELKER: It’s a really great point. And in fact, after President Trump took direct aim at the governor, he was pressed about that by NBC’s Craig Melvin. And was asked essentially: Do the president’s comments amount to voter intimidation? And Governor Wolf said, no. I just think he doesn’t understand how the process works, because the governor is not counting every vote that comes in. It’s rather something that happens at the state and county level.

MR. COSTA: Well, Kristen, we’ll leave it there. Really appreciate you being here. And we can all catch you on Tuesday as part of NBC’s special coverage on election night, starting at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

But now let’s go to our second leg of our trip. Let’s head east.

Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. While there is little love here for the president, the big question is: How much love for Biden? To win PA, Democrats need strong turnout.

CROWD: (From video.) (Chanting.) Black Lives Matter!

MR. COSTA: Just this week the city was once again a hotspot after the shooting death of a Black man by police. Zoe Sturges protested for racial justice this summer.

Zoe, I saw this picture of you, your hands in the air. You and thousands of others came out to protest in Philadelphia. But I do wonder, Zoe, will they come out to vote?

ZOE STURGES: (From video.) I hope so. And you know, I really hope that Biden sees the amount of enthusiasm there is for police reform.

MR. COSTA: Are you enthusiastic about Joe Biden and Senator Harris, or not?

ZOE STURGES: (From video.) I’m not super enthusiastic about them because Kamala Harris’s record as a DA, especially putting the parents of truant children in jail, is pretty upsetting to me.

MR. COSTA: Senator Harris has since expressed regret over that policy. But she and Biden still face the challenge Clinton had, getting that progressive voter to be enthusiastic.

JASON PETERS: (From video.) Voting for Joe Biden is like going to the bathroom in a port-a-potty. It’s not what you want to do, but if you’re considering it it’s probably your best option.

OLLIE MEIER: (From video.) I’m going to vote for Joe Biden because he’s the Democratic option. But I don’t love him the most.

MR. COSTA: Who were you more into in the primary?

OLLIE MEIER: (From video.) I was much more of a Bernie bro.

MR. COSTA: What about Biden?

ADELE SCHNEIDER: I really like him because he will unite the country.

MR. COSTA: Adele Schneider is originally from South Africa while Gordie Cohen is from Canada. Both are U.S. citizens.

GORDIE COHEN: (From video.) I’m disturbed by the roughly 40 percent who respect the words of what we see as a demagogue and his many untruths.

ADELE SCHNEIDER: (From video.) I’m feeling very much like it’s becoming how South Africa was under Apartheid. It’s beginning to feel like we have a dictator whose party just goes along with him.

MR. COSTA: And many other core Democrats like Biden. They see him as a continuation of the Obama coalition.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) For eight years Joe was the last one in the room when I faced a big decision. He made me a better president.

MR. COSTA: Is Joe Biden’s connection to President Obama going to help him in Philadelphia and outside of Philly?

HAZEL MCGRIFF: (From video.) I believe so, because they’ve already seen him for eight years.

MR. COSTA: Next stop, the Philly suburbs. This is where I grew up, and for decades it has been a crucial national political battleground – mostly White with a moderate streak. But the nation’s raging debates – they are raging here, too, especially the president’s law and order message.

TINA HAMILTON: (From video.) We have these policemen that have dealing with a lot, and they’re being demoralized.

MR. COSTA: Tina Hamilton organized a “Back the Blue” rally this summer in Upper Darby.

You’ve been out there protesting in favor of President Trump, supporting police officers. Why is that so important to you?

TINA HAMILTON: (From video.) Law and order, safety – I don’t want it to be like a free-for-all and a lot of crime.

MR. COSTA: Tina, did you support President Trump in 2016?

TINA HAMILTON: (From video.) Yes, I did. I think that’s he’s more for America than anybody I can think of right now.

MR. COSTA: There was unrest here in Upper Darby over the summer amid protests nationwide. The town has a Democratic mayor, Barbarann Keffer.

What’s changing politically in your area?

UPPER DARBY, PA MAYOR BARBARANN KEFFER: (From video.) The demographics are changing. Republicans are moving further west as part of the – kind of like White flight.

MR. COSTA: Nearby, GOP activist Chris Mundiath says he supported other Republicans in 2016, but ended up voting for Trump.

CHRIS MUNDIATH: (From video.) As soon as he became the nominee, you know, I was convinced that he would be the right person to lead the country. Donald Trump is my president.

MR. COSTA: This year Chris was featured in an ad supporting the president.

CHRIS MUNDIATH: (From video.) The Democrats are trying to overturn the election.

MR. COSTA: But in recent weeks, he turned.

CHRIS MUNDIATH: (From video.) I changed my mind because of Donald Trump’s debate performance, and Judge Coney’s “super-spreader” event, and the fact that he got coronavirus. That was very irresponsible. He didn’t care about masks. And I will not be voting for him this year in this election.

MR. COSTA: But there were undecided Republicans in the ‘burbs in late October. Mary Landers is a Republican who voted for Clinton four years ago.

MARY LANDERS: (From video.) I would say at that point – last time I wasn’t such a huge fan of hers, but I felt that kind of what would happen with Trump did happen with Trump; that he kind of would make everybody anxious.

MR. COSTA: But she’s not sure about Biden.

MARY LANDERS: (From video.) I’m concerned about a lot of things that are happening in various cities around the country: protests, the upheaval, and I’m nervous about that happening.

FRANK GUGLIELMELLI: (From video.) I’m a rare gay Republican, and I’ve lost a lot of gay friends who don’t talk to me anymore, but that’s their loss, not mine.

MR. COSTA: Former school teacher Frank Guglielmelli is a Trump supporter, fed up with the pandemic.

Why do closings frustrate you so much?

FRANK GUGLIELMELLI: (From video.) Because people are losing their jobs! People are losing their houses! Doesn’t that bother you?

MR. COSTA: Do you think that pushes voters –

FRANK GUGLIELMELLI: (From video.) Doesn’t that bother you?

MR. COSTA: It’s an economic crisis, no doubt about it.

FRANK GUGLIELMELLI: (From video.) Does that not bother you, sir?

MR. COSTA: As a reporter it bothers me to see anybody in pain.

FRANK GUGLIELMELLI: (From video.) There you go.

MR. COSTA: Do you believe all of these closings will push people toward Trump?

FRANK GUGLIELMELLI: (From video.) I believe the people who own these businesses and their families will be pushed towards Donald Trump, yes, I do.

STAN CASACIO: (From video.) Hey, out there in Montgomery County, Bucks County, Chester County, Philadelphia, this is Stan Casacio.

MR. COSTA: Stan is a radio host and Trump backer.

What’s your read on the race? Where does it stand?

STAN CASACIO: (From video.) My feeling is – is similar to what happened in 2016; that there is this enthusiasm that is not being picked up by anyone.

MR. COSTA: David DiGregorio is a retired postal worker and anything but a silent Trumper.

What about the Supreme Court vacancy?

DAVID DIGREGORIO: (From video.) Yes!

MR. COSTA: Why did you put your hands in the air like that?

DAVID DIGREGORIO: (From video.) I’m ecstatic! It took us like how many decades – we’ve got a majority on the Supreme Court, and now Democrats are, oh, can’t be, we’ve got to stack it. Look at the people he’s put there: Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett – these are like solid people!

You’ve got to get limited government. You’ve got to get the rule of law!

MR. COSTA: My final chat in the suburbs was with 23-year-old Hafiz Tunis, a Democratic councilman who is excited and inspired to vote this year.

What about Senator Kamala Harris? What has her entry into this race meant to you?

HAFIZ TUNIS: (From video.) I personally really was in favor of a woman candidate for president. As a Black American, it’s also very inspirational to see a strong Black woman.

MR. COSTA: Next stop, Luzerne County, up in the northeast. It voted for Obama twice, and then Trump in 2016. My sources in both campaigns tell me it’s the battleground within the battleground, and it’s not far from Biden’s hometown of Scranton.

We went to Exeter, where tributes to the military are everywhere, including banners showing residents who served. At the VFW Hall, the president is popular.

KEVIN SHANNON: (From video.) I think he’s doing a lot of good for the country. Anything that you could really ask for he’s been doing, you know. He needs to stay off Twitter a little bit and stop being cocky, but he’s the man for the job.

MR. COSTA: Down the street we found signs for both candidates. Joanne Kogoy has Biden signs in front of her house; across the street is a banner showing her in the Air Force. She doesn’t understand her neighbors who back Trump.

JOANNE KOGOY: (From video.) When the Republicans want to cut Medicare and Social Security, it’s like punching yourself in the face. I don’t understand; I really don’t. I think a lot of people in this area, maybe Luzerne County, I’m just guessing a lot of the immigrants, I think, might have bothered them. Trump started to preach his hate, and it just fed into them.

MR. COSTA: And at the end of every day, she follows a ritual.

JOANNE KOGOY: (From video.) I take my signs in every night. I don’t leave them out.

MR. COSTA: I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

Support our journalism

MORE INFO
Washington Week Logo

© 1996 - 2024 WETA. All Rights Reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization

Support our journalism

WASHINGTON WEEK

Contact: Kathy Connolly,

Vice President Major and Planned Giving

kconnolly@weta.org or 703-998-2064