2020 Pennsylvania Election Overview

Overview of Franklin & Marshall College Poll Survey Indicators in September Polling, 2004 - 2020

The September 2020 Franklin & Marshall College Poll1 finds that only two in five (40%) of the state's registered voters believe the state is "headed in the right direction," which continues a steady decline in optimism about the direction of the state over the past year. Registered voters list COVID-19 (25%) as the most important problem facing the state today, but concerns about the economy and personal finances continue to increase, rising from 12% in July to 25% in September.

Nearly three-quarters (71%) of the state's registered voters say they are "very interested" in the 2020 elections, about the same level of interest as last month (72%). This level of interest is similar to the interest expressed by registered voters in September 2016. More voters expect to cast their ballot in person (60%) than by mail (34%) in 2020, but there are partisan differences in these expectations. Most (58%) of the state's registered voters favor the use of mail-in ballots, although many more Democrats (86%) and independents (62%) than Republicans (24%) favor mail-in voting. Most registered voters are confident that the state's tabulated vote count will be accurate if mail-in voting is widely used (59%), but only one in three (32%) Republicans are confident those counts will be accurate, compared to most Democrats (83%) and Independents (51%).

About two in five (39%) registered voters in Pennsylvania believe President Trump is doing an "excellent" or "good" job as president, which is consistent with his ratings in recent polls. A majority of Republicans (80%) rate the President's performance positively, while fewer Democrats (5%) or independents (35%) do so. Registered voters in the state continue to give President Trump the advantage over Mr. Biden on his ability handle economic matters, but Mr. Biden holds an advantage over the President on the other characteristics tested, most notably on issues in dealing with the coronavirus and on personal attributes such as character and honesty.


Table 1: Survey Indicators for Presidential Elections in Pennsylvania, 2004 - 2020

Indicator Sep-04 Sep-08 Sep-12 Sep-16 Sep-20
Net Favorable, Democratic Candidate -1 19 8 -3 2
Net Favorable, Republican Candidate 2 12 -19 -28 -17
Net Presidential Job Performance -2 -67 -5 3 -22
Personal Finances, Better Minus Worse Than Last Year NA -28 -10 2 7
Very Interested in Election 55 71 66 76 71


Polling Average in Pennsylvania, July 2020 - Present

According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Democrat Joe Biden's lead over President Donald Trump in Pennsylvania is currently 49% to 45%2. The poll averages in the state seem mostly stable for Joe Biden when aggregated by month, but may indicate a slow rise for the President: 50% to 43% (July), 49% to 44% (August), and 49% to 45% (September). The September Franklin & Marshall College Poll shows Biden leading Trump, 49 percent to 40 percent among registered voters and 48% to 42% among likely voters.


Figure 1. Pennsylvania Presidential Polls, 2020 (Created by author using data downloaded from Created by authors using data downloaded from https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/pa/pennsylvania_trump_vs_biden-6861.html (accessed 9/23/2020).)


Direction of the State

The President faces several challenges at the moment. The first is that attitudes about the state's direction have changed negatively after growing satisfaction during the first three years of his administration. Pennsylvanians' attitudes about the direction of the state had declined steadily after the 2008 recession, but that pattern had started to reverse itself after the 2016 election so that a majority of state residents was pleased with the direction of the state by 2019 and early 2020. The latest poll finds a declining share of voters are satisfied with the direction of the state.

Data on the direction of the United States may be even more concerning for the incumbent. Right now, only one in four (22%) registered voters in Pennsylvania believes the country is headed in the right direction, which is a good bit lower than the one in three (36%) who felt this way in September 2016. Voters who were concerned about the direction of the country in 2016 were an important part of President Trump's successful campaign in the state (Yost, Redman, and Thompson 2017).


Figure 2. Direction of the State, Pennsylvania Voters 1996 - 2020 (Source: Frankin & Marshall College Polls.)


Voter Enthusiasm

Prior Franklin & Marshall College Polls show voter interest during September averages about 67 percent. The September 2020 Poll shows interest among registered voters is similar to 2016 with 71 percent reporting they are very interested in the election.

Table 2: Proportion of Voters Very Interested in Election, 2004 - 2020

Year August October September
2004 56 55 55
2008 62 71 71
2012 58 66 66
2016 70 75 76
2020 72 NA 71


Candidate Favorability Ratings in Pennsylvania

Another issue for President Trump in Pennsylvania is that he is personally unpopular. No presidential candidate since 1996 has won Pennsylvania with negative personal ratings except for Trump in 2016, but this was the only race during that time period where both candidates had negative personal ratings. In 2016, the proportion of voters who had an unfavorable view of both candidates was extraordinarily high (16%) compared to the 2012 election when it was only three percent (Yost, Redman, and Thompson 2017). Currently, nine percent of voters have an unfavorable opinion of both candidates.

Table 3: Favorability Ratings of Presidential Candidates in Pennsylvania, 1996 - 2020

Year Candidate Party Net Favorable Spring Net Favorable Fall
1996 Bob Dole Rep -24 -15
1996 Bill Clinton Dem 12 7
2000 George W. Bush Rep 4 7
2000 Al Gore Dem 7 8
2004 George W. Bush Rep 3 -7
2004 John Kerry Dem 4 11
2008 John McCain Rep 12 5
2008 Barack Obama Dem 10 20
2012 Mitt Romney Rep -19 -4
2012 Barack Obama Dem 3 4
2016 Donald Trump Rep -36 -27
2016 Hilary Clinton Dem -11 -6
2020 Donald Trump Rep -14 -17
2020 Joe Biden Dem 0 2


Comparative Presidential Job Performance Ratings in PA

President Trump's job performance ratings are below President Obama's ratings at a similar point in his presidency. For the President to remain competitive, it will be important for him to see an upward trend in his job approval ratings in the state as Election Day nears, as Obama did in his 2012 re-election campaign.


Figure 3. Job Performance Ratings in Pennsylvania, Obama and Trump. (Source: Frankin & Marshall College Polls.)


Voter Registration since 2016

Since the last presidential election, there has been a continuing realignment of voter registration in the state.3 It is clear that Republicans are making registration gains in many of the state's smaller, rural counties. At the same time, a number of the state's larger suburban counties are showing Democratic gains. Bucks, Chester, Cumberland, Dauphin, Delaware, Lancaster and Montgomery counties have each increased shares of registered Democrats compared to 2016. Since October 2016, Democratic registration has declined about 1.5 percent, while Republican registration has increased by 2.9 percent and those affiliated with another party have increased about 4.9 percent. Despite these changes, Democrats continue to hold a 750,000-voter edge in the state, although this advantage shrinks to 560,000 among active voters.


Figure 4. Change in Registration as Share of Democrats and Republicans, 2020 and 2016. (Compiled and created by author using data downloaded from the Pennsylvania Department of State.)



Yost, Berwood, Jacqueline Redman, and Scottie Thompson. 2017. “The 2016 Pennsylvania Presidential and Us Senate Elections: Breaking Pennsylvania’s Electoral Habits.” COMMONWEALTH: A Journal of Political Science 19 (2): 3–26. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.15367/com.v19i2.152.

  1. Franklin & Marshall College survey results can be found here: https://www.fandm.edu/fandmpoll/survey-releases

  2. Source: RealClearPolitics, accessed (9/23/2020)

  3. Current voter registration data was downloaded from https://www.dos.pa.gov/VotingElections/OtherServicesEvents/VotingElectionStatistics/Pages/VotingElectionStatistics.aspx (accessed on September 21, 2020)