The rural vote accounts for roughly 20 percent of the state’s total, by some estimates. If the race is tight, it could again decide which candidate carries Pennsylvania. Mr. Biden is not going to win in the small counties, but he may have to do substantially better than Mrs. Clinton did.
“When you look at the rural areas, it’s the margins that matter,” Mr. Hopkins, the Boston College professor, said. “The suburbs get a lot of attention because you have those counties that used to be red, and now they’re blue. When you see that on a map on TV, it looks dramatic. But all these places that went from like 60-40 Republican to 80-20 for Trump are just as dramatic and they were critical to the result.”
Both Mr. Hopkins and Ms. Greenberg noted that the same dynamic applies in Michigan, which went to Mr. Trump in 2016 by an even narrower margin than Pennsylvania — in part because of its rural counties.
Mr. Trump, in one sense, rode the momentum of a wave that was already swelling in rural America, where the electorate has been turning more Republican for a generation. Mr. Obama did better in Pennsylvania’s small counties in 2012 than Mrs. Clinton in 2016 — but he did not do as well he had in his first presidential run in 2008.
“There’s a long-term and a short-term story to look at,” Mr. Hopkins said. “Long term, this is a trend that’s been going on for 25 years, driven by the polarization of the parties around cultural issues. Abortion, gay rights, race, gender. Those divide urban and rural American more than economics does.”
“Short term,” he said, “there was something about Trump’s appeal and Clinton’s lack of appeal to rural voters” that caused an even bigger divide. “We can imagine Biden will play better. He’ll talk more about economics. He’s seen as more of a moderate. My guess is that it will be a slightly less overwhelming margin in rural America, but still pretty red.”
There have been multiple reports of those Biden lawn signs on rural properties in Pennsylvania vanishing or being destroyed. It’s a piece of evidence that the nation’s politics have become not just polarized but tribal. “I could give out more signs but they’re being stolen, and people are worried their properties will be vandalized,” Lisa LaBarre, the Democratic chairwoman in Bradford County, said. “It’s not even about issues anymore. People won’t vote for anyone with a D next to their name. It’s like you’d be siding with the enemy.”