In Pennsylvania, Both Parties Will Likely Walk a Tightrope Through Election Day
WASHINGTON – If anyone ever doubted the crucial role Pennsylvania will play in selecting the next President of the United States, those doubts should have been decisively put to rest on December 10.
That morning, House Democrats filed two articles of impeachment against the current occupant of the White House, but by nightfall President Donald Trump was aboard Air Force One, winging his way to a campaign rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
The trip was significant not only because it coincided with a step toward his eventual impeachment but also because of the signal it sent.
After months of stumping in states where he had hopes of expanding his electoral map prospects, Trump was, in effect, coming home to rally his base.
Trump narrowly won Pennsylvania in 2016 by just 44,000 votes over Hillary Clinton.
By appearing there in one of the darkest hours of his presidency, he was acknowledging he’ll need the support of every one of those voters if he’s going to be re-elected come November.
Of course, he’s not the only presidential candidate taking the Keystone State seriously.
Former Vice President Joe Biden headquartered his campaign in Philadelphia within hours of entering the race. He’s almost a favorite son, having spent part of his boyhood in Scranton, and living for decades just next door, in Wilmington, Delaware, as that state’s long time senator.
Just last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren began hiring field staff in the state and opened a field office in Philadelphia, raising some eyebrows as the state won’t hold its primary until April 28.
Driving much of this attention is the fact that as the nation’s number five state in population, Pennsylvania has the fifth most delegates in the Democratic primary. At the same time, Pennsylvania has come to be seen as a marker of where the political parties are and where they may be headed in the future.
To many pundits, Pennsylvania is the battleground of the rural and urban divide.
But for G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that description falls short of explaining why the state in recent years has consistently been on the front lines of American politics.
“In Pennsylvania, as in Wisconsin and other rust belt states there are really two distinct rural communities,” Madonna told The Well News.
“The first is what one might think of as the Heartland Republican communities,” he continued. “These are small towns that are very conservative and have supported Republicans for decades.
“But then you have another kind of small town, communities, particularly in the Southwestern part of our state, which were the mining centers and mills of the industrial revolution. These were traditional Democratic communities, but for the past decade, decade-and-a-half, they’ve been trending Republican.”
Madonna, who is also the director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll, said the voters in this second rural region are the former Democrats who voted for Trump in droves in 2012.
“Trump didn’t cause the move away from the Democrats in this region, which is steeped in coal and iron and steel, but he certainly accelerated a trend that was already occurring,” he said.
“If you look at counties like Green and Washington and Westmoreland, Cambria and Beaver, every one of them has a Democratic voter registration edge over the Republican, and every one of them voted for Trump by double-digits,” he added.
Asked why this occurred, Madonna said it was a combination of a population being culturally conservative, and at the same time feeling the Democratic Party had forgotten them as it became more urban-centric.
“These are voters who want coal and iron and steel production to return … that don’t like bad trade deals … and who are not in favor of abortion or gay rights,” he said. “There are voters, also, who are very much in the ‘Don’t touch my gun’ camp … and are very cautious about policies related to the environment and climate change.
“And Trump went after those voters, specifically, by espousing a rust belt agenda in which talked about bringing back the industries these people knew and getting rid of NAFTA, and he prevailed,” he said.
“The same thing happened in the northeast part of the state,” Madonna added. “Luzerne County is home to a lot of coal production and also heavily Democratic, in terms of registration, and Trump carried it.
“I never thought a Republican would win there in my lifetime,” he said.
If this all sounds dire for the Democrats, Madonna was quick to point out, he hadn’t gotten to the other part of the story — Philadelphia and the four suburban communities that surround it, Bucks, Chester, Montgomery and Delaware counties.
“In three of four of those suburban counties, Democrats picked up congressional seats, helping to flip control of the House to their party, and in 2019, Democrats picked up county-wide sides in all four counties,” he said.
Madonna attributed their success in these races to the “transformation” that is occurring in suburban communities across the country — once bastions of Republicanism, they’re now ground zero for the growing political clout of college-educated women and millennials.
“These are voters who tend to be culturally liberal and are highly critical of Trump,” he said. “They also tend to be heavily invested in the environment and climate change, as well as gun control.”
The question then, given the slim margin between victory and defeat in 2016, is what each party will do to try to push the odds to their favor.
Biden and Warren have already taken definitive steps to be competitive in the state. As for the Trump campaign, it says it has already held hundreds of training sessions and “MAGA Meet Ups” this year, and it maintains its “ground game” won’t be beat in the general election.
Madonna offered a more sober view.
“The Republicans have to figure out a way to stop the hemorrhaging in the suburbs. They can’t lose the suburbs the way they lost the midterm elections there and hope to carry states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan,” he said.
At the same time, he added, they have to make sure the turnout in rural communities and small towns across the state is at least what it was in 2016.
That’s both because Democrats are motivated to oust Trump and the party won’t be saddled with a polarizing candidate this time around.
Marc Meredith, associate professor in the Department of Political Science, at the University of Pennsylvania said the relative turnout in a small number of highly populated blue counties and the large number of less populated red counties will be very important in 2020.
“But it will also be important just how red those red counties are,” he said.
“In 2016, not only did Trump and [Sen. Patrick] Toomey win, but three Democrats won their statewide races for attorney general, auditor, and treasurer,” Meredith said.
“One reason why is that these Democrats ran 10 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton in some of the red counties in southwest and northeast Pennsylvania, such as Fayette, Greene, Lackawanna, and Luzerne. Whether the Democrat in 2020 gets a vote share more like Clinton’s or the Democrats who won the statewide races in 2016 will be very important in determining who wins Pennsylvania,” he said.
Madonna said both parties have a difficult road ahead.
For the Republicans, he said the greatest challenge will be trying to hold onto the Trump base while at least making appeals to the voters in the suburbs. For the Democrats, it’ll be developing a working class agenda.
In doing so each runs the risk of discouraging some of their core voters.
“That’s one reason Trump doesn’t want to run against Joe Biden — he already appeals to working class voters,” Madonna. “Better to run against Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, in Trump’s view, because he can attack their progressive agenda — particularly the cost of it — and not run the risk of alienating his base.”