A Look at Bucks: PA’s Most Critical Swing County (Maps)
Pennsylvania is set to be one of the most contentious swing states this year.
The Trump campaign believes their Rust Belt strategy can work and there’s been deep disagreement among Democrats about whether it’s necessary to spend some of their resources defending the Keystone State.
As I’ve noted, western PA has grown increasingly redder over the years, an encouraging sign for Republicans. In reality, though, while that trend and other areas of the commonwealth will be important factors, the state’s fate electoral fate ultimately lies in the Southeast.
The “collar counties” of Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery that surround Philadelphia have all voted Democratic since 1992 and been a crucial factor in the commonwealth going blue in the last six presidential elections.
Besides Philly and Allegheny (Pittsburgh) Counties, these three are the most populous in the state. Additionally, behind Chester they are ranked second, third and fourth in per capita income.
Furthermore, recent voting registration statistics provide even more good news for Democrats, as several SEPA counties, especially Montgomery, are becoming bluer. Bucks County, however, is bucking that trend.
Since last year, the Dems voter registration advantage in Bucks went from 12,138 down to 11,108, a 1,030 vote gain for the GOP. It was also the only SEPA county to see Donald Trump accumulate more votes in the April primary than Hillary Clinton did.
More anecdotally, Dave Weigel of the Washington Post found discontent among Democratic residents back in May. Even FiveThirtyEight’s study of Facebook likes revealed that Bucks was the only SEPA county where Trump outranked Sanders.
History and Background
What makes this trend so significant is that while considered a swing county, Bucks has been incredibly consistent over the years.
1. 1912 – Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft split the Republican vote
2. 1936 – FDR crushes Alf Landon in a then-record landslide
3. 1964 – LBJ outdoes FDR in his rout of Barry Goldwater.
In 1992, though, everything suddenly changed. So who’s to say it can’t revert back?
Just like every state, each county has its own unique dynamics. As a Bucks native and a political junkie I’ve of course picked up on these.
The area is divided into Upper Bucks and Lower Bucks (never Northern and Southern, it’s an important, implicit difference). Upper Bucks tends to be wealthier and more Republican while Lower Bucks is working class and heavily Democratic.
If the pundits are correct then Lower Bucks, a haven of disaffected white working class voters, is the exact sort of place Trump should be making headway. There’s even a Levittown, symbol of the decayed 1950’s dream of suburbia. Could Trump appeal here?
We have voter district statistics going back to 2008, so I created a number of maps to showcase the political makeup of Bucks County. This is what the Barack Obama/John McCain match-up looked like that November.
Sky blue signifies Obama received 50%-53%, royal blue signifies Obama received 53%-58%, blue signifies Obama received 58%-63%, navy signifies Obama received 63% or more. Light salmon signifies McCain received 50%-53%, tomato signifies McCain received 53%-58%, red signifies McCain received 58%-63%, maroon signifies McCain received 63% or more. Yellow signifies ties.
Obama picked up 179,031 votes (54.37%) to McCain’s 150,248 votes (45.63%). As you can see, while Lower Bucks was his strongest area, the 44th President performed well everywhere.
Then in his 2012 re-election effort the President beat GOP nominee Mitt Romney 160,521 (50.62%) to 156,579 (49.38%).
For some time, I thought this may have been attributable to the GOP nominee’s last minute push in the commonwealth. While SEPA had been ignored for most of that race, Romney visited Shady Brook Farm in Lower Makefield the Sunday before Election Day and drew a huge crowd. I always wondered if this might’ve boosted his numbers. Thanks to these maps, I can test that hypothesis.
Shady Brook is just south of the area where I-95 and 322 meet so there’s was some movement here but it wasn’t the sole or even main cause for the closer result (remember Lower Makefield, though, because it will become important later in this piece).
Instead it’s clear that it was in Upper Bucks where Romney picked up most of his votes. Specifically the suburbs around Doylestown, New Hope, Quakertown, Perkasie and Warminster. Nevertheless, Lower Bucks stayed blue and so did the county.
Hillary and Bucks
Because of the former Secretary of State’s multiple presidential campaigns we can also test out how well she has performed in Bucks County.
In the 2008 primary, she easily defeated Barack Obama 71,757 (62.61%) to 42,860 (37.39%).
Sky blue signifies Clinton received 50%-53%, royal blue signifies Clinton received 53%-58%, blue signifies Clinton received 58%-63%, navy signifies Clinton received 63% or more. Lime signifies Obama received 50%-53%, lime green Obama received 53%-58%, green signifies Obama received 58%-63%, dark olive green signifies Obama received 63% or more. Yellow signifies ties.
With the exception of the middle part of the county, Clinton performed well everywhere. Her numbers in Lower Bucks were particularly impressive. The only three voting districts in that area that went against her were heavily black.
In 2016, though, it was a bit closer. Clinton pulled in 49,917 votes (56.47%) to Bernie Sanders’ 36,173 (43.53%).
As you can see, Hillary mostly hung on to Lower Bucks. She also easily won those black areas she lost in ‘08.
While she did well in the areas just outside of Doylestown, she didn’t win the city itself and also lost ground in Quakertown and Perkasie. In New Hope and Lower Makefield, however, she saw a noticeable improvement.
Hillary vs. Donald
Just after this April’s primary, the Inquirer created the following illustration to show which candidate received the most votes in each SEPA municipality.
I was able to break this down by voting district and find out in which areas Clinton and Sanders received a higher raw vote total than Trump.
Most of Lower Bucks still favors Clinton but there remains open avenues for the GOP nominee.
Analysis and Conclusion
As is visible in all these maps, Bucks County is politically fascinating. The working class lower section is mostly staying with the Democrats, while the more rural top is ripe with Republicans. The key then, appears to be in the middle of the county.
The most interesting finding of all, though, is just how closely Bucks is mirroring national trends.
Pew Research Center, the best and most respected polling firm in America, just released their latest findings wherein they compare the results of their June 2008, June 2012 and June 2016 presidential head-to-head surveys. The most seismic change in the electorate they found was not racial or economic but rather educational.
In 2008, Democrats were ahead thirteen points among high school graduates or less and up seven with those who received some college. On the other hand, Dems had just a one point advantage among college grads and a three point edge with postgrads.
In 2016, these results have almost completely flipped. Democrats have only a one point lead with those who got some college and a seven point advantage with high school graduates. When it comes to college grads, though, Dems are ahead by sixteen points and with postgrads it is twenty-seven.
At this point eight years ago, Pew showed Obama with an eight point lead (48/40). Today, they have Hillary ahead by nine (51/42).
So while Dems may be fading in Lower Bucks, they are also gaining ground in Upper Bucks.
Look again at New Hope and Newtown, as well as Upper and Lower Makefield in all of the maps I’ve presented here and then examine this one showing the median household income in Bucks.
It is very possible that as working class whites are leaving the Democratic Party, highly educated whites are joining it. Long term, this would indicate that an electoral map of Bucks (and perhaps the country) will look quite different in a decade or so.
For now, though, victory remains very much in each party’s reach.
Clinton, for instance, must do better in places like Doylestown and Warminster. Luckily for her, the latter is the most Hispanic area of Bucks and the former the home of her local campaign office.
Trump, meanwhile, must try to win over Lower Bucks residents in areas like Levittown (which covers Falls and Middletown Townships). Bensalem looks particularly promising for him but there is one potential drawback as that township has a high concentration of Asian residents. Studies have shown Asian-Americans are put off by the Republican nominee and are moving even faster towards the Democratic Party.
Overall, there are plenty of challenges and opportunities for each candidate in Bucks County. The reward, though, remains enormous. If you can swing Bucks, you’re likely to take home Pennsylvania’s twenty electoral votes, and that could make all the difference come November 8th.