READING — Ninety minutes northwest of Philadelphia on a Saturday this month, Democrats and Republicans in Berks County were fishing for support in distinctly different ways.
The county’s Democratic Party went old-school in Reading, calling a group of about 40 volunteers to Centre Park and then sending them out with campaign literature in support of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Each knock on a door was a single line in the electoral waters.
Ten miles to the west in Sinking Spring that same day, the county’s Republican Party was using a big-net approach. Volunteers stood along Route 422 holding signs luring drivers into a parking lot with the promise of a free yard sign in support of President Donald Trump. The party gave away 175 signs in two hours while collecting contact information for future voter outreach.
Clay Breece, the local Republican chair, said Trump creates a political energy completely different from previous presidential nominees like Mitt Romney, John McCain, or Bob Dole. The party is tapping into that.
“We basically latch on to the Trump fever phenomenon," Breece said. “We stay connected with them. They’re potential volunteers, potential donors and potential candidates.”
Trump won the county by 10 percentage points in 2016, four years after President Barack Obama lost the county by 1 point while winning a second term. Obama won Berks County by 9 points in 2008.
Breece called Berks County a harbinger for the state.
State Sen. Judy Schwank, a Democrat who represents Reading and eastern Berks County, called it a “microcosm” of the state — deeply liberal urban areas like Reading grow more conservative in waves out in the suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas like Maxatawny, Oley and Rockland Townships.
It’s also the reddest county covered by the Philadelphia media market, having so far defied the blue wave that turned onetime Republican strongholds in Philadelphia’s four collar counties into mostly safe Democratic territory.
Kevin Boughter, the Berks Democratic chairman, is considering the lessons of 2016 in hope of changing course this year. Boughter recalled laughing four years ago when he heard that Trump had won the Republican primary straw poll at the Oley Valley Community Fair.
“The things he was saying were, in my opinion, out there," Boughter said. "It was crazy stuff. But sure enough, there were enough people in Berks County who bought into it.”
Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Boughter added, didn’t pay enough attention to Berks County. The Democratic nominee didn’t visit during that campaign.
“The Obama campaign put together a heck of a campaign,” he recalled. “The enthusiasm and excitement for him in Berks County was off the charts.”
Democrats outnumber Republicans in Berks County, 44% to 40%, with 16% registered as independents or with other parties. But Democrats have lost almost 4,700 net voters since 2016, while Republicans have picked up almost 4,000 — a registration swing that matches what’s been happening in urban and suburban areas vs. exurban and rural areas across the state.
Reading remains a Democratic stronghold, though some party officials are wary of potentially soft support for Biden among Latino voters, as seen in some other states and in some public opinion polls. Almost 67% of Reading’s population is Latino.
But Republicans control the county government. Boughter said that’s because “we have a hard time getting the community in Reading to vote.”
“A lot of that has to do with the Latino community feeling left out,” he said. “And that’s kind of what we’re trying to focus on this year.”
Eddie Moran, Reading’s first Latino mayor, spent last weekend talking to business owners on behalf of the Biden campaign. Moran said volunteers on Saturday knocked on more than 1,000 doors, “in a dense population that has not normally come out to vote.” He noted that Reading has the highest concentration of Latino residents of any municipality in the state.
"The numbers will show Latinos are becoming more and more politically involved,” Moran said. “At the same time, the numbers in the past haven’t always shown or reflected that in the electoral vote.”
Moran cast the growing interest as a response to Trump’s actions in office.
“People realize things cannot keep going on this way,” he said. ‘We have been adversely affected by the current president’s politically and racially divisive policies and comments."
The local Democratic Party has hired two Latino contractors for community outreach — talking to voters in Spanish and encouraging local bodegas to put Biden signs in their windows. Boughter thinks Black and Latina women are behind Biden, but he worries Latino men will skip the election.
Donna Reed, a Democrat, has served five terms on Reading City Council, representing the north side of the city, where about 70% of the population is Latino. She agreed that Biden’s support appears soft there. “Women generally get more involved in the political process than men do,” said Reed, a former reporter for the Reading Eagle.
Schwank, who is seeking another Senate term in November, greeted volunteers at Centre Park. She said she sees many Trump signs in her district, but is now starting to see Biden signs, too. She’s still not sure which candidate will win the county.
“There’s a lot more motivation among Democrats this year,” she said. “Back when Obama was running, it was all about hope and energy. This time the energy is on desperation. We’ve got to make this happen."
Breece is eager to poach Democratic voters, even if they don’t leave the party.
“Trump fever is the phenomenon happening right now that is producing a political reality that no one’s ever seen before,” Breece said. “You’ve got Democrats that are switching parties. We know that. But for every one Democrat who switches parties, you’ve got six or 10 others who will vote for Trump but won’t switch parties.”
Several Republicans joined the sign giveaway, courting voters as they left. Annette Baker, the Republican challenging Schwank, doesn’t agree with her opponent on much. But she used the same word — “microcosm” — to describe Berks County’s political geography as a mini-Pennsylvania.
“When we listened to Donald Trump, we felt like we were being heard for the first time in a really long time,” Baker said. “And that’s what appeals to a lot of folks, particularly in Berks County.”
The Republican sign giveaway events offer a chance to register to vote or change parties. Breece said just 10% of the people who show up are not already registered. Asked if he encounters undecided voters who need persuasion, Breece said, “Not many.”
He found one in Kelly Meck, who stopped for a yard sign for her father but wasn’t sure about voting in November.
“My dad is a huge Trump supporter and he was just recently in the hospital so I figured I’d do him a favor,” said Meck, who voted for Trump in 2016 but doesn’t agree with some of the things the president says or does. “I’ll probably make up my mind [on Election Day.] I’m definitely not voting for Biden, I can tell you that. It’s either I’ll vote for Trump or not at all.”
T.J. Flowers and his girlfriend, Stephanie Affeldt, stopped for signs on their way to a nearby grocery store. Flowers said he supports Trump because of his policies on gun rights and small businesses. The couple said they see more Trump signs than Biden signs in their Wyomissing neighborhood.
“I like how he handles stuff,” Affeldt said. “He’s for the Americans.”