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Republicans look to Philadelphia riots to bolster Trump in Pennsylvania suburbs

David M. Drucker

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Pennsylvania Republicans believe rioting in Philadelphia could lend President Trump badly-needed support among frightened suburban voters in a contest so close that every vote in the state will count.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden has enjoyed a small but steady lead in this crucial battleground on the strength of strong support in the suburbs surrounding Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh.

But riots erupted in downtown Philadelphia this week after a black man armed with a knife was shot and killed by police after he resisted arrest. The resulting violence led some Republican insiders to speculate that the events might bolster the appeal of Trump’s “law and order” message with voters in the Philadelphia suburbs, undermining support for Biden at a crucial time.

“There’s no doubt that lawlessness and rioting in the city is going to have political impact in the suburbs,” said Charlie Gerow, a GOP operative in Pennsylvania. “Even some suburbanites who otherwise aren’t enthralled with Trump see him as key to restoring law and order. Their personal safety is a top issue for them.”

As further evidence Biden might have trouble in Pennsylvania’s suburbs, some Trump supporters are pointing to a New York Times story that suggests Biden might be falling 9 percentage points short of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s performance four years ago. The projections, based on averaging the results of two recent polls of Pennsylvania voters, were criticized by some polling analysts as a misreading of the data.

Democrats are dubious regardless. They do not believe that Biden is on track to underperform Clinton in the suburbs and dismiss the notion that the civil unrest in Philadelphia will boost support for Trump in the surrounding suburban enclaves.

Democratic strategists argue many Republicans have an outdated view of the suburbs as bastions of predominantly white voters who are unconcerned about racial issues. Trump has been unable to capitalize politically on civil unrest hitting American communities throughout the summer and fall, they contend, because suburban voters view the president as a polarizing figure who inflames tensions.

“The idea that Trump is pushing that white people in the suburbs will be scared off is antiquated and based on racist assumptions that are just not borne out by any sort of data,” said Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for Priorities USA, a group that is the Biden campaign’s designated super PAC and that has polled Pennsylvania extensively.

Biden has been critical of police treatment of blacks in the wake of George Floyd’s death and vowed to lead an overhaul of local law enforcement if elected president. But Biden also has criticized protests against police brutality that turn destructive.

In comments to reporters Wednesday, he appeared cognizant of the risks the riots in Philadelphia might pose to his campaign, emphasizing that there is “no excuse whatsoever for the looting and the violence” in reaction to the police shooting in Philadelphia. Biden leads Trump by 3.8 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls in the state.

“I think to be able to protest is totally legitimate. It's totally reasonable,” Biden said. “But I think that the looting is just as the victim's father said, 'Do not do this … you're not helping. You're hurting. You're not helping my son.’”

“There are certain things we're going to have to do as we move along,” Biden continued. “And, that is how we deal with how you diminish the prospect of lethal shooting in circumstances like the one we saw. That's going to be part of the commission I set up to determine how we deal with these.”

Jeffrey Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College in Pennsylvania, said events in Philadelphia were unlikely to influence the vote.

Brauer said part of the problem was time. Millions of Pennsylvanians have already voted early. The final days of this campaign are mostly about motivating existing supporters, rather than changing minds of a hardened electorate. He also said that there is little recent evidence Trump’s appeals on domestic security work with voters outside of loyal Republican voters he can already count on to pull the lever for him.

“While Trump’s ‘law and order’ messaging certainly appeals to his base supporters, it is doubtful that most suburbs, including the Philadelphia suburbs, are fearful that civil unrest will be spreading to their towns anytime soon,” Brauer said. “Trump tried to play a similar card in 2018 with a Latin American caravan invading the border, which never came to fruition.”