RIDGWAY, Pa.—Tucked into a wooded valley in north-central Pennsylvania is the bellwether borough of Ridgway, the county seat of Elk County.
Not as large or as well-known as its more eastern cousin, Luzerne County, where much of the election attention has been focused, Elk County is just as accurate in predicting who will be the next commander in chief.
It's the rural American, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment county that gave the edge to Barack Obama in 2008. It's a county where the residents are proud of its powdered metal factories and where the Ford F-Series is as ubiquitous as the American flag.
Elk County's approximately 15,000 residents that go to the polls have voted for the eventual winner in all but three presidential elections since 1932—in 1940, 1968, and 2012.
The 2012 outcome seemed to be the beginning of a more robust shift to the right for the county—while the state reelected Obama, Elk County had already moved on.
This year, the local courthouse in Ridgway has been bustling with new voter registrations and party affiliation changes.
The shift is evident when comparing current registrations with the 2016 numbers. Republican registrations have increased from 8,467 on Nov. 9, 2016, to 9,960 as of Sept. 17 this year. Over the same time period, Democrat registrations have dipped from 9,526 to 7,576.
In 2016, Pennsylvania itself was wrenched out of its 24-year run as a Democratic sure bet when Donald Trump cleared just over 44,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton and took the state's prized 20 electoral votes.
The voter shift is happening statewide, and despite Democrats having 750,000 more registered voters, Republicans have gained 75,000 since 2016, while Democrats have lost 91,000.
But it’s still anyone’s game when taking into account the 1.2 million unaffiliated or other-party voters and the roughly 70 percent voter turnout.
And this year's election is unlike any other, in which mail-in voting has become the norm, injecting an air of uncertainty into a year already full of upheaval.
Changing SidesIn Ridgway, Biden supporters were more difficult to find and more reluctant to talk than Trump supporters, but a few yard signs were dotted around.
One older woman with a Biden sign outside her home simply said, "I'm voting for Biden, and that's all I've got to say."
Terry Titchner, 70, said he's voting for Biden because he doesn't trust Trump. "At least Biden is honest," he said.
Titchner, a Vietnam veteran, has been painting houses for 45 years and said he votes based on the candidate, rather than the party.
Carol Jacobs and her husband were lifelong Democrats until 2016.
Jacobs, 58, a gift store manager in Ridgway, said she voted for Obama but didn't follow politics closely at the time.
"But the thing that stuck out in my head, every time I read or listened to anything about [Obama's] policies, I saw such a deep revival of division, causing division between the blacks and the whites again," Jacobs said on Sept. 17.
Once the two 2016 presidential candidates were locked in, she knew she couldn't vote for Clinton, while Trump's promise to "drain the swamp" piqued her interest. Both Jacobs and her husband switched to Republican "and I've never looked back," she said.
"What happened to our Democratic Party? It's gone," Jacobs said. "And it's never going to come back."
The issues most important to Jacobs are immigration, the health care system, and socialism.
"I think a lot of us are fighting against socialism. We don't want it," she said. "That's probably the biggest fear right now when I talk to people. They're scared. Their fear is real, mine is.
"We have to stand and fight for the constitution our forefathers created.
"The majority of rural America are our hard-working, blue-collar workers. They take pride in going to work, owning their home, having that simple life. But they're happy with that and they're proud of what they created. And we just want that to continue. We want to get people off of welfare, we need to get people back into working again, being self sustainable. And it can happen."
Jacobs believes there's more enthusiasm for Trump now than before the 2016 election—in Elk County and around the country.
"He loves this country. He cares about the American people."
Jacobs said she "absolutely" intends to vote in person on Nov. 3.
"I would never vote any other way. There's too much corruption. There's too much mishandling," she said.
A Quiet Biden SupporterA small-business owner, who didn't want to be identified, said he's voting for Biden. He also intends to vote in person—to ensure his vote is counted that day, although he used a mail-in ballot to vote in the primary.
"It was easy. I trust the system implicitly," he said.
He predicts that many Trump voters will start to waver in the weeks leading up to the election and will end up not voting. He also believes many local Biden voters made the decision to vote for the Democratic candidate years ago, "but they're not going to be vocal about it."
"Rural white America is principally Trump, and they are ripe for conspiracy theories. And then you have the Biden folks that are like, ‘This is just nutty,'" he said.
But, he said, most mainstream politicians don't represent rural America, and issues such as boys that identify as girls and then compete in girls' high school sports "just smack of stupid."
The economy and taxes are important issues to him, but the question he asks of the candidate is, "Does this person care about my family?"
'An Unconventional Way'Trump wasn't Tom "TO" Fitch's first choice in the 2016 primary—he voted for Sen. Ted Cruz. But he's pleased with how Trump has run the country and is eager to reelect him.
Fitch said he finds the president to be arrogant and obnoxious at times, "but I wasn't voting for a fishing buddy, I was looking for somebody to stir up Washington, D.C."
"He's getting stuff done in an unconventional way," Fitch said. "Instead of guns and bullets, he's bringing our troops home, he's ending wars. He's feeding people, instead of beating them up, to get stuff accomplished. I think that's what the world needed. I think we needed somebody like him."
Fitch, who grew up in foster homes and went on to put himself through college, has owned and run the Summit Fireside Lodge and Grill for 32 years.
He's concerned about big government, burdensome regulations, and encroachments on the Constitution.
"Every time you pass a law, the government becomes more oppressive. And the thing is, when they have these laws now that they aren't enforcing, what good is another law going to be? Enforce the ones that you do have," he said.
He's organizing a Second Amendment rally in Ridgway for Oct. 17 to make sure gun rights are fresh in people's minds when they head to the ballot box.
Fitch said almost half of the 5,000-strong Second Amendment group in Elk county are Democrats.
He says Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf "overstepped his boundaries" during the pandemic.
"What are they going to do about gun rights?" he said. "If we don't stop them, if we don't take a stand ... basically we're moving into socialism."
'Best Candidate'Edie Martin is struggling to get her diner back in the black after being closed for almost three months over the pandemic. While the Royal Drive In has been in the family for 60 years and serves a steady stream of local regulars, Martin says she won't recover until at least next summer, when she can get an extra boost, especially from traveling Canadians—as long as the border is open.
She registered as a Democrat about 40 years ago and has never bothered to change her affiliation, although she voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do the same this year.
"He's probably the best candidate out there for what's going on in our country right now," Martin said. "I know a lot of people don't like him, because of his tweets and things that he says, and I kind of agree with that. But that's not the picture I look at. I look at the picture of what he's doing for my country."
She sees the economy, trade, China, and the Middle East peace deal as top issues.
Martin thinks the Democrats could have chosen a better candidate than Biden.
"I just don't think he's capable of doing the job that it's going to require of him."
Martin plans to turn up at the polling booth on Election Day.
Economy, Border, VirusAnother Ridgway resident said he's more enthusiastic to vote for Trump this year.
"Because the man made a lot of promises in 2016, and I think that he stood up and he kept every one of those promises that he could possibly keep," said Ron Fannin, 69, the local courthouse supervisor.
"He loves his country to the point where he wants it to do well."
The issues most important to Fannin include the economy, border security, and the virus.
"I mean the whole world ought to be mad at China, we should all be going to war against them. We shouldn't be fighting among each other here. They caused this, they brought it on because they don't like him," Fannin said.
He's concerned a Biden administration would mean an end to fracking, higher gas prices, and utility bill hikes.
The price of regular gas at the local Sheetz was $2.53—already substantially higher than across the border in West Virginia, where $2.19 was the norm.
Fannin plans to vote in person and is "pretty sure" Trump will win a second term, but he's concerned about the integrity of the mail-in ballots.
Wolf has allowed for the counting of ballots to continue for three days after Nov. 3, meaning it's unlikely that a winner will be called in Pennsylvania for at least a week after the election.
Not Voting, Not ComplainingJason Armagost of Mudbeard's Bikes and Boards has chosen to stay out of politics and doesn't vote. But, he said, he also doesn't complain.
"I've got opinions, but I just don't voice them, I keep to myself," he said, adding that it's better for business. "I kind of keep in my bubble. People are so worked up about it all the time, stressed out. I can't lead that kind of lifestyle."
Armagost was lucky during the shutdowns, as bike shop repairs and maintenance were considered essential and he remained in business.
Mainstream polls are suggesting a Pennsylvania win for Biden, but, if the 2016 polls were anything to go by, they're about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.
The ongoing coronavirus restrictions seem to be nudging people to the right, but six weeks out from the election and with the October surprises still to come, the Keystone State could be the clincher for either candidate.