Does the 2020 election "really matter"?
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Does the 2020 election “really matter”?

“This time, it really matters”

That’s the line one hears over and over again from political veterans of both parties as they talk about this year’s presidential contest in Pennsylvania.

Despite the thousands of hours spent by party leaders, campaign staff, and volunteers, and a seemingly endless parade of candidates and their surrogates every four years, Pennsylvania has long been a bit of an afterthought in races for the White House.

The reason is not complicated:  for two generations it has been assumed that a Republican carrying Pennsylvania has already won nationally by a comfortable margin, while a Democrat struggling in the Keystone State faced almost certain defeat across the country.

This was not unreasonable.  Not since Tom Dewey in 1948 had a Republican carried Pennsylvania while losing nationally—but all that changed in 2016, when three Rust Belt states assumed to be securely Democratic cast their votes for Donald Trump.

What that means for 2020 in Pennsylvania, as in Michigan and Wisconsin, is easy to summarize:  a presidential campaign conducted with extraordinary intensity.

Some signs of that will be obvious.  Traditional airwaves will be flooded with campaign commercials well before Labor Day.  In passing, by the way, I extend my sympathy to any candidate for any other office—Congress, Attorney General, and so on—who imagines that their message will somehow cut through the bedlam of presidential ads this fall.

The new world of social media will hardly be an apolitical oasis.  Despite a ban on political advertising by Twitter, every imaginable means by which people communicate using the Internet seems certain to be saturated with messages about the presidential campaign.

Hanging over all of this is another reality.  There are unquestionably voters genuinely unsure whether they will vote to give Donald Trump another four years in the White House—and they are as common and nearly as elusive as unicorns here in Penn’s Woods.

Which means that after the campaigns have made the owners of radio and television stations wealthy, and paid for the second homes of more than a few consultants and ad-makers, they will stand or fall based on the most fundamental of political tasks:  ensuring that your supporters are registered to vote, and that they go to the polls (or at least the metaphorical polls, thanks to notably-liberalized rules on absentee voting that go into effect this year).

That effort promises to be like nothing Pennsylvania has ever seen:  new technology, old-fashioned door-knocking, and neighborhood-level canvassing coming together both to find new voters and almost certainly to drive voter turnout to levels unheard of in recent decades.  Whether they are fascinated by every twist and turn of the campaign or horrified of the entire spectacle by Memorial Day, Pennsylvania voters will be courted this year as never before.

Michael O'Connell

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