Dispatch: Rural voters gather at 'Trump House' in Pennsylvania as president attempts to woo disillusioned women

Nick Allen
·6-min read
Ms Rossi holds the hand of the 14ft metal cutout of Donald Trump - Joe Appel for the Daily Telegraph
Ms Rossi holds the hand of the 14ft metal cutout of Donald Trump - Joe Appel for the Daily Telegraph

If the polls are to be believed then Joe Biden will win Pennsylvania. But Leslie Rossi doesn't think so. "The polls are bull--t," she says, sitting outside her "Trump House," a star-spangled homestead with a 15ft statue of the president on the lawn.

Over the past week hundreds of Republicans have been patiently queuing outside the Trump House to pick up yard signs, banners and flags.

There are also voter registration forms to fill out, which Ms Rossi sends off. She's registered dozens of "switchers," former Democrats becoming Republicans.

It’s evidence of a potential late Trump surge in Westmoreland County, a rural area just outside Pittsburgh. Mr Trump currently trails Joe Biden by four points in Pennsylvania.

If he is to win what is widely seen as the most crucial state in the election, he has to run up the score in rural areas to offset an apparent collapse in his support among women in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

On Tuesday, Mr Trump is flying into the state. First lady Melania Trump was due to make her first appearance at a rally in over a year, but cancelled at the last minute, citing coronavirus symptoms.

"Mrs Trump continues to feel better every day following her recovery from Covid-19, but with a lingering cough, and out of an abundance of caution, she will not be traveling today," her spokesperson said.  

Leslie Rossi, 47, owner of The Trump House 2016 in Youngstown - Joe Appel for the Daily Telegraph
Leslie Rossi, 47, owner of The Trump House 2016 in Youngstown - Joe Appel for the Daily Telegraph

The president on Tuesday suffered a setback as the US Supreme Court allowed Pennsylvania to count mailed-in ballots received up to three days after the Nov 3 election.

It is believed mail-in voting will favour Democrats.

Four years ago, Mr Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes, out of 6.2 million cast, a difference of just 0.72 per cent. White women backed him by 50 per cent to 47 per cent over Hillary Clinton. But Joe Biden now leads by 23 points among that group.

At a recent rally just outside Pittsburgh the president pleaded: “Suburban women, will you please like me? Please, please. I saved your damn neighbourhood, OK?"

But for many it’s far too late for Mr Trump to make amends. Norah Schrieber, 60, an administrative assistant at a suburban Catholic church, and a lifelong Republican, already cast her vote - for Joe Biden. She now calls her former party the "Rethuglicans".

She said: "It was really emotional voting, I got choked up thinking about what I was doing. But it's country versus party for me. Let's go high.

"It used to be I would defend him [Mr Trump]. But he lies all the time, and mocked people, and espoused violence. Just lies, lies, lies.

“I went online and changed my registration to Democrat, and I don't think I'll ever go back, because it isn't the Republican party I knew. I lost family and friends over it, I've been trolled online, it's very personal."

Sandy Arnell, 48, who lives in a suburb and used to work for Republican officials, said she supports the military and police, and is fiscally conservative. But she re-registered as a Democrat online in June 2017.

"When I hit enter I let out a sigh of relief," she said. "What he (Mr Trump) has done to this country, and continues to do, is disgusting, it's demeaning, derogatory, it's a disgrace.

“Flabbergasted isn't a strong enough word, I'm shell-shocked at what he says. I have no understanding why women support him. To me it's a no-brainer."

As moderate Republican women leave the party, Mr Trump's campaign believes he can make up for it by attracting some of the 2.4 million white Pennsylvanian voters - women and men - without college degrees who didn't vote last time.

In Westmoreland County, Mr Trump beat Mrs Clinton 64 per cent to 33 per cent in 2016. The turnout was 75 per cent, but his campaign believes he still has "room to grow".

The Republican optimism is spurred by the fact that, four years ago, the local Democrat party had 10,000 more registered voters. Republicans recently overhauled them and are now 14,000 ahead.

A photo of Hillary Clinton behind the bars on a basement window of The Trump Hous - Joe Appel for the Daily Telegraph
A photo of Hillary Clinton behind the bars on a basement window of The Trump Hous - Joe Appel for the Daily Telegraph

Registering for a party allows voters to take part in its primary elections, but is also seen as a gauge of enthusiasm.

Westmoreland itself, named after the former English county of "Westmorland" has a population of 365,000, which is over 95 per cent white, living in small communities on rolling farmland.

A few miles from the Trump House is the childhood home of one of America's most beloved figures, Fred Rogers, who hosted "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood” on TV for decades, and that of the golfer Arnold Palmer. 

Ms Rossi, 49, believes a landslide in Westmoreland will help Mr Trump keep Pennsylvania.

A trail of trodden grass snakes away from her farmhouse showing how long the line of presidential fans has been.

"There've been women, and men, changing party," she said. "With a lot of them it's a wife and husband, or a whole family. They've talked about it among themselves.”

She said there had been little enthusiasm for Mr Biden when he recently arrived in Westmoreland by train.

“He had no crowds. There were 10 people waiting for him at the train station,” she said. “I get more people here than he does. We’ve had lines outside my house an hour to get in."

The most popular sign being taken from the Trump House reads "No More Bulls--t". They can be seen all over the county.

Mimi Urban, 55, a property investor, who was picking up a "Pro-Life Pro-Trump" sign, said: "I'm a suburban woman, and I'm for Trump. I'm self sufficient. I don't need anyone to take care of me. To be honest when Trump said that Access Hollywood stuff about women, it didn't upset me. I was more upset he let himself get caught on a hot mic.

“I have girlfriends who run businesses and they're all Trump. There is a silent majority, women I know who are Trump but they don't want people to know.”

However, Gina Cerilli, Westmoreland County Commissioner, a Democrat, said: "It's a hidden Biden vote this time, not a hidden Trump vote.

"I've spoken to a lot of women who are not going to wear a Joe Biden T-shirt or have a sign in their yard, but they're voting."

Ms Cerilli was Miss Pennsylvania in the Trump-owned Miss USA beauty pageant in 2010, and met him then. She said, among female voters in Westmoreland County, it was the pandemic, along with pictures of children at the Mexico border, and the way the president addresses female reporters, that had most damaged him.

"Covid was the nail in the coffin for him here," she said. "And women have been disappointed at how disrespectful he is. To be honest Hillary Clinton didn't resonate with people in western Pennsylvania.

“But it's different this time. Joe Biden's on the ballot and he's a good blue collar, hard working, middle class guy."