The Pennsylvanian woods are very beguiling, especially at this time of year. The colours of the leaves are orange and red and yellow and beige and brown and dark green and peach and all the subdued shades of the Fall, as they call Autumn here.
I drove up the mountain to the site of a refuge for troubled military veterans, called Camp Freedom. As we arrived, I had some dark thoughts at the back of my mind. Is this some sort of Waco, a cult devoted to crazy right-wing conspiracies, of the sort that are all too popular these days in America?
It wasn't like that at all. Everyone was kind and friendly and thoughtful. That was a relief after a fairly torrid journey.
Getting the necessary accreditation and clearances to cover the U.S. election this year was a long drawn out process. Because of the Coronavirus we are all very cautious. There was testing to be done in advance of travel and special waivers to be got. There are so many extra precautions to be taken that one has to carefully weigh the merits of covering the elections.
Every Presidential election in the United States is important, but this one feels particularly unique. President Trump’s first term of office has been incredibly divisive. He has remade the Republican party in his own image — his son said he had mounted a hostile takeover of the Republicans. His base of support love him.
The Democratic Party has chosen a party stalwart to run against him. Joe Biden may not be adored by his own people in the way Trump is by his followers, but he is deeply respected and loved by many. His own personal story is compelling to his supporters. He is a credible candidate.
After the pandemic hit and the economy tanked, this became an even more compelling race. It is possible, these days, to cover a lot of the Presidential race by Zoom or Skype, but in the end there is no substitute for boots on the ground, having a correspondent travelling around (safely) and talking to people and relaying their stories. That was the reason we decided that we had to come to the U.S. and to cover the election - that, if we were to do the job of journalism properly, this trip really was essential. .
We have taken extreme efforts to be safe and to make sure our interviewees are kept safe. Masks; social distancing; careful choices of location; disinfection of equipment; all make this a trip like no other. Safety comes first. And we have noticed that Covid protocols are very unevenly applied in different parts of America. However, wherever we go, we try to bring the same consistent standards.
Back in Pennsylvania, we were greeted with an outstretched hand and the offer of a warm handshake. I shyly declined and offered an elbow bump instead. Everyone laughed. I got the impression they didn’t take Covid very seriously here.
The camp was celebrating the killing of a black bear. Hunting is one of the things they do here. The idea is that a week of hunting and talk therapy, will help military veterans get over their difficulties. It’s up to you to judge whether shooting black bears is a good way to overcome Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The camp leader, Matt, came from the rustbelt — from the steel towns of Pennsylvania where American manufacturing died in the 1970s and 80s. Matt believes in President Trump. He believes that jobs are roaring back and mines and steel plants will follow. But where’s the evidence that that has happened, I ask him.
He cited a couple of examples and then went back to the rhetoric. Matt is now a true believer and he will definitely vote for Donald Trump on Tuesday.
I was expecting the others to hold similar views, but I was surprised.
Jen had just shot the bear. She lost a leg in an accident and is the partner of a veteran. But on Donald Trump, she was pretty non-committal. She probably would vote for him, but she didn’t think it was worth arguing about. Why are people falling out and getting so angry on social media? She was completely baffled. Not worth worrying about.
Army veteran Mike was even more disengaged. As we sat on the stoop overlooking a beautiful lake in all its Fall splendour, he told me he will not vote this time around. Clearly a Trump supporter, Mike says letting the political rancour get in on him would disrupt his fragile recovery. He will not vote.
Down the road from the camp, I stopped in Archbald, a small town with a trout-filled river running through it.
I popped into the hairdressers to have a chat. Everyone was already wearing a mask and they naturally kept a decent social distance without being prompted. I said hello and explained that I was in the area to talk about the election.
The women exploded. Trump was a terrible man, with no morality. He has brought shame on the country. Joe Biden is a decent man, who has suffered severe loss in his life.
I couldn’t stop them. They went on and on. Sure, they knew Trump supporters in the area, but in this town, Biden was the choice.
That contrast, between suburban and rural, between female and male, is something that has really struck home since I arrived in the U.S. The polls show President Trump doing very well in rural communities, among male voters and with traditional Republicans. Joe Biden is winning in suburban areas, where Covid is a big concern, and among women, who — according to the polls — have turned against the incumbent.
Polls are helpful, but they are no substitute for walking around and asking people for their opinions and for probing their thoughts on the election.
In a normal election, the Democrats would be crowing from the rooftops, but everywhere I go and every one of them I speak to is haunted by their loss in 2016. You can see it in their eyes. Then, they were sure Hillary Clinton was going to win. The polls pointed in that direction. Hence their caution. This is going to be a fascinating contest. It is a rare and special privilege to be here to witness it.