SCRANTON, Pa. — If lawn signs are any guide, Donald Trump will win Pennsylvania in a landslide. In and between Scranton and Bucks County, Pa., on Sunday, I counted more than 20 Donald Trump-Mike Pence signs plus a few bigger-than-average signs and one digital billboard. I saw precisely no Hillary Clinton-Tim Kaine signs; even Gary Johnson signs outnumbered Clinton's.
But lawn signs are not a guide. Lawn signs are to elections what a slight cough is to a hypochondriac: Over-analyzed to the point of derangement and revealing precisely nothing.
What matters, and why I was in Scranton and Bucks County, is the ability of a campaign to get its voters to the polls. This is the fabled ground game, the field effort, the get-out-the vote, or GOTV, push. This is a realm where Clinton has been expected to outshine Trump for months, after Trump's flaky efforts in the primary and avowed lack of interest in the general. Given that Democrats tend to vote less regularly than Republicans, Democrats have spent decades honing turnout operations that they supercharged with the Internet to elect Barack Obama to the White House twice. Republicans haven't.
The margin between the two campaigns in their abilities to turn out voters, though, is narrower than I thought — at least in this critical area of the possibly critical state of Pennsylvania.
Why those places?
Why Scranton and Bucks County? Different reasons for each.
Bucks County is one of the fabled Philadelphia suburban counties that have regularly helped Democrats to victory in presidential contests in the state. It's not the largest of those suburban counties — that's nearby Montgomery County — but it's both large and has had a fairly narrow margin for the Democrat in contests since 1992. (Pennsylvania's electoral votes haven't been in the GOP column since 1988.) If Trump is going to win Pennsylvania, he'll need to carry Bucks County.
Scranton is in Lackawanna County. It's reliably blue — because it's reliably blue-collar. It's the sort of county that Trump, since the general-election campaign began, has claimed he can win — a place full of white, working-class voters whom Trump believes will surge to the polls and sweep him into office. Lackawanna County is an Appalachian coal county, with median household incomes and labor force participation rates below the state as a whole (and below Bucks) — and a greater density of white voters.
What are we looking for here, exactly?
The question I was hoping to answer in each place was what the two campaigns (or their allies) were doing to boost turnout on Tuesday.
Pennsylvania doesn't have early voting, meaning that nearly every vote cast will require someone heading to the polls on Tuesday. It's a lot easier to ensure that someone is voting on Tuesday when you call them or knock on their door on Tuesday, but there are ways to encourage turnout in advance. For one thing, you can make sure they know that the election is coming up. For another, you can ensure that voters know where they're supposed to go vote by providing information about their polling places.
Ideally, campaigns have a long list of voters who they know already support the candidate. That list is built by calling and knocking on doors, week after week, and persuading voters to support the candidate on Election Day. Then on GOTV weekend — as the weekend before the election is called — and up until the minute polls close, you call those same people back and remind them to vote. It's a simple pattern over the campaign: figure out who will vote for you, and then make sure they do. By GOTV weekend, the time for persuasion is over. The time for turnout has arrived.
The scene in Scranton
Scranton, like many other cities and towns in Pennsylvania, appears to have sprung up where it did in part because there was a section of ground that was relatively flat for a few acres in each direction. Surrounded by low hills covered with trees that glow orange in the autumn sun, the town wears its industrial history proudly. A small downtown is anchored by a courthouse that sits in a central square ringed with small storefronts.
In one of those storefronts, the local Hillary Clinton campaign is headquartered — at least for a few more days. Its front window offers passersby a checkerboard pattern of Clinton signs and ones promoting Katie McGinty, the Democratic candidate for Senate in the state.
Inside, a capacious room stretches back for about 100 yards or so. And when I walked in on Sunday morning, the room held two people, a staffer and a volunteer. A bit later, two women came in to walk precincts (that is, knock on voters' doors), but otherwise not much was happening. It was Sunday morning, though, never a terribly busy time.
When I returned at a bit after noon, though, the scene wasn't much different. One woman stood in front of a sign reading "Trump [heart]s incomplete packets," training one volunteer about door-knocking. The same staffer and volunteer I'd seen earlier were still there, too. Otherwise, quiet.
What that sole volunteer, Maureen Gray, 53, was tasked to do, though, was right on the money. Research has shown that one way to boost turnout is to go a step further than to tell voters where they're supposed to vote. By asking them to describe their plan for Election Day — what time do you plan to head to the polls; how are you getting there — you increase the likelihood people will follow through with the idea. The packets Gray was giving out included paper walk lists and cards asking people to describe their voting plans.
Gray told me that 60 to 70 people had knocked on 3,000 doors the day prior, a metric that's different than the number of people spoken to (a knocked-on door isn't always opened). The two women I'd seen earlier, Sheila Dugan, 78, and Judy Heinle, 75, had walked on Saturday. Then, they'd been sent to an area in southern Scranton with a heavily Hispanic community which, given what we've seen so far in this campaign, sounds about right.
Over a Tastykake, Dugan explained why she was volunteering so much: Clinton's experience and lifetime of commitment made her the best candidate, despite what critics might say. ("Most people you talk to don't know what the emails are about or why she's 'crooked,'" she assured me.) That wasn't the only reason, of course. The ability to pick Supreme Court justices was also important. "We can't afford a President Trump," she said, adding, "I hate to say the word 'president.'"
One thing that may have been depressing volunteer turnout at the campaign headquarters was the fact that a high-profile surrogate was in town: Vice President Biden. At a small college a bit north of downtown, several hundred people clustered into a gymnasium to hear words of inspiration from Biden, who famously hails from the area.
The number of people I saw protesting (three) outnumbered how many organizers I saw encouraging people to go volunteer (zero). Perhaps that happened as people exited; I didn't stay for the whole thing. But it appears as though the goal of that particular GOTV push was simply to have the vice president pop up on local television news reports two days before people were scheduled to go and vote.
On Monday, the Trump campaign's best surrogate — Trump himself — will hold an event in town. The operating theory of Trump's turnout efforts has been that he has offshored most of his field efforts to the Republican Party, choosing instead to spend heavily on digital ads, apparently hoping that Facebook reminders can be as effective as people knocking on doors. The main Trump office in downtown Scranton, shared with the local party, offered an initial hint that this strategy might be faulty. It is located in an office building around the corner from Clinton headquarters, and its front door was locked when I stopped by each time.
Head north out of town a bit, along roads snaking their way between steep hills covered with fall foliage, and you see a different picture.
In a small house festooned with Trump placards, a small team was coordinating phone banking. It was fairly empty when I stopped by first thing in the morning, too, with only Cindy Cuoco, 45, sitting in the corner working a phone. By noon, though, it was bustling, perhaps thanks in part to the opportunity to make 3,500 calls and win a T-shirt signed by Eric Trump and his wife.
Cuoco sat in front of four phones, dialing on multiple phones at once to increase the chances she'd get to speak to a voter. A resident of non-swing-state New Jersey, she comes in to the office regularly to make calls, she told me, trying to make 300 to 400 at each visit.
She's the dream voter for Trump: A Democrat who has only voted once in her life. And someone whom Trump won over. "I didn't like him at all" before the campaign, she said. "Being from New Jersey, he's in the newspapers all the time." But the fact that he wasn't a politician appealed to her.
Annmarie Tyler, who is in her late 50s, was a volunteer helping to run the show at the office. The office had 20 phone lines (Clinton's team mostly asks people to use cellphones) and offered multiple three-hour shifts for volunteers a day. Their walk program usually relies on a smartphone app to guide walkers, but if volunteers aren't at that technological level, they get paper packets. I explained that when I'd visited Trump's headquarters in New Hampshire shortly before the primary, the office was pretty dead. Tyler said I should have stopped by there, where there were more than 15 phones running even before the Republican Party nationally weighed in.
That said, the calls that were being made appeared to include a healthy dose of voter persuasion, even at this late date. Cuoco said most of the people she was talking to supported Trump, but not all. The results were "kind of mixed" when she'd been out walking on Saturday, which isn't what you want to hear three days before the election. The Trump campaign was giving out voting locations when they were making their calls, but they don't seem to have been pressing the issue.
I got some additional reassurance from both Gray and Tyler about the scope of their outreach efforts: The lawn sign war was evenly matched. Tyler said that her office had been responsible for putting out 30,000 signs; Gray said they couldn't keep Clinton-Kaine signs in stock.
For what that's worth, which is nothing.
The scene in Bucks County
An hour-and-a-half away, a bit northeast of Philadelphia, the campaigns were fighting on much different turf. Scranton's hills and small-town feel are replaced in Bucks County with flat suburbia — not without its charms, but not the sort of picturesque backdrop that makes its way into campaign ads.
Trump's headquarters in the county is in an office park, on the second floor of a blocky building filled with various small businesses. A quick elevator ride up to the second floor and you get to the office, which doubles as the Republican Party headquarters. A pleasant woman sitting in front of a big GOTV sign greeted me and walked me back into a small, crowded room where about 20 people sat at a row of tables behind phones. They appeared to be having a dinner break when I arrived, but it was hard to tell because I was then unceremoniously asked to leave by a staffer sitting behind a large computer monitor. As I walked out, I heard someone angrily explain to the pleasant woman that media was not allowed in.
So I stood outside talking to volunteers as they left.
Karen Arakelian, 62, was another New Jerseyite who came in to help Trump. She said that the responses on the doors had been mixed, again suggesting that the Trump campaign was still focusing on persuading voters. There are a few ways in which this can make sense on GOTV weekend, like if you have a population of voters who are strongly supportive of your candidate or if you've run out of identified supporters to contact. As a general rule, though, it's not how you want to be spending your time.
As I was driving from Scranton to Bucks County, the new letter from FBI Director James Comey was released. Arakelian hadn't heard about it on the doors, it seemed, but she said it "just proves there's corruption." Of the Clintons, she added, "They probably threatened his life!"
The day hadn't been as successful as when she'd walked the week prior, she said, suggesting that people had been "bombarded" with campaign nonsense and so were less excited about answering the door. (This is another reason that, late in the campaign, it makes sense to talk to people who you know like your candidate.) But the day wasn't a complete loss. "I picked up lots of these," she said conspiratorially, pulling from her pocket a half-dozen Hillary Clinton doorhangers, left by the Democrat's supporters at voters' households.
Another volunteer, Grace Godshalk, had been inside the campaign headquarters making calls. She said the same thing, that she'd had trouble getting people on the phone and that the results were about what you'd expect. She actually knew the Trumps as a child, having grown up near them (though she was too old to have babysat the candidate, she told me). Her reasons for supporting Trump were even more personal that that, she suggested.
"I lost my son in the Trade Center," she told me, a catch in her voice. "I think a lot of what Donald Trump wants to do — the wall and screening people, I support that."
In nearby Bristol, Pa., the Clinton campaign had another storefront operation running on the town's main strip. The space had been a sort of indoor marketplace before being enlisted in the 2016 war, with a bunch of false exteriors mimicking a narrow street lining either side of a hallway. The effect was of a small neighborhood of tiny homes, inside each of which on Sunday night random people were sitting at plastic tables using cellphones.
The office was much busier than the one in Scranton, with people coming in at a steady clip to return walk packets and those storefront callers humming. Kyle Serfass, 27, explained that the outcome of the day's efforts was the same as it was in Scranton: Call Democrats and get them to make a plan to get to the polls.
Danell Williams, 53, wore a bright orange shirt with a circa-2008 photo of the Obama family on it. He said that he hadn't heard from volunteers who were making calls about the Comey letter when we spoke, but he felt that voters had gotten a bit "squishy" after the "12-second news cycle" highlighted Comey's first, election-jarring report to Congress. But people he spoke with were still with Clinton, especially older women.
Outside the office, I caught up with Joe Sackor, 49, as he was leaving with his three daughters. They'd been out knocking on doors for Hillary Clinton — at his daughters' urging, he told me.
"I am a former refugee from Liberia," Sackor said, to explain why he was putting in the time. "Republicans have been saying crazy things about refugee policy," he said. Sackor works with an informal advocacy organization for refugees, making the issue particularly important to him.
"The stakes in this election are very high," he said. "One candidate is pro-immigrant, pro-refugee; the other has no clue." Not to mention that Trump was "demeaning women," as he put it — then pointedly looking at his daughters.
The campaign, he said, was "a great way for them to be a part of history."
The GOTV efforts of the two campaigns in Pennsylvania were a microcosm of the campaigns on the whole. On the one hand, Donald Trump has a lot of supporters who are actively behind him — but the campaign is making some simple mistakes that is keeping it from being as effective as it could be. Clinton's support is a bit less energetic (at least on this day, in these places), but the campaign itself has a system locked in place.
Early voting numbers suggest that Clinton's team is having some luck in driving turnout among its base. In Pennsylvania, we won't know how effective all that plan-making has been until polls close on Tuesday.