Working-class anger and economic decline
could deliver Pennsylvania to Donald Trump
Resurgence of Updike's Rabbit Voter Could be Harbinger
By CHARLES McELWEE
[WC News Service]
Pennsylvanians will be under close political, psychological, and anthropological observation during this election cycle. The state is home to a large white working class that resides in urban and rural pockets undergoing profound demographic and economic change. Although Pennsylvania has reliably trended Democratic since 1992, there are enough of these voters to imperil Hillary Clinton’s chances. The state is witnessing an emerging coalition of Republicans and Democrats who are devoid of ideological preferences, furious over the perceived failures of both parties, and believe the changes transforming the state threaten their future.
In April, Republican voters expressed enough anger and carried enough grudges to make Pennsylvania one of Donald Trump’s best performances in the GOP primary season. In the coming months, Hillary hopes to win over the right number of Democrats and disaffected suburban Republicans to eliminate Trump’s pathway to Pennsylvania’s twenty Electoral College votes. But a closer inspection of Pennsylvania’s primary results, combined with a historical and cultural understanding of the state’s working class, portend a much more difficult campaign for Hillary than Trump.
In the primary, Trump outperformed Hillary in the Lehigh Valley, the Harrisburg area, two suburban Philadelphia counties, and parts of northeastern and western Pennsylvania. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders won thirty of sixty-seven counties statewide, including the northern tier counties impacted by the natural gas industry and the Democratic strongholds of Cambria and Berks counties. Shortly before the primary, a New York Times reporter interviewed a retired steel worker at a Sanders rally in Reading, the Berks County seat and Pennsylvania’s fifth largest city. When asked who he would support in a Trump-Clinton matchup, he responded, “I would probably go for Donald Trump.”
Of course, Hillary can find solace in number crunching rather than organically gauging voters’ sentiments. In the twenty-three counties where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans, Hillary won nineteen of those counties, including most of southwestern Pennsylvania. She also seeks comfort in Philadelphia’s four suburban counties, once Republican strongholds, but now sprawling exurbs of bountiful Democratic votes.
Both parties accept that a presidential candidate’s destiny or failure depends on voter turnout in Philadelphia and favorable numbers in its suburban counties. In a recent article for the Federalist, Varad Mehta argued that Trump will not win in Pennsylvania because of his demographic disadvantages in these suburbs. He posits, “Democrats have done a much better job than Republicans of boosting their totals in suburban Philadelphia as its population has grown.” Noting how working class whites are a diminishing segment of the electorate, Mehta concludes that Trump cannot win Pennsylvania because of the number of college graduates living in these counties.
While Mehta presents an empirical analysis that should worry Trump’s campaign, his argument discounts the real estate mogul’s popularity among educated voters and working- class Democrats. In May, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver found that the median household income of a Trump voter ($72,000) is higher than the national median household income ($56,000). With the exception of Delaware County, the median household income for Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery County is above $70,000. Trump won each county in the primary and significantly outpaced Mitt Romney’s numbers in 2012. Of the four counties, Trump’s best performance was in Bucks County, a massive northern suburb once considered a bucolic backwater.
In recent elections, Bucks County has served as a political bellwether, traditionally matching statewide voting trends. Just days before the election in 2012, Romney appeared before a crowd of more than 25,000 people in Yardley, hoping a victory in the county would provide him with enough votes to win Pennsylvania. The county, just like the state, has gone for the Democratic candidate in every presidential race since 1992. In subsequent years, Republicans have targeted the more conservative suburban communities in central and northern Bucks County, hoping to offset whatever disadvantages they confront in the more densely populated southern tier.
In 2016, Trump’s message could click with Democrats in the county’s working class communities like Levittown and Bensalem. Although solidly Democratic, it is in these communities where Trump’s comments on immigration, entitlements, and foreign policy have cross-party appeal. As a political figure, Trump is familiar to these Democrats, many of whom once lived in rowhouse-packed neighborhoods in Philadelphia. In Trump, they see Frank Rizzo, the legendary former Philadelphia mayor whose conservative populism and bombast attracted suburbanites. Listening to Trump’s unscripted remarks is a nostalgic replay of Rizzo’s commentary on WCAU-AM in the late 1980s, when he enjoyed a political resurgence on the airwaves and decided to run as a Republican in the 1991 mayoral race.
While Trump attempts to court educated voters and working class Democrats in places like Bucks County, Hillary must hope for voter turnout levels in Philadelphia similar to what Barack Obama secured in 2008 and 2012. But unfolding state-level political events could result in lower numbers than those banner years. The Capitol in Harrisburg has been haunted by gridlock between the Democratic governor and Republican-led legislature. The governor did not allow the state’s 2015-16 budget to become law until March, and the nearly nine-month impasse severely impacted human services, public schools, and non-profits. Compounding this impasse is an ongoing FBI probe that has targeted Democratic elected officials and lobbyists. A repeat of the 2015 budget fiasco or looming indictments could hurt Democratic turnout at the polls.
As Hillary sets her focus on Philadelphia, Trump will rally a massive coalition in areas like Luzerne County. Located about two hours northwest of Philadelphia, Luzerne County was Trump’s best performing county statewide on primary night. He won 77 percent of the county’s GOP vote, and nearly 5,000 Democrats and independents switched their registration to Republican before the primary. Nestled in the heart of the anthracite coal region, Luzerne County is home to Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton, two cities that played a major historical role in the U.S. labor movement.
Luzerne County has always been a hotbed of labor and political unrest. Economic oppression and violent political episodes pockmarked the region’s past. In this climate, the county’s working class considered membership in the Democratic party a form of insurance. But their loyalty didn’t always translate at the polls, where ticket splitting often delivered local offices to Democrats and higher offices to Republicans. In the 1980s, the county produced legions of Reagan Democrats, who believed that the Republican president could repair their state’s sustained pattern of industrial decline, population loss, and urban blight.
By 1992, the Luzerne County Democrats who rallied around Reagan found their new working class hero in Bill Clinton. Clinton was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Pennsylvania since Jimmy Carter in 1976. In a speech shortly after his primary victory, Clinton commented on the “working people in Pennsylvania who have been shafted by the policies of the Bush-Reagan era,” people who wanted a “real change in economic policy.” He said, “They want a president who will take responsibility for building a high wage economy, bringing the American people together and fighting for political reform.”
During Bill’s 1992 campaign, the state grappled with an economic climate unfavorable toward the working class. He communicated their frustration, returning many Reagan Democrats to their original political home. But in 2016, Hillary has failed to replicate her husband’s tone or energize the targeted recipients of her own economic message. Her challenge remains in regions like Luzerne County, which represents a new labor movement emerging in Pennsylvania. Working class Democrats and Republicans blame the economic maladies afflicting their lives, communities, and state on policies supported by the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations. This political alliance holds an innate pride in their state’s past and negative outlook for its future. They drive through their hometowns, see the structural carcasses that housed steel mills and textile factories, strip mines that unearthed limitless layers of coal, and shuttered churches and dilapidated homes that once provided spiritual and physical shelter for their ancestors.
Many Luzerne County Democrats don’t share their party’s views on immigration. The county has experienced one of the fastest Hispanic growth rates in the nation. In Hazleton, the Latino population grew from 5 percent to 37 percent between 2000 and 2010. In 2006, the city introduced the national debate over municipal enforcement of illegal immigration, and the succeeding battle over this question landed in the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump has exploited the cross-party anger over immigration, and his position helped drive the massive turnout at his Wilkes-Barre rally on primary eve.
If Hillary visits Luzerne County, she would encounter lifelong Democrats in opposition to her immigration stance. She would meet baby boomers who cannot afford to retire. She would face millennials working in seasonal or low paying jobs. In their hometowns, friends and loved ones are victims of a heroin epidemic ravaging the region. Their cities struggle to combat crime or defeat an organized drug trade. And as they behold this reality on their streets, they pass historic state markers that remind them that Pennsylvania was once the world’s leader in steel, zinc, lumber, cement, and coal production. That it was a breadbasket for colonial America, a wilderness harvested for ships and construction, an industrial empire that fueled the country’s cities and military. They were told that the natural gas industry would reignite the state’s historic role and transform its working class regions, but the energy sector has lost a quarter of its employment from the previous year.
It would be difficult for Hillary to remind these Democrats of her husband’s presidency. Her campaign can present a View-Master, running stereoscopic images of the 1990s, hoping a nostalgic presentation of Bill’s two terms will inspire hope that happier days will return. But it is in those images that Democrats see NAFTA, globalization, and the beginnings of an automated economy that is eroding the working class. In this new labor movement, Democrats are joining Republicans in the belief that leaders in both parties ignored their plight over the past quarter century.
Recent Pennsylvania polls show a dead heat between Hillary and Trump. The close race will continue in a state where political consistency never existed. It is a state of tradition, a geographic anomaly of conflicting ideological views and cultural norms. But in this unpredictable climate, enough white working class voters remain to determine the state’s electoral outcome. They’re “Rabbit” voters, blue collar men who share the ideological views and sentiments of Rabbit Angstrom, the protagonist of John Updike’s tetralogy. In Updike’s novels, set in a fictionalized Reading (Brewster), Rabbit embodies the seething resentments of Pennsylvania’s working class. They’re conservative Democrats, inheritors of the New Deal and Great Society programs that sustained middle class families. They witnessed communities like Reading suffer from decades of job loss and rising poverty, and harbor concerns for Pennsylvania’s future economic stability.
Rabbit supported Vietnam, lamented Brewster’s decline, and nurtured an unbending patriotism during the 1960s and 1970s. He voted for Hubert Humphrey in 1968, but later had a “Reagan Democrat” conversion and supported George H.W. Bush in the final novel. In many ways, what angered Rabbit was the loss of what Brewster once symbolized: economic prosperity and a shot at a stable middle class American life.
Had Rabbit lived beyond the last novel in 1990, he would witness how communities like Reading have continued their fifty-year decline. He would behold the state’s eroding manufacturing sector and the financial crisis of the middle class. In 2014, the Keystone Research Center found that the middle class in Pennsylvania’s sixty-seven counties is smaller today than it was in the late 1970s. For the past four months, the statewide unemployment rate rose, with the jobless rate at 5.5% in May.
Would Rabbit support Trump in 2016? He would likely join the working class alliance of Democrats and Republicans offering their socio-economic benediction to the Republican candidate. Hillary can point out Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, contradictory message, and inconsistent policy positions, but the outcome will be the same. Expect Rabbit’s coalition to deliver Pennsylvania to Trump in November.
[Charles McElwee works in the government affairs sector in Harrisburg. He recently graduated from the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org].