GEORGIA Burns, Cameron Hillhouse and Richard Walker report back from Pennsylvania – a state at the heart of this crucial vote, gave insight into the state of the nation


CAN the oddly behaved man at a polling station in Pennsylvania really be hiding a gun? Are the Republicans actually going to challenge the legality of some postal votes just because the wrong date had been written on their envelopes? Are voters in this area REALLY going to elect as governor a candidate who had been seen near Trump’s infamous insurrection?

Welcome to politics in America in the 2022 midterm elections. Welcome to the toxic legacy of Donald Trump.

Penn State University is a beautiful place, basking in this November election day in a weirdly hot and sunny spell. A 19th-century “land grant” university, Penn State has been built as a town, with streets, parks and some grand, imposing buildings. Students are queuing to vote at several polling stations dotted around the campus. Construction work is going on to build more student accommodation blocks, such is the demand. At the HUB-Robeson Center they vote upstairs while a DJ pumps out dance tunes as restaurants serve lunch.

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Claire Gray, a member of the campaign team working from the Democrat headquarters at the campus, is nervous at the current state of a politics beset by disinformation, conspiracy theories and paranoia. “We have a really weird media environment where things are just constantly being enflamed,” she says. “You see networks actually driving conspiracy theories that then become platforms for Republican politicians. Seeing that cycle is really scary.

“We have spent the last several weeks, making sure that we have trained folks both inside polls and outside polls to make sure that no one is being disenfranchised, that no one’s being threatened, that no one feels unsafe casting a ballot.

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“I’ve seen the dropbox process – where postal ballots are handed in – all across the country, with people sitting outside of them in a threatening manner or holding really large guns. To cast a ballot is such a fundamental part of this democracy. It makes me really sad, it makes me really scared.”

The polls have been busy all day although not anywhere near as busy as the historic 2009 election that propelled Barack Obama into the White House. Those were different days, when it looked as if the US had really changed for the better.

Today that optimism has gone, replaced by cynicism and suspicion. Even here, in a liberal seat of learning with relaxed bohemian cafes selling second-hand records and books, you can feel the tension.

Politics in America was infected when Donald Trump refused to accept the 2020 election result which put Joe Biden in power. He has since managed to convince an estimated 70% of his supporters that he was right. Matters deteriorated further when Trump supporters, encouraged by their leader, stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021 in what was almost certainly an attempted coup, albeit one that failed.

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The conservative-dominated US Supreme Court’s reversal of the Roe v Wade ruling which gave women a constitutional right to abortion hardly improved matters. If that could happen, what progressive advance was safe? Gay marriage? Sex education? Black lives were already under threat … could police brutality grow even worse? Suddenly everything progressive people had taken for granted under Obama was under threat. Suddenly Trump’s wave of disinformation and misinformation looked like a real threat to democracy as at least half the country understood it.

The Democrats’ Penn State headquarters is having a busy election day working to put its candidate Paul Takac into the House of Representatives. Staff were contacting supporters whose postal votes had for whatever reason been ruled invalid, breaking the bad news and offering help to get them to a polling station to make sure their vote was counted.

Pennsylvania is a divided state. Election graphics show Penn State and urban areas Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as blobs of Democrat blue. But the vast rural areas outside those cities are a sea of Republican red. You don’t have to travel far outside the university to see yards planted with election posters for Doug Mastriano, the extremist republican candidate for governor who was seen close to the Capitol riots on January 6.

Mastriano appeared at a rally with Trump just before the election. As state senator, he had argued women who violated a proposed six-week abortion ban should be charged with murder, and he wants gay marriage outlawed.

As students voted all over the campus, they were only too aware that an expected “giant red wave” at the polls could deliver candidates like Mastriano into power and foil Democratic control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Party workers like Claire Gray are working round the clock to prevent that happening.


SCRANTON doesn’t exactly keep secret its connection to the current occupant of the White House. Joe Biden’s name is everywhere. On the sign hanging next to the traffic lights straddling above Biden Street. On another at Joe Biden Way near the childhood home he left when he was 10, and yet another on a plaque outside the house itself. The road to the town where the American version of hit comedy The Office is set was renamed the President Biden Expressway after his inauguration.

The National: Joe Biden's name is everywhere you turnJoe Biden's name is everywhere you turn (Image: Georgia Burns, Cameron Hillhouse and Richard Walker)

Even then it wasn’t a universally popular decision. “Graffiti beginning with an F” was scrawled on a roadside within days, Penn Live Patriot-News reported at the time. Today, the occasional roadside poster proclaiming “Fuck Biden” is a symptom of the culture war currently gripping America.

The American president’s name wasn’t on the ballot papers for last Tuesday’s midterm election. Nor, for that matter, was that of his nemesis Donald Trump. Everyone knows, though, the midterm results will shape the battle for the presidency in 2024 in which they may or may not be the main protagonists.

Biden was born in this city on November 20, 1942, which means he will be just days off his 82nd birthday on the next presidential election, which even many fervent Democratic supporters hope he will not fight.

The president-to-be scrawled the message, “From this house to the White House with the grace of God” on the wall of the three-storey colonial house at N.Washington Road where he spent his early childhood during a visit “home” in 2020. The house has different owners today but Biden is always keen to pay tribute to the blue-collar city, which he says formed him.

“The truth is Scranton isn’t my home because of the memories it gave me. It’s my home because of the values it gave me,” he said on his first visit to the town after his election victory. “And I resolved to bring Scranton values to bear, to make a fundamental shift in how our economy works for working people.”

On a freakishly warm and sunny day last week, in Lackawanna County Courthouse Square in the city’s downtown area, there are few signs he had lived up to his promise. The monument erected in 1900 to commemorate the county’s soldiers and sailors who fought in the civil war towers over a virtually empty square.

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The mall a few blocks away is hardly much busier. About 20 people sit listening to a singer as the shops look scarily quiet. The talk here is the cost of living crisis. Fuel prices are still less than you would pay in the UK but a lot higher than people here are used to paying. Food prices are soaring. The economy is very obviously not working for working people. The big question is: how much of the blame will be placed at Biden’s door?

For many people, it’s not clear if politicians hold the answers to problems like this. Chanel Kearse, who works in one of the mall shops, believes those in positions of power are far removed from the problems of ordinary people. “A lot of politicians are older and their views come from a different social situation than the people who vote,” she says. “Many of the voters are living on the poverty line. Politicians are not connected to the people here. The cost of living crisis is an abstract term. It does not affect everyone equally. Its effects vary according to what you earn.”

Kearse wouldn’t put her faith in either the Democrats or the Republicans to take the action she wants to see to improve America, to make it less “capitalist”. She wants to see politicians who care for people rather than obey party diktats.

People talk of their distrust in the system. Priscilla Keane stands in the second-hand curios shop she recently opened in the mall and says she has so little faith in the system that she refuses to use the postal vote system and will visit the polling station on election day “because then I can be sure my vote is counted properly”.

She doesn’t trust the media either “because they all lie”. Apart from Fox News. Although she doesn’t align herself with any party, you don’t need to be Einstein to read between the lines. She believes in so-called traditional values: “The constitution has worked for all these years and they are trying to break it down. We need to come back to our constitution to save America”.

Today in Scranton, minds are concerned with the economy, stupid. “It’s a tough time to be president”, says Bob Sheridan, the city of Scranton Democratic chairman. “Prices are rising but this is a global problem and not just a US problem. We are getting hit harder because we were hit harder by Covid.’’

Whatever happens in 2024, right now there are other contests to be concerned about – one of the main being the fight between the Democrats’ John Fetterman and the Republican Mehmet Oz. It is a crucial part of the Democrats’ ambition to keep control of the almost equally divided Senate. Until Tuesday, there were 50 Republican senators, 48 Democrats and two independents. Only 34 seats – 14 Democrats and 20 Republicans – were up for election on Tuesday so it’s easy to grasp how crucial the Fetterman v Oz tussle is.

Fetterman had been a clear favourite but talk before the vote was about the effect a recent stroke had had on the Democrat’s chances. A TV debate after the stroke was generally regarded even by some Democrats as damaging for Fetterman, whose speech had clearly been affected. But then Oz, a TV doctor who rose to fame on the Oprah Winfrey show, isn’t regarded by many as a great candidate either. He hasn’t shone in the abortion debate and Winfrey herself has come out in favour of his opponent.

For weeks, constant television ads have fought for reader attention. All carried so many coded messages that even Alan Turing would have been left scratching his head. There are disguised – and sometimes not so disguised – suggestions that Fetterman is not physically fit for office and knowing winks and nods that Biden’s mental faculties are not what they were. The gloves are well and truly off in this election but that’s not really what makes it more unpleasant and dangerous than any other in living memory.

Ask Bob Sheridan what kind of city Scranton is and he says it is populated by “kind-hearted people who look out for each other”. How that kindness will withstand a tanking economy, a bitter battle over the values of modern America and the deep suspicion and paranoia unleashed by Trump’s attempted insurrection is not clear.

What is certain is that Priscilla Keane would certainly not see the situation in those terms. But for her, it seems that right now, the best thing about Scranton is the road out of it, whatever it’s called. “If the American people are pushed into a corner, they will fight and they are ready to,” she says. “That’s why I’m moving to Maine, out in the forest away from it all.”


DONALD Trump may not yet have decided whether to enter the battle for the American presidency in 2024 but his presence looms large over the midterms in swathes of rural Pennsylvania.

In Chambersburg, the home town of Republican governor candidate Doug Mastriano, there are as many posters of the former president as of the candidate himself.

“Trump for four more years”, “Gun owners for Trump” (with a red, white and blue rifle underneath the American flag just in case you missed the point), “Trump 2024” and “He’ll be back’”. They are tied to trees and hang from flag poles.

Drive past these houses and gardens into a deep forest and a congregation of about 25 people are gathered to worship at the Pond Bank Independent Church, listening to Pastor Joseph Hall deliver folksy wisdom in a sermon urging those present to be “all in” when it comes to embracing the Christian faith.

After the service, members of the congregation are quick to identify the cost of living crisis as the big election issue but it soon emerges there are other, deeper issues surrounding their differences with the Democratic view.

Some are not even convinced all is what it seems when it comes to rising prices – “Are things really as bad as they look or is it political?” asks Deborah Ferguson, who goes on to question Biden’s effectiveness.”Good or bad, our country was doing well under former President Trump.”

Another member of the congregation, Beverley Rock, adds that when Trump was in power, the gas price was dramatically lower. “Back then it was $2.83 a gallon and it was $4.15 yesterday.”

Rock’s argument isn’t just financial. She’s also against the teaching of transgender issues and abortion. Rodney Bumbauth adds: “I think our college professors have lost their morals. I think they’re teaching radical stuff. I hate to send a kid to college today because they brainwash them.”

Bumbauth is against abortion too, although he might be willing to let that slide in the case of rape. He mentions the case of a woman in New Jersey: “If she goes, and she has it done right away before life forms, I’m okay for that.”

At what stage in a pregnancy would he allow an abortion? “I’d really like to put God in control, I believe God has a plan for our world.”

Pastor Hall would no doubt agree, but right now he’s putting his faith in the Republican Party. He describes himself as “straight republican” and “strictly party” and has never voted for anyone else since he reached the voting age of 18. He places unconditional trust in the party to make the right decisions.

It’s hard to see both sides in this culture war reaching any agreement any time soon. The gap between the two is a chasm and each views the other with the deepest suspicion. Beverley Rock believes the Democrats to be responsible for fostering division: “If that’s the way you believe that’s fine, but don’t push it on me. I don’t believe that way. Let’s not have a parade.”


AMERICA woke up on Wednesday morning to confirmed news that the much-predicted giant red wave had failed to materialise. David Mastriano’s bid to become governor was thwarted by his democrat opponent Joshua Shapiro. Fetterman triumphed over Dr Oz in their senate tussle. And in Penn State, Paul Takac won the Democrats a House of Representatives seat. At his emotional victory party on Tuesday night, he tells family, friends and colleagues that the easy part is now over and the hard work begins the following day.

The National: Paul Takac won a House seatPaul Takac won a House seat (Image: Georgia Burns, Cameron Hillhouse and Richard Walker)

Who controls the Senate is unlikely to be clear until the beginning of next month but the House of Representatives looks likely to come under Republican control.America remains a bitterly divided country and Americans weigh up the options for its – and their – future. Priscilla Keane looks to hide out in Maine. Beverley Rock prays for a country that “comes together” and for its leaders to “become one and help the people of the United States” – while Donald Trump ponders whether to ramp up the divisions by standing again in 2024.

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Penn State student Liz Kettle looks forward to working to restore faith in the electoral system undermined by voter fraud, election fraud and intimidation of voters, and an exhausted Claire Gray holds on to the glimmer of hope the midterms provided. She says: “We’ve seen in Pennsylvania such a registration increase – especially in young women. I think the numbers of women under 30 are much higher than they have ever been before in Pennsylvania.

“It’s really encouraging to see.”


THE trip to America to write this piece was funded by the University of Strathclyde Alumni Association along with the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Strathclyde. Accommodation was generously provided by the Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State University. The visit was co-ordinated and led by Dr Michael Higgins, programme leader for Media and Communication at the University of Strathclyde. Research and writing is by Strathclyde Masters students Georgia Burns and Cameron Hillhouse, and The National founding editor Richard Walker.