early and often

Will the Unrest in Philadelphia Affect How Pennsylvanians Vote?

Demonstrators clash with riot police in Philadelphia on Tuesday during a rally responding to the death of Walter Wallace Jr. Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/REUTERS

Pennsylvania National Guard troops were dispatched to Philadelphia on Friday in an effort to quell unrest there after four days of protests in the wake of the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philadelphia on Monday.

The troops arrive as more than 200 people have been arrested and dozens of police officers injured, and as Philadelphia leaders have asked residents of some neighborhoods to avoid going outside in the evenings as the protests gather force.

The turmoil has continued with Election Day looming in a state that both the Joe Biden and Donald Trump campaigns see as crucial to their path to victory. Biden currently has a five-point lead in Pennsylvania, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average — but his campaign is counting on massive turnout in some of the very precincts that have seen days of unrest. Meanwhile, Trump’s strength lies in unaffected rural portions of the state.

“During other incidents [of police violence and subsequent unrest] things settled down after a while, but this is an active situation days before we vote,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. For the Biden campaign, pulling out voters in urban cores is central to avoiding the mistakes that Hillary Clinton made in 2016, when she lost the state by 44,000 votes; Clinton saw a drop of over 30,000 votes in Philadelphia alone, compared to 2012 numbers. The Trump campaign by contrast has long believed that the protests and riots that have engulfed the country after police killings of African Americans will benefit them politically, by turning off moderate and suburban voters.

So far that prediction has not been borne out — and it’s not at all clear that it will in Pennsylvania.

After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis set off days of protests and riots around the country, political strategists in both parties believed it would help Trump. The president, after all, has been running relentlessly on a message that the entire Democratic Party is little more than a wing of antifa, and that their nominee’s sympathies lie with protesters and against the police. But the polls scarcely moved, and to the extent that they did, they hurt Trump, as the president seemed to be encouraging violence with tweets like, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Then when police shot unarmed Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and armed militias squared off against protesters there, party strategists again wondered if it would boost Trump in that critical swing state. But again, polls only inched more in favor of Biden, even as former top Trump campaign adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News that “the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns,” the better it would be for Trump.

Now, days away from the election, police were once again captured on video fatally shooting a Black man, Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old with a history of mental health problems who was carrying a knife, in West Philadelphia. And once again a critical swing state has been plagued by nights of protest and violence, while President Trump cut an ad falsely accusing Biden of refusing to condemn the protests and telling an audience in Nevada: “You’ve got to have law and order. You’ve got to have respect for our police.”

There has not been enough polling to indicate whether or not this latest cycle of violence and protest will move the needle when others have not. But Republicans are making a case that this time might be different.

“My sense is that it will have a spillover effect into the suburbs and begin to scare people who live along the Main Line,” said Charlie Gerow, a longtime Republican strategist in the state, referring to an upscale set of commuter towns. Gerow also noted that there have been reports of scattered looting beyond the city lines. “The proximity to Election Day makes this a little different,” he said. “You have a small — and I will admit it is very small —amount of people who are undecided or who are Republican but leaning Biden who now have to confront the fact that Biden refused to talk about the riots at the Democrat National Convention. And these riots will take a definite share of the vote if people are scared or even intimidated to leave their house and have not yet early voted.”

Democrats inside and outside the Biden campaign have said that they don’t think the unrest, which has included violence in the streets and the looting of big-box stores, will necessarily hinder their prospects. Voting has surged in the city since the start of early voting last week, and many people have waited in line for hours in the neighborhoods that saw unrest this week.

Indeed, many organizers working on the race think there’s a possibility that the shooting could further galvanize people to vote, much as it galvanized them to protest.

“You would think folks wouldn’t want to come out of their houses, but people are seeing the violence we see in our communities every day and the bigotry that the president spews every day about our communities,” said Nicolas O’Rourke, state organizing director of the Pennsylvania Working Families Party. O’Rourke lives ten blocks from where the shooting took place, and said, “The uprisings that we are seeing are what is going to swing the election.”

But with less than 100 hours until polls close, that remains to be seen, according to Madonna, the Franklin and Marshall professor and a close observer of Pennsylvania politics. “The Biden campaign had been working very hard to get African American men who don’t always vote in high numbers out to the polls, and I think we just have to see how all of this plays out,” he said. Citing information from a Democratic data firm, Bloomberg reported that “nearly 75% of registered Black voters have not yet voted” in Pennsylvania.

The state has also seen a number of lawsuits, mostly from Republicans, that have attempted to limit the ability of people to vote or have their vote be counted. On Wednesday the Supreme Court rejected a last-minute attempt from the state’s GOP to overturn a three-day extension of the absentee-ballot deadline.

“We are going to get our vote on. We are going to participate,” said Vincent Hughes, a state senator from Philadelphia. “We are resolute. The worst thing you can do to Black people is try to take our vote away. You do that and you get exactly what is coming to you.”

Will the Unrest in Philly Affect How Pennsylvanians Vote?