I Went Door to Door in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley: This is What I Learned

With election day looming, my anxiety was spiking. To calm myself, I drove across four state lines to knock doors for Joe Biden.

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Photo via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

by Tressa Pankovits, Associate Director of Reinventing America’s Schools

With election day looming, my anxiety was spiking. To calm myself, I drove across four state lines to knock doors for Joe Biden.

I had phone and text banked, but I wanted to canvas in one of the three Pennsylvania counties that flipped blue to red in 2016. My goal was to help, but I also wanted to interact with voters who may have helped usher in our recent national nightmare.

When I arrived in the Lehigh Valley, the campaign was in “get out the vote” mode. Headquarters assigned me a list of registered Democrats who hadn’t yet voted. My mission: chase ballots.

Over several days, I knocked hundreds of doors. Some voters needed logistical guidance. I met families waiting for election day to take a young member to the polls for their first presidential vote. The door was slammed in my face a few times. But I quickly observed a pattern with voters “sitting this one out.”

Surprisingly, their beef wasn’t with Biden. It was with what they called the “radical liberalism” and “socialism” of the Democratic Party. One Democrat practically shouted, “You’re not going to like who I’m voting for because of Democrats’ radical liberal B.S.!”

I was unable to catch that particular ballot.

I was more successful with a voter still living with his parents. He probably wouldn’t have spoken to me, but I caught him in the driveway with a freshly lit cigarette. He was trapped. Smiling with my eyes above my mask, I gently disabused him of the idea that Democrats’ platform included “defunding the police.” By the time he crushed out his butt, he caved. “I’ll ride in with my dad and vote,” he promised.

Of course, Trump furiously peddled disinformation about Biden’s record. But overheated “progressive” rhetoric from the primary campaign evidently lingered in voters’ memories, as well. That animus toward Democrats, in part, forced 76 million voters to hold their breath for a less-than-one-percent Pennsylvania win that didn’t come until Saturday.

It also endangered down ballot candidates. For example, demands from Green New Deal advocates for a ban on fracking almost cost Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) his seat. Rep. Abigail Spanberger complained of constant questions about “defunding the police” from worried voters in her classic swing district in Central Virginia.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the democratic socialist firebrand, has another theory: poor spending choices and weak digital operations made vulnerable Democrats “sitting ducks” in close contests. She also criticized candidates for not accepting her help in swing districts.

I can’t evaluate her other charges, but from personal experience I can say AOC’s “help” would not have been helpful with the voters I met. On the contrary, they worry about the direction in which she is trying to lead the Democrats. It was Biden’s refusal to endorse progressives’ dogmatic demands for fracking bans, defunding the police, abolishing private health insurance, open borders and more that made it possible for him to put Pennsylvania back in the blue column.

Pennsylvania isn’t the only place demonstrating this anxiety. Consider Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district. It’s a true swing district that, since its creation in 1883, has only once been held by the same party for more than 25 years. It was blue as recently as 2017.

There, progressive Kara Eastman, who ran on Medicare for All, lost by almost five percent to the incumbent Roll Call named the “most vulnerable of the cycle.” Simultaneously, Biden carried the district by a six point margin − a critical win in a district that comes with its own electoral college vote.

This should be a lesson for House progressives in safe seats who insist on trying to force voters to eat the elephant in one bite. AOC’s seat has been blue, with two exceptions, since 1927. Rep Rashida Tlaib’s (D-Mich.) seat has been blue since 1949. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) has been blue since 1963. Those are safe spaces from which to go big and bold, but indications are, voters prefer more incremental change.

As the New York Times’ David Leonhardt observed, a small but crucial segment of Americans chose to vote for both Mr. Biden and Republican congressional candidates. He wrote, “Democrats are almost certainly fooling themselves if they conclude that America has turned into a left-leaning country that’s ready to get rid of private health insurance, defund the police, abolish immigration enforcement and vote out Republicans because they are filling the courts with anti-abortion judges.” Wise words.

This is a fragile moment for the new administration. While Biden notched a solid win, more people voted against the 2020 Democratic ticket than any election in history. When members of the Biden-Sanders criminal justice task force called for defunding the police−something Biden never did−it cost votes in exurban Pennsylvania.

Democrats need those voters, just as we need the urban centers and the Black women who were instrumental to Mr. Biden’s victory. He knows what matters to all of them. He won’t be able to deliver much though, if Democrats lose January’s Senate runoffs in Georgia.

Georgia has voters like the people I met in the Lehigh Valley. It’s time to dial back left-wing daydreams and offer voters pragmatic help in solving their problems. Don’t make an already tough political battle tougher. And please, don’t make me drive to Georgia.

Radically Pragmatic. We seek to advance progressive, market-friendly ideas that promote American innovation, economic growth, and wider opportunity.

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