To put that in perspective, the last time the GOP won PA: the Berlin Wall was still up, Jimmy Stewart was still alive and I wasn’t even born yet.
How did the Keystone State shift from blue to red after so long? That’s what this piece aims to find out.
There’s an oft-cited apocryphal James Carville quote that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in the middle. Like many myths, this one takes a kernel of truth and stretches it too thin.
One perception that remains accurate, however, is that the Democrats’ greatest strength lies in the Southeastern portion of the state.
Going into Election Day, Dems were depending on a 450,000+ margin out of Philadelphia for Clinton. She ended up with a cushion of 475,277 votes.
Meanwhile, her advantage in the collar counties (+188,353) was so far ahead of President Obama’s in 2012 (+123,327) that her cumulative SEPA margin was larger than his.
Any expert worth their salt would’ve said that such a result would guarantee a Clinton statewide victory. Even in this bluest area of the state, though, we can see some signs as to why that wasn’t the case.
If you followed our reports on voter registration trends this year you noticed that Chester County is moving towards Democrats while Bucks is moving away. So while Clinton winning Chester (the only Romney county she was able to flip) was impressive, there’s a lesson in the fact that her margin in Bucks was a razor-thin 2,699.
While Hillary performed well in the the middle section of Bucks, which is the wealthiest and highest educated portion, she fell way behind in the traditionally Democratic, working-class areas of lower Bucks.
This was actually a theme of the Clinton vs. Trump contrast, as you’ll see in the next section.
The line from Scranton through Wilkes-Barre used to be as reliably blue as the Acela corridor. Not anymore.
In 2012, Barack Obama won Lackawanna County (Scranton) by 26,753 votes. Hillary Clinton finished with a 3,599 margin. In Luzerne County (Wilkes-Barre), Obama was victorious by 5,982 votes, whereas Clinton lost by 26,237.
Add up the shifts. In a contest decided by 44,292 votes this corridor made all the difference.
Digging deeper, though, you find an amazing occurrence. At a time when straight-ticket voting is at an all-time high, there was a massive divergence in these two counties among the Democratic candidates.
In Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties, Senate nominee Katie McGinty finished 2.68% and 4.03% ahead of Clinton. As for the other Democratic candidates?
Attorney General nominee Josh Shapiro: 10.84% and 10.82%
Incumbent Auditor General Eugene DePasquale: 11.06% and 9.53%
State Treasurer nominee Joe Torsella: 10.25% and 10.99%
My mistake, and apparently the Clinton campaign’s as well, was considering the Northeast as an extension of the Acela corridor. In reality, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre are located in Appalachia.
The Northeast, though, was far from the only spot where Clinton underperformed.
The Northwestern haven for Democrats hasn’t gone red since Ronald Reagan nearly swept Walter Mondale in 1984. Yet Donald Trump was able to turn the lakeside county.
As you can see, Clinton just couldn’t come through in the suburbs around the city.
Berks, Lehigh and Northampton Counties should’ve been a strength for Clinton as this area is home to cities like Reading, Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. Once again, however, the suburbs were her undoing.
As a result, the Democratic nominee lost Northampton for the first time since 1988. Additionally, while Pres. Obama lost Berks by just over a point four years ago, Hillary fell behind Trump by ten. Furthermore, John Kerry performed better than Clinton did in Lehigh.
Too often those in the western and eastern parts of the commonwealth forget just how populous counties like Lancaster and York are. Besides the cities themselves, though, they were deep red.
One bright spot for Democrats is that the capital city of Harrisburg remains a blue haven in the center of the state.
Much as Clinton performed well in Philadelphia, she also did ran up the score in Allegheny County. In fact, her +108,137 vote margin was the best for a Democrat since 1992.
The rest of the Appalachian Southwest, though, was a complete bloodbath.
Take the example of Jack Murtha’s beloved Johnstown. There’s hardly any blue left there. Furthermore, Democratic support in Cambria County has absolutely plummeted. In 2008 (despite Murtha’s worries) Obama actually narrowly carried the county. By 2016, however, Trump was winning Cambria by forty-seven points.
“Why Aren’t I 50 Points Ahead?” – Hillary Clinton September 21, 2016
Citizens, pundits and even our 44th President frequently declare that the United States of America isn’t as divided as it seems. In actuality, this nation is likely more polarized than anyone wants to admit.
For instance, the popular vote has been recorded for every presidential contest since 1824. In those 49 elections, the most any one candidate has received nationwide is the 61.1% of the vote Lyndon Johnson secured against Barry Goldwater in 1964.
In fact, since 1976 the margin in ten of the eleven presidential elections were decided by single-digits (the exception being the Reagan landslide in 1984). In just my lifetime, the best performance was Barack Obama’s 52.9% in 2008.
With an environment where the most a candidate can receive is around 53%, we live in a reality that allows any person nominated by the Democratic or Republican Party a legitimate shot at victory.
“Donald Trump has less than zero percent chance of winning Pennsylvania” – David Plouffe August 28, 2016
The two major party nominees may have approached Pennsylvania as a swing state the whole way, but their methods couldn’t have been more different.
Clinton relied on data, TV ads and rallies in Philadelphia. Trump, on the other hand, crisscrossed the state without much of a synchronized plan.
The Democratic National Convention was of course a major opportunity for the party. While Clinton didn’t campaign in PA during the actual event, she embarked on a bus tour of the commonwealth the day after.
The nominee and her running mate held a rally in Philadelphia, and visited a factory in Hatfield, before making a stop in Harrisburg. They then toured a Johnstown manufacturing plant and finished with another Pittsburgh event. In retrospect, the Democratic ticket probably should’ve gone with a more extensive itinerary.
A few weeks later, Hillary and Vice President Joe Biden made a joint appearance in Scranton where they both have family roots.
In October, Clinton participated in a town hall with her daughter Chelsea and actress Elizabeth Banks. Even at the time, the staging seemed peculiar as the small room couldn’t hold much of an audience.
The event was also held in Delaware County, which like Montco, was solidly blue. So Clinton’s two SEPA visits were in deep blue Delaware and Montgomery instead of the more vulnerable Bucks and Chester.
Furthermore, after another Harrisburg stop later that same day Clinton never ventured outside of Pittsburgh or Philly again. Now of course, she finished her campaign in Philadelphia with a massive rally featuring President Obama and Bruce Springsteen. Nonetheless, the point remains.
This was partly the result of a disparity in surrogates. The Clinton team could send President Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Tim Kaine, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders somewhere. Trump pretty much only had himself, his family and Mike Pence.
That’s not to say the GOP nominee’s strategy was flawless. He puzzlingly made several stops in the heart of Philadelphia. The campaign’s choice of Chester County for Melania Trump’s first solo appearance was also unsuccessful.
Despite that, the imbalance in events speaks to a criticism President Obama subtly expressed after Election Day.
“We have to compete everywhere. We have to show up everywhere,” he stated. “I won Iowa not because the demographics dictated that I would win Iowa. It was because I spent 87 days going to every small town and fair and fish fry and VFW Hall, and there were some counties where I might have lost, but maybe I lost by 20 points instead of 50 points. There’s some counties maybe I won, that people didn’t expect, because people had a chance to see you and listen to you and get a sense of who you stood for and who you were fighting for.”
The Clinton forces bet that fundraising was a more valuable use of the candidate’s time. The results suggest they were mistaken.
“James Comey cost her the election” – Bill Clinton December 19, 2016
There are two kinds of people: those who believe the release of the Comey letter on October 28th cost Clinton the election and those who think that’s just an excuse for her own failures.
Looking past that dynamic, there is a solid argument that Comey’s action fatally wounded Clinton’s candidacy. In mid-October, Geoffrey Skelley of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball pointed out that whichever candidate happened to be under the spotlight at any given moment always suffered.
In July, Comey’s press conference torpedoed Hillary’s numbers until “The Donald” caused a fracas with his remarks against the Khan family. Clinton’s bout of pneumonia in September brought Trump back, only for his 2005 Access Hollywood audio to emerge and cause his poll numbers to nosedive.
All the Clinton team had to do was wait out the twenty days from the last debate until November 8th without a negative story breaking. They weren’t given that luxury.
In a race with unpopular nominees, late deciders shouldn’t have broken towards any particular candidate. Nonetheless, Trump ran the table with those who said they made up their minds in the final week.
Working Class Voters
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” – Barack Obama April 6, 2008
It’s quite amazing to look back at this quote (widely considered a gaffe) and realize it may very well have served as a blueprint for Donald Trump’s rust-belt strategy.
Much discussion has followed about how Democrats abandoned the white working class in the Obama Era, yet the President was able to win Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin twice.
So just why were there so many voters who switched from Barack Obama to Donald Trump?
Hillary Clinton offered her own explanation before the fact.
“I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama,” she admitted back in May.
As a result, Clinton was not her own best messager. She found campaigning to be a draining experience whereas for Trump it was a rejuvenating one.
Despite the GOP nominee’s allusions to the contrary, Clinton held less rallies not because of any issues with her stamina. Rather she preferred the debates over rallies.
For example, it’s become fashionable to say that the Clinton campaign ignored working-class whites yet that’s not true. During the debates she hammered Trump for declaring bankruptcy, stiffing contractors and buying Chinese steel for his buildings.
The problem is that she did not reinforce this message in her TV ads. Her most well-known commercials just repeated the worst things Trump had said during the course of the campaign, statements people had already seen plenty of times.
Where were the spots featuring men and women whose businesses were destroyed by Trump’s refusal to pay them? Or the employees from his bankrupt casinos? Or the people whose lives were ruined by Trump University?
Four years ago, Barack Obama and his allies ran some incredibly effective ads against Mitt Romney that revealed him to be the enemy of “the working man”. In 2016, Clinton neglected to make this case against Trump. Given that national exit polls showed voters concerned about the economy preferred her, this was a major missed opportunity.
“The show is ‘Trump’ and it is sold-out performances everywhere. I’ve had fun doing it and will continue to have fun, and I think most people enjoy it.” – Donald Trump 1990 Playboy Interview
The most underappreciated feature of the 2016 presidential campaign by far was the fact that Donald Trump was the first celebrity candidate.
Sure Ronald Reagan had been a movie star but he made a deliberate mid-career switch to politics. He also served as Governor of California for eight years and waged a long primary campaign for the office in 1976.
Donald Trump is the first person to ever win the presidency without some experience in government or the military. Trump didn’t get there by being a wealthy businessman either (Ross Perot can testify to this) as he only spent about $66 million on his campaign. Rather Donald Trump is the product of a time when the famous are famous for being…famous.
Putting his name in gold on all his buildings, consistently releasing ghost-written books, feeding stories to the tabloids, hosting his own reality show and eventually his Twitter account were all means to this end.
As Jon Stewart always pointed out, the media is not biased towards an ideological goal but rather sensationalism. It’s a contest for attention and that’s a battle Donald Trump knew how to win.
So while Clinton and her campaign made plenty of mistakes, it’s difficult to judge them because of the unprecedented situation. After all, how do you settle on a plan when one tweet can upend the news cycle? Her team ultimately decided there was no way this campaign was going to be about anything or anyone but Trump.
“Decisions are made by those who show up.” – Jed Bartlet, The West Wing
In politics, in sports, and in life generally there’s a good rule of thumb: the winners tend to be the ones who want it just a little bit more.
Conservatives have criticized progressives for viewing the election through a racial lens. If the voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin who swung the result were inspired by prejudice, the question goes, then why did they vote for Barack Obama twice?
The answer is Donald Trump was the most blatantly nationalist candidate in modern times.
John McCain notably resisted efforts to make the 2008 campaign about race. Four years later, Mitt Romney tried to thread the needle but eventually decided against such a campaign as well (perhaps his experience as a religious minority guided him towards that decision).
Donald Trump, however, had no hesitations.
He reached out to conspiracy theorists and questioned whether the President was actually born in America, mainstreaming a racist myth. He continued to insinuate that the document was fake for years and even obliquely accused the President of murder to cover it up.
When it came time to announce his 2016 campaign, immigrants became his boogeymen until Muslims proved more effective after his poll numbers began to lag. He’d go on to portray his female opponent as physically unfit for the office. Finally, he ended his campaign with a TV ad many felt featured anti-Semitic undertones.
In response, Clinton bet on demographics. The revolution just never came. Hillary did about as well among blacks as any white candidate has, yet it wasn’t enough. Her focus on women didn’t yield her a majority of white females. It’s even an open question whether Trump did better or worse among Latinos than Romney.
The only minority that backed Hillary Clinton by a larger margin than they supported Barack Obama in 2012 were Jews.
With no surge in the rainbow coalition and the Democrats hemorrhaging white men, the Clinton camp turned to white women.
They felt Republican women in Southeast PA and the Lehigh Valley could even out the loss of Democratic men in the Southwest and other areas. That effort came up just short.
On November 8th, only about 60% of the voting age population showed up to vote. Over 218,000 citizens voted for a third-party candidate for President. It all came down to 44,292 votes in the Keystone State.
For all the hoopla, game-changers, and analysis, sometimes the results are just a simple answer to the question of who showed up.
History turns on frail hinges.