Five key counties to watch

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Labor Day has long been the traditional kickoff for the fall campaign season, especially in presidential years.

Though it may sound odd in this era of goons drunk on toxic tribalism brawling in our city streets and self-interested doomsaying about the imminent death of our glorious old republic, this was once considered something of a time of fun and frivolity.

The tradition of “treating” – rewarding one’s partisan supporters with free food and lots of ardent beverages – added a great deal to the fun. Those pints of Old Crow handed out to coal miners and steelworkers for their votes in the middle of the last century had pedigrees dating back to colonial days. Marching bands, lots to eat and drink… sounds kind of like a college football tailgate.

But what really made things more fun was that quite often both sides were genuinely excited about the future.

Think about this: In 1963, as it looked increasingly like Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater would capture the Republican nomination the next year, he and his good friend and former Senate colleague, President John Kennedy, hatched a plan to campaign together in 1964.

Goldwater and Kennedy would barnstorm around the country for a series of speeches and debates “like politicians should do,” Goldwater said wistfully after Kennedy was assassinated. “Standing up to state our points, our issues, and then debating each other.”

We will never know what might have been because Lyndon Johnson, never content to win when he could win dirty, smeared Goldwater as a lunatic bent on nuclear war and a massive escalation in Vietnam (the same escalation Johnson would undertake).

But just imagine, if you can, what it was like in America when people could actually look forward to election season.

When one regards our self-absorbed political class and much-abused civic institutions, it may be hard these days to be optimistic about our political system. But our experience has taught us that if you want to find good reason for hope, look less at those who want to be elected and more at the electorate.

Bearing that very much in mind, let’s take this day’s labors and devote them to breaking down five counties that may prove decisive this year, or at least offer us some insights on how the race is shaping up.

You’ll find below, along with some Labor Day tidbits, a brief look at what’s driving the voters in these key counties and how what we know about them shapes our understanding of the contest as a whole.

Please enjoy. Politics is too important to take so daggone seriously.

“Will not the merchant understand and be disposed to cultivate as far as may be proper the interests of the mechanic and manufacturing arts to which his commerce is so nearly allied?” – Alexander Hamilton dismissing calls that Congress should reserve set numbers of seats for each socioeconomic class, Federalist No. 35

Detroit Free Press: “Walter Reuther is known as the man who gave birth to the [United Auto Workers]… But … he was a noted civil rights leader, even standing alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the famous 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech… Reuther was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, on Sept. 1, 1907. …railroad cars would pass through taking people north to jobs in industrial cities such as Detroit. Young Reuther noticed [Black] people were made to sit in the train’s cattle cars… ‘He felt it was an injustice to treat other human beings like that.’ [his son-in-law said]  … “Before the most famous speech of the century, ‘I have a dream,’ Walter Reuther gave a stirring speech to the crowd,’ [Prof. Harley Shaiken] said. ‘He believed in it deeply, that civil rights would benefit all UAW members and he believed in the values behind the march and he was willing to do whatever he could to help it succeed.’”

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Trump: 42.6 percent 
Biden: 51.2 percent 
Size of lead: Biden by 8.6 points 
Change from one week ago: Biden no change, Trump ↓ 0.4 points 
[Average includes: CNN: Trump 43% – Biden 51%; Quinnipiac University: Trump 42% – Biden 52%; USA Today/Suffolk: Trump 43% – Biden 50%; Grinnell/Selzer: Trump 41% – Biden 49%; ABC News/WaPo: Trump 44% – Biden 54%.

(270 electoral votes needed to win)
Toss-up: (109 electoral votes): Wisconsin (10), Ohio (18), Florida (29), Arizona (11), Pennsylvania (20), North Carolina (15), Iowa (6)
Lean R/Likely R: (180 electoral votes)
Lean D/Likely D: (249 electoral votes) 

Average approval: 42.8 percent 
Average disapproval: 53.6 percent 
Net Score: -10.8 points 
Change from one week ago: ↑ 0.8 points 
[Average includes: CNN: 41% approve – 54% disapprove; Quinnipiac University: 43% approve – 54% disapprove; USA Today/Suffolk: 45% approve – 52% disapprove; Grinnell/Selzer: 43% approve – 51% disapprove; ABC News/WaPo: 42% approve – 57% disapprove.] 

We’ve brought “From the Bleachers” to video on demand thanks to Fox Nation. Each Wednesday and Friday, Producer Brianna McClelland will put Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt to the test with your questions on everything about politics, government and American history – plus whatever else is on your mind. Sign up for the Fox Nation streaming service here and send your best questions to HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM.

Population: 35,722
Ethnicity: White (non-Hispanic) – 60%; Black – 34%; Hispanic – 8%
Coronavirus cases reported: 764
Median household income: $32,378; 51.3% of the national average. 
College-educated adults: 15%
Major employers: Meatpacking, textiles, local schools/government 
Recent results: ‘00 – Gore 53.9%; ‘04 – Bush 50.1%; ‘08 – Obama 50.7%; ‘12 – Obama 50.5%; ‘16 – Trump 53%

Remember former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards? No, not the icky stuff. The “Two Americas” class-struggle business that once made him the darling of the labor left. And when he mounted his two runs for president, he had places like Bladen County very much in mind as the bottom half of that split. Textile imports and the end of tobacco’s heyday spelled serious trouble for counties like these. Fayetteville and Ft. Bragg lie to its north and Wilmington and the Outer Banks lie to its south. Bladen County is large in size but lightly populated.

What’s driving voters – While voters here clearly responded to President Trump’s protectionist populism in 2016, just as they had with Barack Obama before him, the coronavirus has meant major headaches here for meatpacker Smithfield and its workers. And like many poor counties, the challenge of reopening schools has been a tough one.

What to watch for – Though small in population itself, Bladen County looks a lot like much of rural and exurban North Carolina. With a high concentration of working-class White voters, the Trump campaign is hoping to win again on a platform of anti-China policies and outage over urban lawlessness. The Biden campaign is looking to win back some traditional labor Democrats among White voters, but more crucially see massive turnout among Black residents that helped drive back-to-back wins for Obama. Another big issue here is voter fraud. The county was the scene of the most significant voter fraud case in recent memory when a Republican operative was found to have rigged ballots in an effort to deliver a win in the 2018 House election here.

What you didn’t know – Old timers here will remember stories around the campfire about “the Beast of Bladenboro” that famously terrorized local farmers over the New Years’ week of 1953 into 1954 – killing nine dogs and some livestock. Witnesses who saw the beast during or after its attacks described the animal as large, sleek, black and stealthy. Most chillingly, the dogs’ owners said the dead animals had been drained of their blood. The story became a regional sensation and hundreds of men turned up night after night for hunting parties. There was no conclusive killing or capture of the quarry. Locals have embraced the story as cherished local lore.

Population: 974,996
Ethnicity: White (non-Hispanic) – 74%; Black – 11%; Hispanic – 10%
Coronavirus cases reported: 20,425
Median household income: $51,454; 81.4% of the national average
College-educated adults: 31%
Major employers: Finance, media, manufacturing, tourism
Recent results: ‘00 – Gore 50.4%; ‘04 – Bush 49.6%; ‘08 – Obama 53.4%; ‘12 – Obama 52.1%; ‘16 – Trump 48.1%

On the Gulf of Mexico side of Tampa Bay, Pinellas County is one of America’s true beauty spots. It’s also one of the most reliably unreliable counties when it comes to politics. In 2018, it split its support in House races, but went heavily for the Democrat in the Senate race. Voters backed a Democrat for governor, but Republicans for attorney general and state treasurer. What else would you expect of a county that has picked the winner of the national popular vote in every election from 1980 to 2012? Pinellas reflects the eternal challenge of Central Florida politics. With a state as red as Alabama to the north and one as blue as New York to the south, the more moderate middle part of the state is always the decider. And in a state always so narrowly divided as Florida, every voter in the region will be desperately sought.

What’s driving voters – Like much of Florida, Pinellas has been hit hard by the coronavirus with nearly 700 reported deaths and massive economic disruption. The reopening of schools in late August has been a fraught topic, especially as neighboring Hillsborough County, home to Tampa, opted for distance learning instead. Satisfaction with the GOP’s message on the virus and the economy will be the main driver. 

What to watch for – Older voters were key to Trump’s 2016 victory in Florida and in Pinellas County. While certainly a key target for the Trump campaign’s culture war efforts, these voters are also the most at risk from the virus. Which message will connect? Plus, how will those folks of similar age to Trump and Biden respond to attacks on Biden’s cognitive powers?

What you didn’t know – When one thinks of nature in Florida, beaches and palm trees likely come to mind. The name Pinellas is derived from the Spanish words Punta Pinal which translates to “point of pines.” This name was an accurate description of this area of Florida when it was discovered in 1528 by Panfilo de Narvaez. Today the Heritage Village, known for its programs and exhibits on the area’s local history, is the home to the Shirley McPherson Native Plant trail. Visitors can walk the trail through the pine flatwoods habitat that showcases the various plants that were used by early inhabitants of the peninsula.

Ethnicity: White (non-Hispanic) – 79%; Hispanic – 14%; Black – 7%
Coronavirus cases reported: 3,882
Median household income: $51,646; 81.8% of the national average
College-educated adults: 23%
Major employers: Government/public education, health services, retail
Recent results: ‘00 – Gore 52%; ‘04 – Kerry 51.2%; ‘08 – Obama 53.3%; ‘12 – Obama 51.5%; ‘16 – Trump 57.9%

If you wanted just one county to explain the historic upset of the 2016 election, Luzerne County might be the one. Home to Wilke-Barre in the long-ago industrial heartland of Eastern Pennsylvania, Luzerne is just south of Joe Biden’s hometown of Scranton and about equidistant to New York and Philadelphia. Until 2016, the county seemed to be making a pretty smooth transition from blue-collar union Democrat to suburban Democrat thanks to an influx of folks looking to get out of the big cities. Luzerne is among the counties nationally with the greatest swing from 2012 to 2016 at 11 points. When Democrats picked Biden, places like Luzerne were very much in their reasoning.

What’s driving voters – Was 2016 about a fundamental realignment of the region’s politics or was it a one-off based on two unusual candidates and one unusual election? With Biden on the ballot we’re getting ready to find out. Except for Sensate candidate Lou Barletta, who represented the county in Congress, Democrats had the advantage here in 2018.

What to watch for – This part of Pennsylvania holds totemic significance for both candidates, each of whom claim to be the tribune of the industrial workers who once populated places like these. You can expect both campaigns to die hard here, whatever the polls say.

What you didn’t know – Wilkes-Barre, the county’s seat, is reportedly the location of one of Babe Ruth’s longest home runs. Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice: “On October 12, 1926, Babe Ruth visited Wilkes-Barre’s Artillery Park to play in an exhibition game between Hughestown and Larksville. Suiting up for Hughestown, the Yankee slugger challenged Larksville’s hurler Ernie Corkran to throw him his ‘best stuff’—a fastball right down the heart of the plate. Corkran obliged and Ruth crushed the pitch into deep right field. When the ball cleared the fence, a good 400 feet away from home plate, it was still rising. It finally landed in Kirby Park on the far side of a high school running track. Ruth himself was so impressed by the feat that he asked for his homer to be measured. Originally estimated at 650 feet, the prodigious blast is considered to be the longest home run in baseball’s storied history.”

Population: 89,221
Ethnicity: White (non-Hispanic) – 91%; Black – 2%; Hispanic – 3%
Coronavirus cases reported: 1,089
Median household income: $82,807; 131% of the national average 
College-educated adults: 48%
Major employers: Hospital, electrical services, higher education, metalworks
Recent results: ‘00 – Bush 65.2%; ‘04 – Bush 65.8%; ‘08 – McCain 60.3%; ‘12 – Romney 64.6%; ‘16 – Trump 55.8%

Wealthy, well-educated and blessed with strong institutions, you could make an argument for Ozaukee County as America’s showplace suburb. Perched on beautiful Lake Michigan north of Milwaukee, it has for decades been a paragon of the post-WWII suburban ideal. And, like most wealthy suburbs, it has been a bastion for the Republican Party, backing the red team in every election other than 1964 — and will certainly do so again this year. The question is by how much. Just as Trump did better in the working-class precincts south and west of the city than a typical Republican, he fared worse among the traditional GOP constituencies in places like Mequon. On the state level, the county is as Republican as it ever was, with red team candidates still clocking 65 percent of the vote or more. But as 2016’s presidential campaign and 2018’s Senate showed, there’s a serious drop-off on the federal level.

What’s driving voters – Much of Democrats’ message this year is aimed squarely at voters in places like Ozaukee County. When you see Biden portrayed as a good man and a moderate interested in bipartisan solutions, that’s all about voters like these. That’s because without much energy for minor party candidates, Democrats need voters to make the leap all the way over to supporting the blue team this year. Trump may not be popular personally here, but it takes a lot to reverse decades of partisan affiliation. With urban unrest south of the city, though, Republicans are hoping to get their traditional supporters here to stay red in order to send a message to Democrats on the state and local level.

What to watch for – Gov. Tony Evers and other state and local Democrats have their work cut out for them in dealing with the racial unrest in metro Milwaukee. Peace and unity would be a huge boost to Biden while lingering unrest would surely help the GOP keep these voters in the fold.

What you didn’t know – As would befit such a patriotic spot, Ozaukee County is the birthplace of Flag Day. Teacher Bernard Cigrand instituted the observance in his classroom in Fredonia on June 14, 1885 – the anniversary of the official adoption of the U.S. flag in 1777. Even after he left teaching and became a dentist, Cigrand stuck with it and gained increasing public support for his dream of a Flag Day holiday. It wouldn’t be until 1948, 17 years after his death, that the law establishing the official observance was passed.

Population: 4,485,414
Ethnicity: White (non-Hispanic) – 55%; Hispanic – 31%; Black – 6%
Coronavirus cases reported: 136,000
Median household income: $61,606; 97.5% of the national average
College-educated adults: 32%
Major employers: State/local government, healthcare, finance 
Recent results: ‘00 – Bush 53.2%; ‘04 – Bush 56.9%; ‘08 – McCain 53.4%; ‘12 – Romney 53.5%; ‘16 – Trump 48.1%

Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, is big. Real big. It has more people than every county in the country except for the ones containing L.A., Chicago and Houston. It has more than half of all the people in Arizona. And until recently, it was the largest reliably Republican county in America. But that is changing. In 2018 the county went strongly for incumbent Republican Gov. Doug Ducey but also went decisively for Democratic Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema. Part of the change is likely demographic as Americans from across the country have poured in to take advantage of the state’s growing economy and warm winters. But some of it is probably about the shift in the GOP. Arizona has been a bastion of what was once called “Western conservatism,” as typified by Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. It’s a small-government, liberty-first brand that may not sit well with the new nationalism and big spending Republicanism now popular with the national GOP.

What’s driving voters – Arizona seemed to be getting off easily on the coronavirus until mid-summer when the virus devastated the state. Much blame has fallen on Ducey for failing to take the precautions other leaders have. But Trump and the GOP’s struggles in Arizona predated the pandemic. The long-term stakes for the parties are high. If Maricopa County goes blue for keeps, Arizona and the GOP’s traditional pathway to electoral success look very much in doubt.

What to watch for – Immigration politics have long been the bread and butter of Arizona elections. The longtime success and ultimate failure of the county’s former sheriff, Joe Arpaio, is testament to that fact. While Trump has talked precious little about the issue that he rode to the White House four years ago, it may not be avoidable in Arizona. Though it certainly cuts both ways, it would be an improvement for Trump over the coronavirus question.

What you didn’t know – The Old West may be gone, but the folks in Maricopa County allow it to live on. At the Silver Pony Cocktail Lounge cowboys and cowgirls can ride in and tie off their horses at the hitching post offered for patrons. Only six miles south of downtown Phoenix, it’s a one of a kind watering hole.

“America recognizes no aristocracy save those who work. The badge of service is the sole requirement for admission to the ranks of our nobility.” – President Calvin Coolidge in an address to labor leaders on Labor Day in 1924.
“You have stated that parties are not ideological, so is that the difference with a populist that they actually believe what they are saying? For me it’s about abortion, I want to vote for the person that is against any type of abortion, no matter what. What I take away from you talking about parties, is that I should disregard every word they are saying because they don’t mean it. Is voting for a populist the only way to vote for someone real?” – Mike OwensResaca, Ga.

[Ed. note: Let me make it even worse for you, Mr. Owens: Populism isn’t ideological either! Individuals and interest groups have ideologies. Parties try to win elections. Republicans didn’t produce a campaign platform this year for the first time in their 164 years of presidential nominations — but that only makes more obvious what both parties’ platforms really say: “Here is a list of positions we think will attract enough voters without offending too many activists who swarm our primaries pushing broadly unpopular positions.” The GOP has just cut to the chase this year and basically said that it supports winning. Platforms are not governing documents, but public declarations aimed at keeping ideological voters on board – ransoms paid to the party faithful who demand their own pet issues be addressed in exchange for their time, money and support. But as we saw the swing in the GOP from 2012 to 2016, the parties are quite willing to reinvent themselves to suit the needs of the moment. The parties can be vehicles for ideologies, but that’s only incidental of the purpose of the organizations, which is to obtain and maintain power for themselves. Populism, on the other hand, isn’t ideological at all. Populism is what we call it when a group of voters, believing that they have been victimized by an unfair system, attack the system itself. Populism is about grievance, and whether that’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Donald Trump Jr., the concept is the same: Let us rise up against our oppressors and end their tyranny. One says those oppressors are on Wall Street, the other says they are at the New York Times, but the construct is the same. Populism is a style, not substance. So, where does that leave you? It sounds like you would never support a pro-choice candidate, but the Republican Party often has. But you’re not a likely pickup for the Democratic Party because they almost never back pro-life candidates. It seems you might be like the 21 percent of respondents in our most recent poll who expressed no party affiliation or only mild ones. You guys need to weigh each candidate on the issues that matter to you and make the best choice (or no choice) that suits you. A party is not a reliable custodian of one’s beliefs, but rather an instrument through which voters can choose to advance those beliefs. Populism is just one method of trying to advance one’s beliefs, left or right.]

“Hey Chris, your hate is showing [by including the ‘Read it here’ link to the Atlantic article in Friday’s Halftime Report]. Since when does an Anonymous Sourced article deserve your publication? Where is the article telling a dozen ON THE RECORD witnesses debunk the leftist smear campaign. Fair and Balanced!” – Al DiStefano, Cumming, Ga.

[Ed. note: I don’t want to get on hip waders to delve into your characterizations here, Mr. DiStefano, but I think you should have read the article before the link that has you so upset. The headline was, in all capital letters, “Trump denies insulting America’s war dead, POWs.” If the excerpt of the president’s vigorous denunciations did not satisfy you, you could have clicked through the link and you would have been bathed in the warming glow of the many quotes from people agreeing with you. You have been a long-time correspondent and we have at times gone to lengths to explain how this note works and what we’re doing here. But one more time: Our goal is not political persuasion, but to be of service to people following the election. We would, therefore, want to make it easy for people to read the article that everyone was talking about and reach their judgements themselves. We think you are up to that task. Hang in there in these closing weeks. It’s just another election and it will all work out. Believe in America.]

“Between [Thursday] and [Friday] morning, we heard of another report bashing our President.  This time because of his-reported-disdain for America’s soldiers, both fallen and active duty (as evident by the reported wondering that how come the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff joined in the Military, given that he was so smart!). And of course all of this was vehemently denied by the president. But while this controversy is-as of now-the latest, news of this sort, and denial or glossing over has been aplenty. That got me wondering – is President Trump the most controversial President in History?  Are you aware of any other President generating as much controversy since the Declaration of Independence 244 years ago?” – Shardul Pandya, North Chesterfield, Va.

[Ed. note: As is so often the case, I think it would be pretty hard to top Abraham Lincoln on that one. I mean, I know the folks in blue states really don’t like President Trump, but so far, none have opened fire on any federal installations. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was also hugely controversial as he battled the Radical Republicans in Congress all the way through America’s first impeachment. I’d also say that both Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson were at least as “controversial” than Trump in their own ways. The collapse of Johnson’s Vietnam strategy in 1968 and Nixon’s abuses of power to win a second term divided and agitated the nation in ways more profound than the fight over whether Trump is fit for office. So many of the controversies around Trump have very short durations. They’re intense bursts of outrage that quickly fade and are then replaced by the next one. That speaks in part to the nature of the controversies, which does buy in bulk, but also to the highly distracted American partisan electorate that can’t ever seem to settle on what it is that matters except that they beat the other guy.]

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WMTV: “The mind behind the punchy signs on state and interstate highway is Jon Riemann, a communication manager with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. ‘It’s the most fun part of my job, but it’s also the smallest part of my job, so that’s a little unfortunate,’ he said, with a laugh. His work ranges from ‘Hocus Pocus drive with focus’ to ‘That’s the temperature not the speed limit.’ With interests in ‘wordplay and wordsmithing,’ Riemann said he considers himself a creative person. But he also gets help from a committee, which he often calls the ‘Creative Traffic Safety Message Committee, depending on how creative [they] get.’ … ‘It gets people to talk about safety. It’s great when we’d hear people say, ‘I’d talk about it with my friends.’’ … ‘Baby Yoda always rides in a car seat. Be safe he will,’ Riemann said, giving us a preview of what’s to come. He added, ‘I will not attempt to do a Yoda [impression].’”

“…the catastrophe that awaits everyone from a single false move, wrong turn, fatal encounter. Every life has such a moment. What distinguishes us is whether – and how – we ever come back.” – Charles Krauthammer (1950-2018), writing in Washington Post on Aug. 17, 2007

Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News. Brianna McClelland contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.

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