Is Philly Going to Decide the 2024 Election?

All eyes were on our region as the world waited to see who would win the 2020 presidential election. Will 2024 be a repeat — and are we prepared?

2024 presidential election trump biden philadelphia

Will the 2024 Presidential Election come down to Philadelphia again? / Photo-Illustration by Leticia R. Albano

“There are only four or five days in my life that I can remember where I was when something happened,” says political operative Kellan White. One of those, he notes, was Saturday, November 7, 2020.

If you need a refresher, that’s the day on which the grueling presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was finally called.

“The joy that was felt across the city when Trump lost — and I very much frame it as Trump losing,” recalls White of his enduring memory of that day.

At the time, he was working for then-City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart. Today, he’s the senior adviser for the Pennsylvania Democratic Coordinated Campaign for Joe Biden. “I was sitting outside of a coffee shop in Fairmount when all of a sudden, I heard someone banging on a pot,” he says. “Everyone was outside; people’s windows were open. You could hear cheering like the Eagles won the Super Bowl.”

The city — and the world — had been on pins and needles for days, waiting for the vote count in Philadelphia to wrap up and confirm what was becoming obvious in very slow motion: that Trump had indeed lost Pennsylvania to Biden.

“When they finally did call the election, around 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, people were just exuberant and gave a big sigh of relief,” remembers Brendan McPhillips, who was Biden’s Pennsylvania state campaign manager in 2020. “The team had a little bit of a celebration before heading down to Independence Hall, and that was really cool, because regular people in Philadelphia were so excited. A couple of us had Joe Biden cardboard cutouts and were standing outside, cheers-ing and enjoying the celebration.”

The narrative that emerged was, of course, that Philadelphia, where, Trump had just a few weeks earlier famously said, “bad things happen,” had risen up to defeat him. But some holes in that narrative are bubbling to the surface in a most uncomfortable way.

Fast-forward to Saturday, March 30, 2024: the official kickoff of President Biden’s reelection campaign in Philadelphia. Were there crowds of cheering supporters at the opening of his Philly headquarters? Exuberant signs? People dancing while wearing elaborate mailbox costumes?

Um, no.

The scene: an underwhelming office in the heart of Center City. In attendance: the usual political suspects, mostly older committee people, ward leaders, campaign staffers and elected officials. I could count on my fingers everyone under the age of 40. Holding the thing at 10 a.m. on the Saturday before Easter was a definite enthusiasm-killer.

Congressman Dwight Evans, who’s never been much of a hype person, tried to get the small crowd of Democratic Party loyalists to chant for four more years of Biden. There were no loud crowds in the streets, fired up and ready to go. The “hype” in the room was anything but. Which got me wondering: Where was the electrified city that had made all the difference in 2020 in electing Biden president?

The short, brutally honest answer: Convenient and civically galvanizing narrative notwithstanding, Philly simply wasn’t as pivotal to that big victory as we’d thought.

The reality is that Philadelphia’s role in Biden’s 2020 win was wholly a matter of timing — that arduous vote count — and not of robust turnout. And while that fact was easy to brush aside in the afterglow of people dancing in the streets outside the Convention Center, it’s unavoidable now.

“If you look at the data, Philadelphia’s turnout ran 10 points behind the statewide average and over 15 points behind the collar counties, so we underperformed,” White says of the shock he experienced once he realized the city’s actual voter impact in 2020. “As much as we were celebrating our great victory in the city, we didn’t outperform in Pennsylvania compared to other areas, including the Philadelphia suburbs.”

So while 2020 did see the city’s highest turnout since 1984 — 68 percent — that paled beside the statewide figure of 76.5. And while Biden won about 20,000 more votes in Philly than Hillary Clinton had in 2016, he actually lost ground, because Donald Trump gained 24,000 votes.

So two things are true at the same time: Philly’s slow vote count made it the nail-biting final call on the 2020 election, but the city didn’t meet the voter-turnout expectations or standards of the rest of Pennsylvania. And as an Inquirer analysis revealed, Philly’s share of the statewide Democratic vote plummeted in 2022. It’s a challenge that keeps senior Biden campaign staffers like White and McPhillips up at night four years later.

“We know that the Philadelphia region is a huge asset to our campaign because of how many reliable voters and reliable Democrats we have here,” McPhillips says of the Biden campaign’s strategy leading up to November. “But the role of the region isn’t just predetermined, and as a campaign, we also know that we can’t take any voter for granted.”

Now, with a presidential candidate rematch that many, many Americans are dreading, cratering enthusiasm for Biden, reproductive rights and diversity initiatives under attack, and the divisive ongoing war in Gaza, the burning question is whether more or fewer Philly voters will show up, and of those, how their votes will fall. Essentially, will Philly decide the election in November … and for which candidate?

Of course, while Philly’s role in 2020 may have been overstated, the city’s suburbs were absolutely pivotal.

Several counties across Pennsylvania, including Montgomery, Delaware, Chester and Lackawanna, logged more 2020 Biden votes than they had Clinton ballots in 2016. Biden even chipped away at Trump’s margin of victory in the super-red counties of Washington, Westmoreland and Butler, all of which saw their gaps drop by at least a percentage point from 2016 to 2020. Several factors shaped this outcome, but many political-campaign experts single out one demographic: women.

“Suburban voters — and particularly women — know that President Biden wants to protect our rights and our freedoms,” says Nikki Lu, now Pennsylvania campaign manager for Biden. “They knew that in 2020. They knew what would happen if Trump got elected again. They knew the damage that he did for four years, beginning in 2016.”

“In 2020, after a series of legislative attacks on women’s rights, white suburban women immediately took to the streets and organized for themselves and their daughters. They’re refusing to turn the clock back,” says Joann Bell, convener of Philadelphia’s Black Women’s Leadership Council. “The movement exploded in 2022, after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. This past primary, these women in Montgomery, Delaware, Chester and Bucks sent a message to Trump by supporting the defunct candidacy of Nikki Haley.”

Former South Carolina Republican governor Nikki Haley, who’d dropped out of the race in March, received about 17 percent of the vote in April’s Pennsylvania GOP primary — and logged close to 25 percent in Philly’s suburbs. It said something that Haley could still score in the double digits against Trump, who was undoubtedly his party’s front-runner from the start. Such continued opposition to Trump from his own party has been viewed as an advantage for Democrats, who argue that the former president’s controversial positions on reproductive rights created this predicament.

“As we saw in last November’s judicial races, the abortion conversation has gotten away from the Republican Party, with candidates either seeking to avoid the conversation altogether or taking positions that alienate the majority of the electorate,” says Joe Hill, managing director­ of Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies.­ He says Democrats can win the suburbs again in 2024: “I think this trend will persist, particularly in light of the fact that Trump appointed the justices­ responsible for casting the deciding votes for Roe being overturned. What remains to be seen is whether gains made in the suburbs will make up for what appears to be a trend toward declining Black turnout.”

“Turnout and margin will be the make-or-break for Trump and Biden,” agrees public affairs executive and longtime political observer Larry Ceisler. “Bedrock issues like abortion laws should still motivate suburban women, and other factors like the Stormy Daniels testimony should add to that motivation. The democracy argument is also compelling. The perception that the economy is not doing as well makes this a tougher lift. Although the metrics are good, inflation is a problem, because that is what voters experience.”

It’s true that while the suburbs appear to be maintaining their fervor for Biden, other demographics might be waning. As Trump’s pitfalls on women’s rights have fired up women voters outside the city, new problems are rearing up elsewhere. From the polarizing war in Gaza to waning enthusiasm around this election, the Biden campaign has its work cut out in terms of energizing diverse and younger voters.

Though Biden previously earned more votes than any presidential candidate in U.S. history, alarming poll numbers reflect the public’s concerns about his fitness for office.

Even back in February, an NBC News poll revealed that 76 percent of voters were concerned­ about the 81-year-old’s age, compared with 61 percent who had concerns­ about Trump’s legal challenges. (Biden’s recent disastrous debate performance has only added to these concerns; at the extreme, some question whether he will even remain the party’s nominee.) And polling in the same month from Echelon Insights, in partnership with media outlet Puck, showed that Biden had a “Democratic­ enthusiasm deficit” among Gen Z and Black voters. Reports on how “unenthusiastic” younger voters are overall about the Biden/Trump rematch have been an ongoing discussion.

“Often when we doubt whether voters will turn out in an election with Donald Trump, they turn out in force, both on our side and theirs,” says Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster and president of Global Strategy Group. “I believe we are going to have a high-turnout election this cycle, as the voters will continue to internalize the massive stakes of the coming election.

“Polling has been all over the place, particularly looking at voters of color,” Pollock adds. “This is one of the places where the Biden campaign will be able to use their massive financial and organizational advantage and where the Trump campaign is falling woefully short.”

In light of the ominous ongoing reports and polls, campaign staffers and political consultants in Philly differ when it comes to interpreting these findings. “The Democratic Party has faced difficulty mobilizing the support of Black voters since 2012, particularly without a unifying force like the nation’s first Black president,” says Joe Hill. “Turnout and raw votes in Philadelphia have dropped significantly. The trends are getting more stark in each election cycle.”

“The energy I see in young voters is in the cease-fire and stop-the-bombing-in-Gaza movement, which has many African Americans quietly seething over the loss of life — particularly women and children — in the Gaza Strip,” says Bell. “Many liken this to the former apartheid regime in South Africa and the total disregard for the lives of Black and brown people. Biden is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to support for Israel.” It’s challenging, she says, “to support the people of Israel while negotiating with a far-right Israeli government led by their prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu.”

But some observers are pushing back against this perception that the Biden campaign is struggling to engage Black voters and even Latino voters, who have been voting more conservatively in recent elections.

“Every year and every presidential election,” says White, “we’re in February, March, April, and we have people saying, ‘Oh man, the African American vote is looking a little sketchy’ and, ‘Oh no, the Republican candidate is making gains with women and young people’ and, ‘Oh man, are Black people gonna turn out? Are women going to turn out?’ And every year, by November, we’re like, ‘Oh man, there was historically high African American turnout.’

“This is what’s happening now, and it’s why I have strong confidence that Trump’s gains among African American communities in Philadelphia are going to be zero,” he adds. “Zilch. Nothing. We’re going to look up, and we’re going to be like, ‘Goddamn, the African American community turned out for Joe Biden.’”

“The cultural conservatism of some Hispanic voters isn’t different today than it was yesterday,” Pollock says. “And they are still consistently voting for Democrats. There is a false assumption some people make, which is that given that cultural conservatism, you can’t talk to Hispanic voters about abortion. That’s just wrong and has been proven wrong time and time again.”

“First of all, I reject the idea that Latinos­ are largely conservative,” Lu, Biden’s Pennsylvania campaign manager,­ says of recent polling trends showing an increase in Latino voters supporting Trump. “That’s absolutely not true. Latinos are not a monolith.” She points to recent initiatives the campaign has launched statewide, including “Latinos con Biden,” which staged events in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg and several gatherings in Philadelphia that involved Latino leadership and community members expressing their enthusiasm for the President. Lu says the campaign has plans to open an office in a Latino neighborhood in the city with more bilingual campaign materials and staffers.

“The Hispanic vote is relatively small in Philadelphia, but these voters have not been ignored by the Biden campaign or other campaigns previously,” Pollock says. “Look at what Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman did — they both spent time and money talking directly to Hispanic­ voters. And the Biden campaign has already committed massive resources to talking to these voters, and many other constituencies, for the remainder of this critical election.”

Regardless of where political analysts and campaign supporters differ on voter enthusiasm, they all agree that the vote-count process must improve this time around, given the exhaustingly slow pace in 2020 and how that fed easily into conspiracy narratives. The last presidential election was held on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. It wouldn’t be until four days later that Philly would ring the bell on declaring Biden the winner.

One reason the city became the focal point of the count was the partisan politics surrounding Pennsylvania’s first-ever universal mail-in voting. For years, Republicans in Harrisburg have blocked practical legislation supported by county officials from both major parties­ that would allow pre-canvassing — ­the counting of mail-in ballots prior to Election Day. Pre-canvassing would enable election administrators to process ballots and thus report election results more quickly. A bill just narrowly passed the state House that would approve a seven-day pre-canvassing period, but that bill would need to pass the Republican-led state Senate, which seems unlikely.

This time around, the City Commissioners Office, which oversees elections, intends to do what it can to speed up the process. “We have made upgrades to our election infrastructure, and we may be able to determine a winner on election night,” says Omar Sabir, chair of the City Commissioners. “However, the process could be much faster if the state allowed for pre-canvassing. About 70 percent of Philadelphia votes in person, but roughly 30 percent vote by mail.”

The City Commissioners Office, along with the Pennsylvania Department of State, has done a lot to improve the rate at which mail-in votes are counted, including investing in new ballot tabulation machines. Throughout this election cycle, a Coordinated Campaign PA Voter Protection and Access team will be advocating for the testing and documentation of those machines, to ensure that Philly election administrators are fully equipped to count the vote in November without problems.

“I don’t think it’s going to take as long to count this time, because we’re not in the pandemic,” McPhillips predicts. “In 2020, there were so many people voting by mail because they didn’t want to come out and vote in person. It was also the first election where we had vote-by-mail in Pennsylvania, so it was a new process for all the county election administrators. At this point, folks have learned a lot, processes have gotten smoother, and more people are voting in person again.”

With November a few months away, there’s still the potential for Philly voters to get as motivated about this election as they were about 2020’s. Without the onus of adjusting to the new realities of the pandemic, Democratic campaign teams seem to know where the pitfalls are and can get out ahead of them.

But concern over voter enthusiasm lingers. “I’m extremely worried that Philadelphia is sleeping while there is an imminent threat to our democracy,” Bell says of the challenges still shaping November’s election. “Some have been lulled into a false complacency and have adopted the mindset that there’s little difference between the political parties.­ The attitude is that there’s a pox on both parties and that my life will not be affected­ regardless of who’s elected.”

However, recent citywide election outcomes have given others more faith that things could change for the better. “I think the new mayor, Cherelle Parker, can be helpful in the suburbs and certain parts of the state,” says Desiree Peterkin-Bell, former senior staffer for mayor Michael Nutter and now president of DPBell & Associates, a public affairs and social impact firm. “She would be an amazing surrogate focused on women’s reproductive rights and voting rights. Remember, you didn’t have a strong Philadelphia surrogate last time.”

Parker’s mayoral predecessor, Jim Kenney,­ endorsed U.S. Senator Elizabeth­ Warren during the 2020 Democratic presidential­ primary and stayed mostly below the radar after she lost that spring. This time around, it’s clear the city’s first-ever woman mayor doesn’t intend to ride things out: She’s already made campaign appearances with the President. Parker’s example could inspire Philadelphians to turn out for Biden as enthusiastically as they recently did for her.

Published as “Is Philly Going to Decide the 2024 Election?” in the July 2024 issue of Philadelphia magazine.