Women and men of all ages arrive well before opening. It is midmorning in the middle of the week, but a lengthy line of people patiently waiting forms outside a country home painted to look like an American flag, near a 14-foot Donald Trump cutout on the front lawn.
As the clock strikes 11 a.m., Trump House owner and creator Leslie Rossi arrives and is greeted with applause.
“Welcome to the Trump House!” she bellows.
The Trump House is a big attraction for the President’s supporters in southwest Pennsylvania, where Trump’s record turnout four years ago helped deliver his surprise Pennsylvania victory, and the White House. Independently run by supporters, the house draws out the rural voters who helped Trump win the state four years ago, a feat he hopes to repeat this year.
Trump was the first Republican to win Pennsylvania in nearly three decades. With more than 6 million votes cast here, he defeated Hillary Clinton by little more than 44,000 votes.
Now, with the President struggling in the suburbs here and nationwide, the Trump campaign is trying to squeeze even more votes out of his base in places like here in Westmoreland County, which has seen a surge in GOP voter registrations since the President took office.
“We need to increase our voter turnout here for the President. Places like Westmoreland and some of the other counties out here in the west end of the central part of the state. He’s going to count on us to pull those numbers in, to offset some of what might be happening in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania,” said Kim Ward, a GOP state senator who represents this area. Democratic nominee Joe Biden is popular in the densely populated area of Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs in southeastern Pennsylvania, areas that are critically important to Biden’s strategy.
Finding even more Trump voters in rural Pennsylvania is a steep challenge, considering the President already won far more votes in this part of the state in 2016 than any Republican had in decades.
But at the Trump House, Rossi, who spent countless hours in 2016 pushing disaffected Democrats and never-before voters to choose Trump, says she sees an uptick in passion for the President here.
“Four years ago, my work was really hard here,” said Rossi.
“I had to convince them President Trump was the best choice for them. This time, I don’t have to do any of that. They’re all in,” she insisted.
Rossi said the number of people coming to the Trump House – where they can get free hats, pens, shirts and yard signs – has tripled since the last election, showing her logbook of thousands of visitors in the past few months alone.
“We have already a sign, and we’re going to put another one there, and we support him all the way,” Norene Cinti told CNN.
But many also come to register to vote and change their party affiliation. Rossi has forms ready and helps people fill them out.
Scott Harrer got a break from his construction job to come wait in line so he could register to vote for the first time at age 65 because he likes the President so much.
“I think it’s going to be shaky. I think there’s going to be a lot of problems. So the stronger we come in, the less chance of losing pretty much in my opinion,” said Harrer.
Rita Bair came to formally change her party affiliation.
“I’m ashamed to say I was a Democrat. I want to be with the Republicans right now, because I think Donald Trump is doing an absolutely wonderful job,” she said.
Evelyn Ross says she voted for former president Barack Obama twice but went for Trump in 2016 and hasn’t looked back.
“I was a Democrat. My parents were Democrats. I changed in 2016 to Republican, because I didn’t like what the Democrats were doing. I didn’t like Hillary. And I liked everything that Trump said. I’m not sorry that I changed. I’ll be Republican for the rest of my life,” said Ross.
Biden trying to learn from 2016
In 2016, Clinton, who followed the traditional Pennsylvania playbook of boosting support in the densely populated suburbs, did not campaign in more rural areas like Westmoreland County during the general election. Joe Biden is trying to learn from her mistake, coming through here on a train trip after the first presidential debate.
His wife, Jill Biden, split off during their train tour with her own campaign events in order to reach more of this pastoral part of Pennsylvania.
Outside Rizzo’s Malabar Inn, she talked to a socially distanced small group of local Democrats, promising that they will not be forgotten. She talked to local leaders and the owners of Rizzo’s about how they’re faring during the coronavirus pandemic. The campaign marked spots where supporters could stand during the event to ensure they were complying with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stay 6 feet apart.
In a brief interview, she did not dispute that she was standing in Trump country. Trump won Westmoreland County by 56,853 votes. In prior presidential elections, Republicans also won the county but lost the state: In 2012, Mitt Romney won the county by 40,210 votes, and McCain in 2008 won it by 29,573 votes.
“It is, but I’m sure the Trump people are disillusioned. That’s what I’m seeing,” said Biden.
“We are not taking any vote for granted,” she added.
Mister Rogers’ neighborhood
Walking through leafy Latrobe, Westmoreland County Commissioner Gina Cerilli explains that this may be a Republican stronghold, but it is also Mister Rogers’ neighborhood – where Fred Rogers, the famed host of the children’s TV series, grew up.
She says that four years ago, people here were willing to take a chance on Trump, but now she has a lot of neighbors who quietly regret it.
“This is a working middle class here in Western Pennsylvania. In 2016, Donald Trump was a fresh face. He was new to politics. Everyone was excited. He made big promises to bring back jobs, but frankly, Donald Trump broke those promises,” said Cerilli.
Ten years ago, Cerilli was Miss Pennsylvania in Trump’s Miss USA pageant. Now she is an elected Democrat working to defeat him.
She and other Democrats in this part of the state are clear-eyed that Trump will still win southwest Pennsylvania, but they hope that keeping the margin of his victory down here could rob the President of a statewide win.
“Donald Trump changed the political game here in Pennsylvania four years ago. I’m just very thankful that the Democratic Party, Joe Biden has realized that all of these little communities matter,” said Cerilli, who added that Biden can’t just rely on Philadelphia or Pittsburgh if he wants to win the state. “He has to be able to come here, meet the residents of Western Pennsylvania, these small, small towns, and that’s how he’s going to win Pennsylvania and we’re going to flip to blue.”
Trump signs are everywhere, displayed proudly outside many homes and farms. But Biden signs are out there too, which matters in Trump country – showing potentially disaffected Trump voters that they’re not alone. Democrats here say it’s a big difference from 2016, when Clinton signs were harder to find.
“Hillary really didn’t resonate with the voters here in Western Pennsylvania. Joe has. It also has to do with the fact that President Trump has been in power for four years and we see how divided our country is,” said Cerilli.
Trump hopes fracking will boost his vote here
Southwest Pennsylvania is rich in energy production, especially what’s known as fracking, or hydraulic fracturing – a drilling method that uses water to extract oil and gas from the ground and is popular in this area because it produces jobs.
The President and fellow Republicans are playing up the issue in a big way here, hoping it galvanizes voters.
“One of the most important issues for Pennsylvania is the survival of your fracking industry,” Trump told a crowd Tuesday night in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles from Westmoreland County.
Trump has accused Biden of wanting to ban fracking, which is not true. Biden has explicitly said he does not support a nationwide ban; rather, his plan proposes banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters, a move that would not end all new fracking or end existing fracking on public lands and waters. But even Democrats here worry the false attack is potent.
“Fracking is huge here. Coal is huge here. There’s a lot of jobs in Western Pennsylvania,” said Cerilli, calling GOP commercials playing here that claim Biden wants to ban fracking “flat-out lies.”
It is true that many in the Democratic base oppose fracking, calling it a hazard to the environment. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, supported a fracking ban when she ran for president during the Democratic primaries but told CNN last month that she is falling in line behind Biden’s position.
But Republicans here think the issue resonates with Democrats who may not think the national party understands their lives in rural America.
” ‘Fracking is evil. We’re going to kill coal.’ When you hear all of that, the people here, this is what we do. We work here. This is a really hardworking area. And that is a turnoff, when you have somebody coming in, especially the national party and those national candidates coming in and threatening those jobs,” explained Ward, the GOP state senator.
Republican get-out-the-vote operation still in full swing
A big challenge for Democrats in getting out the vote is that they have been very careful in the age of Covid-19.
Volunteers like Phyllis Friend, head of Democratic Women of Westmoreland, would normally be out and about in the final weeks before Election Day, but now she uses Zoom and other virtual means to organize from home.
“Everybody’s doing what they can from home. … I think sometimes, maybe some people could do actually more from their house, so looking at making lemonade out of lemons, right?” Friend asked rhetorically.
“So far, I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘I wish you’d knock on my door.’ “
Last weekend, the Biden campaign started what it calls “safely” canvassing, an effort that follows safety measures such as providing volunteers with masks, checking their temperatures and having them fill out a symptom questionnaire.
But Republicans never stopped knocking on doors all throughout the pandemic. CNN followed GOP canvassers around the neighborhood of Greensburg in Westmoreland County. Wearing masks, they used a data-driven app run by the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign to target specific homes with individualized messages.
“With our data program and all the investments we’ve been able to make into our data, we know what kind of messaging that we need to make sure that we are getting to each and every voter. Depending on who that voter is, we’re able to tailor that message at the door and on the phone to how we think we need to target that voter and turn them out,” explained Brittney Robinson, who runs the Pennsylvania operation for the RNC.
Part of the get-out-the-vote operation for both parties is educating voters about mail-in ballots, which is new in Pennsylvania this year, to help make it easier for voters in the pandemic.
Even as the President is talking them down and falsely claiming mail-in ballots are riddled with fraud, his campaign is working hard to convince his voters to use the new system.
“This is the first general election that we are going to have a mail-in ballot that is not restrictive. We can make sure that we are taking advantage of it with our voters, making sure that they are using these opportunities they have to vote in every different way. Especially during uncertain times, we want to make sure that we’re educating our voters on that,” said Robinson.
Westmoreland County Republican Chairman Bill Bretz insists there are more GOP votes to mine in this part of Pennsylvania, but he admits the element of surprise that Trump benefited from here in 2016 is gone.
Still, the stakes are higher than ever.
“The Democratic Party is investing a lot in this area as well, so it raises the bar for us. We have a responsibility to our state and our nation to deliver for Donald Trump,” said Bretz.