RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Are you ready for this? The election is just 50 days away. That means both candidates are focusing on key swing states. President Trump was in Nevada over the weekend, holding several events, including an indoor rally last night, which defied state regulations.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We had five sites, all outside sites like last night - tremendous room. And a great gentleman who owns this building said, you know what? What they're doing is really unfair. You can use my building. Don, I want to thank you.
MARTIN: The president there thanking a man who defied the state rules and let the president use his building. Another state up for grabs is Pennsylvania. President Trump's narrow victory there four years ago was a key to his winning the Electoral College.
NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has been talking to voters in the northwest corner of the state in Erie County. It's one of the places Trump won unexpectedly last time and could be pivotal this go round.
Good morning, Don.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: Why is Erie County so significant in this vote?
GONYEA: Across the country, there were only a couple hundred counties that had voted for President Obama when he was on the ballot and then flipped and voted for Donald Trump. One of them is Erie County, Pa. We all know how close Pennsylvania was. Erie County was one of the keys to Trump's victory there. And let's run the numbers. Obama, in '08, won the state by 20 points. He won by almost as much again in 2012. 2016, Trump wins it by 1,957 votes - so, so close.
The city of Erie has a large working-class population. In some ZIP codes, poverty's among the worst in the country. There's a locomotive plant that the union there says has lost half of its workforce in the past decade. Four years ago, all of that made it ripe for Donald Trump's anti-trade, anti-NAFTA rhetoric. There are new challenges, obviously, for Trump this time, including that unemployment has spiked due to the pandemic.
MARTIN: You've been all over the county talking to voters. What are they telling you?
GONYEA: We'll hit the city of Erie. That's a Democratic stronghold. The outlying rural areas are less populous. Trump needs to rack up huge margins there. My very first stop was at an amusement park right on Lake Erie. That's where the county GOP was holding an outdoor picnic. And if you're looking for a metaphor for the election, there was an old roller coaster making lots of noise right nearby where I was doing interviews.
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GONYEA: The very first person I talked to at the picnic was Mark Schumacher. He is retired after working three decades at a local prison. He says he supports the police and Trump's law-and-order message. He just likes the way Trump handles himself.
MARK SCHUMACHER: For the first time, we got a politician who knows how to do it 'cause he ain't no politician. He's the real deal.
GONYEA: To a person, these Trump voters give the president full credit for the strong economy pre-pandemic and no blame for the current economic slump.
Forty-four-year-old Kori Curtis owns a farm. I spoke to her out at the county GOP headquarters, where she was picking up 20 Trump lawn signs. She does allow that Trump's response to the pandemic has not been perfect, but she quickly says no one else would have done better. I asked her about the revelations in Bob Woodward's new book and the tapes of Trump himself saying he played down the pandemic early on to avoid panic.
KORI CURTIS: Why wouldn't you react that way? I mean, you don't want the country in a panic. It was scary when it started. That's never happened in our lifetime. So I could understand that you would set back a little in what you say so that we didn't go into a frenzy.
GONYEA: But another voter, registered independent Mary Ann Frontino, who lives on the eastern edge of the county, near the New York state line, says Trump's spin on his interview with Woodward is just beyond belief.
MARY ANN FRONTINO: Well, panic is his middle name. I mean, his entire campaign is trying to dig up panic so people will vote for him.
GONYEA: Frontino is 65 and a lifelong Republican who says she officially changed her voter registration to independent last year because she could no longer be a member of the same party as Donald Trump. She is voting for Joe Biden.
Another Biden supporter I met, 44-year-old Abdullah Washington, helps organize the city of Erie's annual Blues & Jazz Fest. He says there are times he wishes Biden was doing more to energize young people, especially African Americans. But he also says this.
ABDULLAH WASHINGTON: And I think - I would say it's more about hope than it is about excitement at this point.
GONYEA: He says Biden helped himself by choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate. Washington also says that part of Biden's appeal is the promise of a return to normalcy. And he predicts that Trump's scare tactics about rioters and antifa destroying the suburbs just won't fly.
WASHINGTON: But you got to understand, like, people who live in the suburbs, a lot of them work in the cities. You know? And so it's not like they have a one-sided experience with people of color.
MARTIN: So Don, after all these conversations, what's your takeaway from Erie?
GONYEA: Let me play one more voice for you. This is the local union president at the locomotive plant. Scott Slawson says you can feel the tension around town.
SCOTT SLAWSON: It's, like, yeah. It's, like, charged. I don't know how to explain it, but it is. It's like everybody's just like a cat waiting to pounce.
GONYEA: In everyday life?
GONYEA: Adding to the tension, I heard from voters on both sides saying they are worried that the other side is going to try to steal the election through some voting shenanigans.
MARTIN: Wow - tension in everyday life.
Don, we'll be following you and the voters in Pennsylvania. Thanks so much.
GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.