Pennsylvania has long been a state targeted by Democrats and Republicans alike, with competitive contests at almost every level of government. But the Keystone State hadn’t voted Republican for president since 1988 – until 2016, when it stunned the nation by backing Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by about 44,000 votes, joining Michigan and Wisconsin as the Rust Belt states that helped elect Trump. Winning it back was one of the most urgent tasks facing Democrats in 2020.
The state where the Founders declared American independence and wrote the Constitution started out as a Quaker haven, founded in 1682 by the pacifist William Penn, son of an admiral to whom King Charles II owed political debts. Pennsylvania’s policy of tolerance attracted Englishmen of many religious sects and thousands of pietist Germans — ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Soon, Pennsylvania became the major settlement in the Middle Colonies and Philadelphia the largest colonial port. In the 18th century, bordermen from Scotland, the north of England and Northern Ireland landed in Philadelphia and crossed the corduroy ridges of the Appalachians and settled the mountainous interior. The geometric lines William Penn had obtained from the king included two major river systems — the wide Delaware estuary with its thriving commerce and rich hinterland, and the golden triangle where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers joined to form the Ohio, both of which remain today important geographical features defining the eastern and western parts of the state. Philadelphia was the natural host for the Continental Congresses that began meeting in 1774, and in the early republic it seemed destined to become the London of America, the metropolis of government, commerce and culture. Pittsburgh, founded in 1758, was the young republic’s key hub on the frontier, the fulcrum of American expansion.
But Philadelphia — and Pennsylvania — failed to maintain the central position the Founders expected. As part of a political deal, the young republic’s capital was located some 80 miles south of the Mason-Dixon line, at a site along the Potomac River. And the Erie Canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, completed in 1825, channeled trade away from Philadelphia to New York. Philadelphia’s Quaker tradition, tolerant of diversity, was overshadowed in intellectual life by New England’s Puritan tradition — morally stern, at times angrily intolerant and ready to use the state to impose cultural values, from abolition to prohibition. So Pennsylvania evolved into America’s early capital of energy and heavy industry. Northeast Pennsylvania was the nation’s primary source of anthracite, the hard coal used for home heating, and western Pennsylvania was laced with bituminous coal, the soft coal used in steel production. Connected to Philadelphia by the Pennsylvania Railroad, Pittsburgh was the center of the nation’s steel industry by 1890; it became synonymous with industrial prosperity and, led by its adopted son, steel mogul Andrew Carnegie, for philanthropy as well. Immigrants poured in from Europe and from the surrounding hills to work in the hardscrabble environment of western Pennsylvania’s mines and factories.
Pennsylvania was the nation’s second-largest state from the first census in 1790 through 1940. It stopped growing rapidly during the Great Depression, and in some parts of the state growth has never returned. After World War II, both home heating and industry shifted away from coal. Only the embers remain, or, the fires: The Red Ash colliery fire, ignited in 1915, burns on beneath the hills above Wilkes-Barre, as do a few dozen other fires in abandoned coal mines. Similarly, Pennsylvania steel began a sharp decline in the 1960s. The result has been the slowest population growth of any major state. Pennsylvania cast 36 electoral votes for Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 but only 20 for Trump in 2016. In 1960, it had 30 House members, as many as California and more than Texas. Now it has 18 to California’s 53 and Texas’ 36 – and it’s on pace to shrink by one seat after the 2020 census.
Since 2010, the state has grown by a paltry 0.75 percent. A consolation prize was that Pennsylvania in 2017 regained fifth place among most populous states, surpassing Illinois. Some pockets have expanded more than others – Lancaster County and Lehigh County (Allentown- Bethlehem) have both grown by 4.9 percent since the last census, and Philadelphia, along with two of its collar counties, Montgomery and Chester, grew in the 4 percent range. But other corners of the state have shrunk slightly, including Lackawanna County (Scranton) and Luzerne County (Wilkes-Barre) in the northeast, and Erie County in the northwest. Some smaller counties have contracted more than that. Relatively few outsiders moved in. This has made the state increasingly old — only four others (Florida, West Virginia, Maine and Vermont) have a higher percentage of residents age 65 and over. Pennsylvania remains one of the whitest big states — 11 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent Asian. Pockets of the state, however, have seen rapid Hispanic increases, notably Hazleton in Luzerne County, a shift that has prompted bitter battles over illegal immigration.
Economically, Pennsylvania has begun to perk up a bit over the past two decades. Big hospitals have replaced big steel mills as employers in metro Pittsburgh, and metro Philadelphia and the surrounding countryside have experienced diversified economic growth, though manufacturing remains important outside the big cities. Manufacturing employment in Pennsylvania has declined by 35 percent since 2000, a significantly faster rate than the national decline of 25 percent. Some municipalities have become insolvent. Pennsylvania has held state taxes down more than many of its Northeastern neighbors, which has been a factor in luring New Yorkers to retire near the Delaware Water Gap and the Poconos. Hispanics from New York and North Jersey are also moving out Interstate 78 to work in Reading, Allentown and Bethlehem. As for the City of Brotherly Love, it has become a hip destination with impressive cultural and nightlife amenities. Agriculture remains a significant industry in Pennsylvania – it ranks among the top seven states for production of eggs, milk, pumpkins, apples, grapes, and peaches, and ranks first nationally in mushroom production, centered on Kennett Square in Chester County, “The Mushroom Capital of the World.” (The recent emergence of the invasive spotted lanternfly has put some of Pennsylvania’s fruit crops at risk.) The state’s median income ranks slightly below the national average.
James Carville once famously described the state as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in between. It’s those parts in the “T” of rural Pennsylvania, once the site of the world’s first oil well and first commercial nuclear power plant, that are getting a renewed taste of being a major economic engine. The Marcellus Shale beneath 60 percent of Pennsylvania and much of upstate New York contains the nation’s largest reserves of natural gas embedded in hard rock. It can be brought to the surface by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. With the development of horizontal drilling, fracking became commercially feasible in 2004, and there are now wells through much of the western and northern parts of the state, making Pennsylvania the second biggest producer of natural gas after Texas. Environmental groups have charged that fracking can pollute drinking water sources, but development has transformed portions of the state economically.
For generations after the Civil War — whose turning point is often pegged to quiet Gettysburg — Pennsylvania was the most Republican of the large states, due in part to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, and due in part to the steel industry and high tariffs. Its Republican machines built parties that were representative not of one ethnic segment, but had a place for just about everyone. In 1932, Pennsylvania was the only big state that stuck with Republican Herbert Hoover over Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. But then the political landscape changed. The New Deal, John L. Lewis’ United Mine Workers and the CIO industrial union movement, and a series of bloody strikes made industrial Pennsylvania almost as Democratic in the late 1930s and 1940s as it had been Republican from the 1860s to the 1920s. Even then, parts of Pennsylvania not heavy with big steel factories and coal mines — the northern tier of counties along the New York border, the central part of the state around Altoona, and the Pennsylvania Dutch country around Lancaster — remained among the strongest Republican voting blocs in the East. Philadelphia became a heavily Democratic city after the last Republican mayor left office in 1952, but in the suburban counties, the old Republican machines stayed in control.
In the 1980s, prosperous eastern Pennsylvania trended Republican while ailing western Pennsylvania trended Democratic. By the 1990s, though, social issues had become increasingly important. Fiscally conservative but socially moderate suburban Republicans in the east increasingly voted for Democrats, while economically liberal but socially conservative Democrats in the west flocked to the GOP. The east had more people, so the state has mostly followed its lead. Pennsylvania voted Republican for president three times in the 1980s but Democratic for president in 1992 and the subsequent five elections. But western Pennsylvania – other than Pittsburgh’s increasingly blue Allegheny County — has been moving in the other direction. In four heavily working-class counties surrounding Allegheny — Beaver, Fayette, Greene and Washington — Al Gore won better than 53 percent of the two-party vote in 2000, PoliticsPA noted, but by 2016, those four counties gave Hillary Clinton only 29 percent to 40 percent of the two-party vote.
Such shifts underpinned Trump’s victory. He won a state that had gone for Obama by five points in 2012, securing 290,000 more votes than Mitt Romney had four years earlier, when the GOP did not focus on the state for much of the campaign. Clinton, meanwhile, underperformed Obama by 64,000 votes. Trump flipped three counties Obama had won: Luzerne (by shifting the margin 24 points in the GOP’s direction), Erie (by shifting it 19 points), and Northampton (Easton, by shifting it nine points). Trump also moved the needle in several blue-collar counties, but not quite enough to win; notably, these included Clinton’s (and Joe Biden’s) ancestral county of Lackawanna, where the margin shifted from a 27-point Democratic win in 2012 to a three-point victory in 2016. The silver lining for Clinton was her ability to improve on Obama’s performance in more affluent and educated cities and suburbs. She flipped Philadelphia-area Chester County from red to blue, as well as Centre County, the home of Penn State University. But Trump managed to wring more votes from less-populated areas, and they added up. The cumulative Republican improvement over 2012 in just five western Pennsylvania counties – Beaver, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland – was almost enough by itself to supply Trump’s statewide winning margin. The same could be said for Trump’s improvement in Luzerne and Lackawanna. In these regions, a combination of social conservatism, support for gun rights and energy development, and a frayed union legacy delivered votes to Trump.
If 2016 was a disappointment for Pennsylvania Democrats, 2018 was undeniably a comeback. The run of good fortune began, unobtrusively enough, in 2015, when the Democrats seized three open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, giving the party a 5-2 edge. In 2018, the court threw out the congressional district lines that, despite the state’s overall competitive nature, had given the GOP a consistent 13-5 House delegation lead. The court-drawn replacement map strengthened what had already been looking like a good cycle for Democratic House candidates. On Election Day, Democrats pulled into a 9-9 tie in the delegation, aided by four Republican incumbents being nudged into retirements; these gains proved to be an early signal of the Democrats’ march to the House majority. The Democrats also came within three points of winning two other districts and within five points in a third. Meanwhile, Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey, both Democrats, were reelected by double digits. Such victories gave the party hope that Trump’s victory in 2016 would be reversed in 2020.
Copyright @ 2019 The Almanac of American Politics. This feature was provided by and is included in The Almanac of American Politics 2020 edition, released August 2019. To learn more about this publication or purchase a copy, visit www.almanacofamericanpolitics.com.