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Here's why Mike Pence gave Scranton a shout-out at the VP debate

Mike Pence speaks during the Vice Presidential Debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine at Longwood University on October 4, 2016 in Farmville, Virginia.
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Mike Pence speaks during the Vice Presidential Debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine at Longwood University on October 4, 2016 in Farmville, Virginia.

It was perhaps the most telling and key moment in Tuesday night's VP debate: When Tim Kaine was talking up the economy, Mike Pence responded with, "People in Scranton know different. People in Fort Wayne know different."

Pence's decision to give Scranton a shout out was hardly random. The city and its surrounding county are seen as a potential flash point for Donald Trump to pull off an upset victory in Pennsylvania because of a combination of hard data and emotional appeal.

Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes are still a prize the Trump-Pence campaign believes it can win despite a RealClearPolitics poll average that has Hillary Clinton recently increasing her lead there. What makes Scranton even more important for the Trump team is the fact that Barack Obama won the city and its surrounding Lackawanna County by a resounding 27 percentage points in 2012.

If Trump can not only win Scranton and Lackawanna, but boost the total number of votes from the 98,000 cast in the county four years ago, Pennsylvania could, indeed, go to the Republican presidential candidate for the first time since 1988.

The Scranton region is so crucial because it's not part of the Clinton stronghold in the greater Philadelphia region, nor is it a part of the western regions of the state where Trump's support is strongest. It's also very close to the city of Reading, Pa., in Berks County, where Romney won in 2012 but by less than 1,700 votes among 170,000 total votes cast.

But those are just the raw numbers. The human story in Scranton and the handful of neighboring or nearby places like Berks, Luzerne, and Lehigh Counties tell you a lot more about why Trump could, indeed, win Pennsylvania. Each of those areas have seen the long-term effects of the overall manufacturing decline in America. Each of those counties is close enough to see, but not really participate in the more concentrated government spending and wealth in the Philadelphia area. And many voters there are also aware of the big boost in jobs that have come from fracking in the western counties, (not one fracking well is located in the counties of Lackawanna, Luzerne, Berks, or Lehigh), leaving them feeling left out of whatever economic recovery there is to speak of.

This is a region, like so many other parts of this country, where the service-sector economy is so important. And it is that service sector that has been so impacted by immigration, thus giving Trump a key opening.

The nearby town of Hazleton actually has a growing immigrant population, but opposing illegal immigration is very politically popular there. Hazleton's former Mayor Lou Barletta took his tough stance on immigration and used it to upset a long-serving Democrat in Congress in 2012.

With that in mind, perhaps it's not surprising that Trump won 77 percent of the vote in Luzerne County in the 2016 Pennsylvania Republican presidential primary, and 70 percent of the vote in Scranton's Lackawanna County.

But the really impressive fact is that Trump tripled the winning primary numbers 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney posted in both of those counties. If those primary results and turnout are indicative of what's going to happen in November, you can see why the Trump campaign is optimistically focusing on those specific parts of the Keystone state.

Pennsylvania is rarely looked at as a national bellwether state like Ohio or Florida. But perhaps it should be. For one thing, opposition to illegal immigration like we see in places like Scranton and Hazleton was clearly underestimated as a key factor in the GOP primaries. Perhaps if the campaign managers for the Republican candidates running against Trump had paid more attention to that, one of those other challengers could have won the nomination. And looking further back in history, it was Pennsylvania Democrat Harris Wofford's surprise win in the 1991 special election to replace the late U.S. Senator John Heinz that signaled a shift towards the Democrats in the state and nationwide that clearly presaged Bill Clinton's victory over George H.W. Bush for the White House a year later. In fact, Wofford's campaign managers, James Carville and Paul Begala, took senior roles on Clinton's 1992 campaign staff.

Because no Republican presidential candidate has won Pennsylvania in 28 years, the conventional wisdom remains steadfastly doubtful about Trump's chances to win it now. But trends are a powerful force in politics, and in addition to Trump's growing support in the middle of the state, the Democrats only won the state by five percentage points in 2012 after a ten-point win in 2008.

And if Trump can ride that momentum to a win in Pennsylvania, he will almost surely win the entire election.


Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.