Step inside the world of a Biden campaign ad, and you’ll find a young Joey going up to bat in his front yard here in Scranton, Pennsylvania, decked out in his baseball uniform while a baby stands in a crib nearby. Women in ’50s-era hats and colorful skirt suits walk up the sidewalk to church. Biden’s dad calls him “champ” and dispenses attaboy wisdom: “When you get knocked down, get up.”
Selling America on this Irish Catholic Lake Wobegon—a place where family comes first, everyone’s middle class, and all of the kids learn the same basic values from the wise nuns around the corner—is how Biden hopes to win the 2020 election.Toss-up states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are roughly one-quarter Catholic, and many of these Catholics are white voters who abandoned their longtime affiliation with the Democratic Party to support Donald Trump in 2016. Biden’s campaign sees his religious identity as a huge advantage in his bid to win those voters back: Trump and his associates “look down their nose on people like Irish Catholics, like me, [who] grew up in Scranton,” Biden said during the first presidential debate.
During Joe’s early Scranton years, the Biden family actually did live around the block from the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who instructed him in reading and math and the catechism. The IHM sisters were the town’s educators: Nearly every kid like Biden had an IHM sister as a teacher or principal. The sisters emphasized that “you have an obligation to the world around you, even beyond your family,” Bob Casey, a Scranton native and former IHM pupil who is now Pennsylvania’s senior senator, told me. Biden picked up the loose set of feel-good values he loves to talk about on the campaign trail—loyalty, patriotism, friendship—in Scranton’s mid-century ambient Catholic culture: “My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion,” he writes in his 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep.
Catholics are no longer the solidly Democratic voters they were in the days of John F. Kennedy. They reflect the divisions of the nation, split roughly equally between the parties and prioritizing issues such as abortion and poverty more or less depending on their partisan affiliation. They are the ultimate swing constituency: In three-quarters of U.S. presidential elections over the past 50 years, a majority of them have sided with the winning presidential nominee—including Donald Trump. Four years ago, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in almost every county in northeastern Pennsylvania. She barely held Lackawanna, where Scranton is located, but lost Luzerne, the once deep-blue county just a few miles to the south, by more than 26,000 votes. Fifty-six percent of white Catholics across America supported Trump in 2016, according to data from the American National Election Studies. This year, the outcome of the entire election could hinge on Pennsylvania, and this group alone could make the difference.