2020 Pennsylvania Election Overview

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

The October 2020 Franklin & Marshall College Poll finds that only two in five (43%) of the state's voters believe the state is "headed in the right direction," which is consistent with recent surveys that have shown less optimism about the state's direction compared to last year. Voters list coronavirus (COVID-19) (27%) as the most important problem facing the state, with concerns about the economy being the second most common concern (21%).

About two in five (42%) voters in Pennsylvania believe President Trump is doing an "excellent" or "good" job as president, which is consistent with his ratings in recent polls. The President's approval rating for his management of the coronavirus outbreak is lower (33%) than his overall job approval rating.

Nearly three-quarters (77%) of voters say they are "very interested" in the 2020 elections which is similar to the interest expressed by voters in October 2016. More state voters expect to cast their ballot in-person (53%) than by mail (44%), and most (62%) voters believe the tabulated vote count in the state will be accurate if mail-in voting is widely used, but there are strong partisan differences for both of these indicators.

Democrat Joe Biden currently leads President Trump 50% to 44% among likely voters. An important component of President Trump's 2016 victory in Pennsylvania came from a massive vote advantage in the counties he won, but Mr. Biden currently holds a larger vote share in the counties Hillary Clinton won in 2016 than President Trump holds in the counties he won that year. More of the state's registered voters have an unfavorable (57%) than favorable (42%) opinion of President Trump, while slightly more voters have a favorable (52%) than unfavorable (47%) opinion of Joe Biden.


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

Indicator Oct-04 Oct-08 Oct-12 Oct-16 Oct-20
Net Favorable, Democratic Candidate 7 20 5 -6 5
Net Favorable, Republican Candidate -3 5 -7 -27 -15
Net Presidential Job Performance 12 -63 -7 0 -16
Personal Finances, Better Minus Worse Than Last Year NA NA -11 -2 14
Very Interested in Election 55 71 66 75 77


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 50% to 46%1. The poll averages in the state have shown remarkable stability for Joe Biden when aggregated by month, but also a slow rise for the President: 50% to 43% (July), 49% to 44% (August), 49% to 44% (September), and 50% to 45% (October). The October Franklin & Marshall College Poll shows Biden leading Trump 50% to 44% among likely voters, similar to his 48% to 42% September advantage.


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 11/2/2020).)


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 were pleased with the direction of the state by 2019 and early 2020. The latest poll finds most voters are dissatisfied 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 three (31%) voters in Pennsylvania believes the country is headed in the right direction, which is a bit lower than in October 2016 (35%). 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 October averages about 67 percent. The October 2020 Poll shows interest among registered voters is similar to 2016 with 77 percent reporting they are very interested in the election. Voter interest is related to both political party and political ideology. At the moment, similar proportions of Democrats (82%) and Republicans (74%) say they are "very interested," while fewer (63%) independents are. More self-described liberals (88%) than conservatives (78%) or moderates (69%) say they are "very interested."

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 77 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, seven 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 -15
2020 Joe Biden Dem 0 5


Comparative Presidential Job Performance Ratings in PA

The President's current job approval rating makes him competitive, although his job performance rating is comparatively lower than President Bush (44%) or President Obama (48%) at similar points in their respective re-election campaigns. President Bush won 48% of the state vote in 2004 and President Obama won 52% of the state vote in 2012.


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


Additional Campaign Indicators

Campaign spending on advertising, changes in voter registration since 2016, and early voting are indicators that may offer additional perspective on the direction of the 2020 campaign. The Trump Campaign appears to have had success in closing the voter registration gap in Pennsylvania, while the Biden Campaign can point to its financial advantages and the enthusiasm among Democrats being demonstrated by early voting in the state. Information about each of these indicators is presented below.

Two issue indicators, COVID-19 and unemployment, may also factor into voters' decisions. COVID cases have risen markedly in Pennslyvania during October and unemployment remains higher than it was prior to the COVID outbreak.


Campaign Advertising for US President in Pennsylvania

The Biden Campaign has significantly outspent the Trump Campaign in Pennsylvania, according to Advertising Analytics. Table 4 shows each campaign's advertising spending from July 1 - November 1, 2020 (spending from affiliated groups or PACs are not included).

Table 4: Advertising for Presidential Candidates in Pennsylvania, July 1 - November 1, 2020

Advertiser  Broadcast   Cable   Digital   Radio   Satellite   Total 
Biden for President $52,885,863 $16,150,973 $724,122 $3,906,931 $1,235,975 $74,903,864
DNC/Biden $1,669,785 $394,012 $0 $0 $0 $2,063,797
RNC/Trump $1,615,037 $0 $0 $0 $0 $1,615,037
Trump for President $17,912,825 $1,807,592 $0 $214,437 $172,740 $20,107,594


Voter Registration since 2016

Since the last presidential election, there has been a continuing realignment of voter registration in the state.2 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 increased about 1.1 percent, Republican registration has increased by 7.8 percent and those affiliated with another party have increased about 10.1 percent among active voters. Despite these changes, Democrats continue to hold a 530,000 advantage 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.)


Early Voting in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania voters have cast 2.4 million ballots, which represents 39 percent of the votes cast in the 2016 presidential election.3 Democrats represent 66 percent of the early votes cast in the state. To date, only 859 returned ballots have been rejected.


Unemployment figures for the state show that the size of the overall labor force (i.e., those working or looking for work) in the state has declined over the past year while the number of unemployed has risen. Unemployment remains above its pre-COVID level.


Figure 5. Pennsylvania Work Force, September 2019 - September 2020.


Cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania rose throughout October and surpassed the number of cases the state reported in April. The proportion of positive tests were higher in October compared to the summer months. The overall excess death rate in the state remains above normal.


Figure 6. Monthly Deaths in Pennsylvania, 2015 - 2020. The red line represents deaths from all causes in Pennsylvania during 2020. The gray lines represent deaths from all causes each year from 2015 to 2019.  



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. Source: RealClearPolitics, accessed (11/2/2020)

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

  3. source: https://electproject.github.io/Early-Vote-2020G/PA.html, accessed 11/2/2020.