IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump's Pennsylvania playbook breaks with traditional path to victory

The president's rally Thursday in Latrobe, a small town in the southwest part of the state, highlights his campaign's focus on rural areas to claim a repeat win.
Image: President Trump Holds Campaign Rally In New Hampshire
President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Londonderry, N.H., on Aug. 28.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will hold a campaign rally in the key swing state of Pennsylvania on Thursday — but the event won't be held in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs that past Republican nominees like Mitt Romney have taken pains to court.

Instead, he'll be in the southwest Pennsylvania town of Latrobe, population roughly 8,000.

Four years ago, Trump got more than 116,000 votes from Westmoreland County, where Latrobe is located, compared to Romney's 103,000 votes in 2012 — a significant difference in a state he won by less than 1 percentage point, or 44,000 votes.

And so the president is focusing his re-election efforts in Pennsylvania on smaller towns and rural areas, flipping the playbook that has traditionally called for statewide candidates from either party to focus resources on the state's largest city and its surrounding counties.

"It used to be the be-all and end-all that you had to win certain counties, and you could only lose Philadelphia by so much," a Trump campaign official said. "People haven't really learned anything about what happened in Pennsylvania in 2016. They are still hung up on the old map."

Past campaigns have heavily emphasized racking up votes in Philadelphia and its suburbs, where about half of the state's population is concentrated.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton called on her top surrogates to campaign for her in the Philadelphia area in the last few days before the election, hosting a concert with Katy Perry and a massive downtown rally with Barack and Michelle Obama.

In 2012, Romney spent the Sunday before Election Day in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburb of Bucks County, and the campaign made a hard play to win over upper-middle-class suburban women.

The 2016 race reshaped the Trump campaign's strategy about how to win Pennsylvania, the official said.

Trump lost the core counties around Philadelphia by a larger margin than Romney had in 2012. But he turned out much higher numbers of supporters in and around mid-size and smaller cities, becoming the first Republican to win the state in a presidential election in decades.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and alerts

As president, Trump has visited Pennsylvania nearly 20 times, usually opting for places like Old Forge, Wilkes-Barre and Erie. The few trips Trump has made to the Philadelphia area have been for events like the annual Army-Navy football game and a Republican conference.

With 20 Electoral College votes, Pennsylvania is a critical state for both Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Only California, Texas, Florida and New York offer more electoral votes.

The Trump campaign has viewed Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin as a block of states where it can lose two out of three but not all three — assuming it is able to hold the rest of the states Trump won in 2016, several of which appear to be uphill climbs. Lose any of those and the Rust Belt trio become even more critical.

A Pennsylvania poll released Wednesday by Monmouth University showed the race tightening, with 49 percent of registered voters in the state backing Biden and 45 percent behind Trump. Trump has yet to claim a lead in any statewide poll since spring.

The strategy to focus resources away from Philadelphia is apparent in the campaign's ad buys.

Among the campaign's top 10 ad markets nationwide from Labor Day to Election Day is the blue-collar Pennsylvania region of Harrisburg, Lancaster, York and Lebanon, which ranks above Philadelphia based on gross rating points — a measure of the size of an advertising campaign, rather than dollars spent, because it costs significantly more to buy airtime in larger cities.

Trump used some of his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last week to accuse Biden of wanting to "abolish" natural gas production, an industry that has lifted the economy in rural western Pennsylvania.

Biden, who often cites his Scranton roots, pushed back hard.

"I am not banning fracking. Let me say that again: I am not banning fracking. No matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me," Biden said Tuesday in Pittsburgh.

The Biden campaign dismissed the president's odds of a repeat win. "People in every corner of the Commonwealth are feeling the pain of the Trump presidency — from an unemployment rate that's soared to nearly 14% under Trump's watch to his failed coronavirus response that cost the lives of over 7,700 Pennsylvanians," Michael Feldman, Pennsylvania spokesperson for the Biden campaign, said in a statement.

The Trump campaign says its strategy is showing signs of repeat success, pointing to a long-term narrowing of the Democratic registration advantage in the state — which stands at about 700,000, according to the Pennsylvania State Department — and a two-year investment in a campaign field operation.

But the campaign's focus on rural areas might be born out of necessity, said Terry Madonna, a professor and the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

"Trump's probably going to work on engineering his base turnout. For the most part, his campaign is about the base anyways," Madonna said, noting that Democrats had strong showings in the Philadelphia suburbs in the 2018 midterms and the 2019 municipal elections.

"The Democratic Party is now the party of the cities and the suburbs," he said. "The Republicans really have a huge challenge in the suburbs."