Why Trump’s Best Shot In The Rust Belt Remains Pennsylvania

Predictably, national polls have shown the Presidential race tighten as voter models and screens have been firmed up. For the first time in months the President actually took the lead in the RCP average in Florida. More importantly though the President is gaining ground in arguably the most important state of the entire northern half of the nation – Pennsylvania. Fortunately, though, Pennsylvania is the Rust Belt state Trump is most likely to win (compared to WI, MN, MI).

At first glance it might seem odd Trump’s best shot resides in a state with a Democratic Governor since 2014, all statewide offices minus one (a Senate seat held by retiring Senator Pat Toomey) held by Democrats and where Democrats made massive gains almost two years prior.  But, due to changing party coalitions and voter behavior his chance remains.

Since the 80’s, the parties have essentially swapped coalitions in the state.  In 1980, it was Jimmy Carter winning the rural Western part of the state while Reagan was running wild in the Philly suburbs.  Thirty-six years later, Hillary Clinton won every county in the Philly suburbs while Trump only lost two counties west of Luzerne.

This swap is why Trump has the best shot.  As the parties have swapped coalitions, voters have become less elastic (or swingy) in their preferences.  While less elasticity means fewer swing voters and thus few big wins, it also means a higher floor (for all sides).

Trump’s main base of support in the state resides in the rural Western portion of the state.  He also runs up solid margins in central Pennsylvania or the “T” of the state populated by evangelicals and more traditional Catholics.  Move further east though and it becomes heavily college educated, urban/suburban Democratic country.

Still, there are counties which indicate where the state is heading.  One of these is Washington County to the north of Allegheny (Pittsburgh).  It’s a county filled with suburban and rural voters with a dynamic economy.  It is the second largest producer of natural gas of the state’s 67 counties.  It includes environs filled with teachers, college professors, doctors, executives, farmers, ranchers, and coal, gas and steel manufacturing workers.

Four years ago Trump outperformed Mitt Romney in the county by over 8,000 votes.  Short of Allegheny, he ran ahead of Romney in every county touching the Ohio border.  Washington, along with several other bellwether counties, propelled Trump to a 44K victory statewide.  It was the first time a modern Republican presidential nominee had won the state under the current partisan paradigm.

Reflecting the shift, October marks the first time the GOP voter registrations have outnumbered Democrats.  Ever! Meanwhile, in the off-year municipal elections of 2019, a tale of two preferences emerged.  Democrats took over long-time GOP held county seats in the Philly suburbs while the GOP took over historically Democratic county seats in the West.

Polls in the state have shown a steady tightening even as Biden’s standing in Wisconsin and Michigan has held largely steady.  For Trump to win the state, he needs these voters, driven by local community and values, to show up in droves at the polls.  Estimates range from increased turnout of three to five percent needing to be seen across the region to offset Philly and the Collar Counties. 

The President seems to have noticed.  In the debate last week, Trump pinned Biden down and locked him up in a lie (I will not ban fracking).  The move is sure to turn a few undecides to the President.  More importantly though, it helps paint a broader picture of Biden in the region has forgetting the Scranton values he likes to remind voters he has.  Biden dug himself an even deeper hole when he said at the end of the debate, “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes,” Biden said in the closing minutes of the debate, “The oil industry pollutes, significantly. It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”

Additionally, a recurring theme of 2016 was voters in the region feeling forgotten and ignored by generations of politicians.  Trump reminded these voters, again in the debate, why they sent him to the White House and should keep him there, saying to Biden, “I ran because of you…..”

These themes might have helped shift the contest.  Indeed, since the debate polls have shown a tightening in the average by two percent or so.  It was around this time in 2016 when the polls started to tighten.

Further benefiting the President, voter registrations suggest an enthusiasm gap.  Republicans have added thousands of voters to their rolls while simultaneously Democrats have lost thousands.  In Washington County, the shift since 2016 has been so pronounced a 13,000 voter registrant deficit has been overcome.  The county has added 12,000 voters to its rolls in that time and GOP voters form a plurality of registrants for the first time since 1930.

Indeed, the whole western region of energy heat counties that also includes Beaver, Westmoreland, Fayette, Greene, and Butler has shown a net Republican increase of 21% since 2016.  Data shows since June 10, Bradford, Clinton, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Lycoming, Potter, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Tioga, and Wyoming have all increased their Republican voter registration, and — judging by what the people there will say if you visit and listen to them — their enthusiasm for Trump.

Trump held a rally recently in Erie County, the one county in the region he flipped from blue to red, and is in a dogfight for now, to goose his supporters turnout in the area.

If Trump can squeeze an extra 50,000 more votes out of this region and hold down Biden’s margins in the suburbs – there seem to be some encouraging signs in early voting this could happen – Trump will win the state and substantially better his chances of being reelected.

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