PITTSBURGH — Bernie Sanders’ fate in the Democratic primary depends on whether he can convince voters that a democratic socialist in his late 70s is the person most likely to defeat President Donald Trump in critical swing states like this one.
Yet Pennsylvania could be one of the most challenging states in the Rust Belt for Sanders to make his case. While he can point to the fact that he won Michigan and Wisconsin in the 2016 primary before Trump carried them later that year, Sanders was crushed by Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Joe Biden, a former vice president and Scranton, Pa., native, looms.
Story Continued Below
That difficult plight formed the backdrop of Sanders’ just-completed four-day swing through the industrial Midwest, designed to demonstrate that he can win back the states that delivered Trump the presidency. Sanders made abundantly clear that organized labor will be a linchpin of his strategy, as will his populist message on trade and health care.
A campaign rally in Pittsburgh underscored the importance of unions to his pitch. Before Sanders took the stage, a labor organizer pumped up the crowd, telling them that the University of Pittsburgh profits “off the work of graduate students who struggle to pay their rent and afford food.” Later, the Vermont senator took the stage and endorsed the graduate assistants’ two-year campaign to form a union.
“The University of Pittsburgh is a great academic institution, but I say to them: Your greatness lies not only on your research and your teaching, your greatness lies on how you treat your employees,” he said. “Sit down and negotiate.”
Sanders zeroed in on labor throughout his sprint across the state. He spoke at a meeting held by the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals and talked up his pro-union bona fides at a Fox News-hosted town hall held in the shadows of a former steel mill. A former worker at an Erie-based locomotives manufacturer that recently held a strike also spoke at Sanders’ Pittsburgh rally, which drew an estimated 4,500 people, according to his campaign.
Sanders’ team repeatedly has called attention to the Erie workers, attempting to show that he understands the symbolic power of what the union described as the “first major U.S. manufacturing strike of the Trump era.” During a town hall on CNN earlier this year, Sanders admonished the manufacturing company for handing out lavish bonuses to executives while lowering wages. The leader of their union, United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America Local 506 President Scott Slawson, also spoke at Sanders’ campaign kickoff rally in Brooklyn in March.
Recent polls show that significant numbers of Democratic voters prefer a contender who can win over one who shares their ideology. If Biden jumps into the presidential race, Sanders will need to prove to voters that he’s better equipped to take on Trump in Pennsylvania than the fellow labor ally.
Sanders will also likely need to show that he can win over moderates in the Philadelphia suburbs who were seen as critical to Democratic successes in the 2018 midterm elections.
“When you look at your path to getting the electoral votes to win the presidency, you see Pennsylvania. So Sen. Sanders is wise to choose Pennsylvania as part of his electoral mix,” said Mustafa Rashed, a Democratic consultant based in Pennsylvania. “But I don’t know if moderate voters around the Southeast … are going to be moved by messages of socialism and wealth distribution. They’re moderates.”
Sanders also campaigned in two other smaller Pennsylvania cities on the other side of the state, Wilkes-Barre and Bethlehem. Those destinations weren’t by chance: Both are in counties that voted for Trump after backing Barack Obama. Sanders also went on Trump’s favorite network, Fox News, for an hourlong town hall — which he dominated.
“If you feel like you’ve been forgotten by the federal government, by the American culture movements over the last decade or so, Sanders can come in and in very clear terms lay out a visible and defeatable enemy: the millionaires and billionaires, the corporations, the rigged system,” said Aren Platt, a Democratic strategist in Pennsylvania. “He’s talking to those voters directly, and not just in his message, but also in his actual physical location.”
Other candidates have made similar plays in Trump-friendly territory. After launching her campaign in February, Sen. Amy Klobuchar made her first campaign stop in Wisconsin. In an apparent dig at Clinton, she said she picked the state “because, as you remember, there wasn’t a lot of campaigning in Wisconsin in 2016.”
In an April memo, Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, said Sanders is well-positioned in Pennsylvania, as well as in Michigan and Wisconsin, because of his platform on trade, health care and unions.
“Voters in these states, across many demographic groups, are looking for a message that understands the deep, unaddressed concerns of working families,” he said, “and shows a commitment to fighting against the decades of policy in Washington that has led to job loss, closed factories and hollowed-out local economies.”
That memo also boasted that Sanders received donations from more than 18,000 Pennsylvania residents so far this year. The Sanders campaign said Tuesday that 55,000 people in the state had signed up to volunteer to help him.
In Pennsylvania, Sanders called on Trump ditch the new NAFTA agreement, which he said would hurt workers. He talked about his record of voting against free trade deals that he said have led companies to outsource jobs to other countries. And he attacked Trump for breaking promises to working-class voters by proposing to cut Medicare and Medicaid.
On immigration, Sanders struck a moderate tone while in the state, advocating for “building proper facilities” on the U.S.-Mexico border and bringing on more judges to expedite the processing of migrants’ cases.
Sanders’ trip to Pennsylvania also previewed the arrows headed his way. Val DiGiorgio, chairman of the state’s Republican Party, said in a statement that the Vermont senator’s policies would destroy jobs and hurt taxpayers’ pocketbooks.
“To quote our president, ‘America will never be a socialist country,’” DiGiorgio said. Sanders’ “support for dangerous policies like Medicare for All stand in stark contrast to American values and our notion of independence.”