Op-Ed: Four Places to Watch in Pennsylvania on Election Day

Originally published in RealClear Politics.

Travel to any part of the Keystone State and you’ll find small cities and big towns haunted by geology. Historic markers, street grids, and scarred land tell the story of Pennsylvania’s bountiful natural resources – and in many instances, a legacy of despair.

After his 2016 presidential win, Donald Trump sparked a renewed interest in these communities, particularly among reporters who flocked to local diners and convenience stores to understand how blue-collar voters — many lifelong Democrats – could have supported his candidacy. Then, following GOP losses in the 2018 midterms, these same reporters headed to Pennsylvania’s prosperous suburbs, where well-to-do voters — many of them lifelong Republicans — rejected a Trump-led party.

Now, as Election Day unfolds, both Trump and Joe Biden are highly focused on Pennsylvania, where Electoral College votes, not natural gas, are today’s most valuable resource. Biden hopes to win back older voters in places like 

Erie — a populous, Democratic, Obama-to-Trump county — while fueling dramatic margins among suburban professionals in counties like Chester, not far from his Delaware home. Meanwhile, Trump aims to improve his 2016 formula, driving large working-class margins in counties like Lackawanna (Biden’s birthplace) while mobilizing quiet supporters in suburban counties like Bucks, where many residents are fearful of nearby Philadelphia’s urban unrest.

From upscale suburbs to blue-collar villages, Pennsylvanians will likely determine the presidential victor. Many consider this election a referendum on Trump’s pandemic-era leadership — especially in a state where COVID-19 cases keep rising. But others believe this Tuesday is a referendum on Biden and his party, which has betrayed their interests.

Here are four places in Pennsylvania that could deliver surprising results — complicating the state’s electoral map for either candidate, or perhaps signaling where its ongoing political realignment is headed.

1) The Poconos’ Monroe County

At first glance, this northeastern Pennsylvania county looks reliably Democratic. Though rural, Monroe — two hours west of Manhattan’s George Washington Bridge — is a cultural extension of metro New York. It also illustrates the state’s urban-rural divide. Since the 1980s, the county has turned into a diverse commuter hub, where natives of New Jersey and New York live in riverside towns or gated communities — and vote Democrat. Meanwhile, many native, conservative residents — living in rural townships — work in tourism and lodging, which serves urban dwellers looking for a getaway in the Pocono Mountains.

In 2016, Trump lost Monroe by 532 votes — it was the state’s closest county race. For comparison, in 2012 Mitt Romney lost Monroe by over 8,200 votes. Trump’s overperformance was a tribute to rural enthusiasm in an area where Democrats still outnumber Republicans. This election, turnout among Monroe’s rural voters could flip the county in Trump’s favor.

If anything, Monroe’s voters will issue a verdict on pandemic-era leadership, which, in this county’s case, could work against Biden. Earlier this year, Monroe’s proximity to New York turned it into a coronavirus hot spotwhen people fled the city for short-term rentals. Since then, the region’s $3.3 billion tourism industry has suffered due to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s inconsistent, severe restrictions on restaurants and bars. At one point this summer, the county’s unemployment rate was 17.3%.

Today, an exodus from New York has led to a real estate boom in the Poconos, where people have made offers on homes sight unseen. “The pandemic and the violence in the boroughs is what customers are trying to get away from,” said one real estate agent. It remains unclear if these new Monroe residents, fleeing the consequences of Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio’s leadership in New York, will join rural voters in supporting Trump or stick with Biden.

2) Suburban Harrisburg’s Cumberland County

Long ago, this sprawling county, across the Susquehanna River from Pennsylvania’s capital city, was a Scots-Irish frontier. Over time, the picturesque Cumberland Valley turned into a congested suburb, where developers squeezed neighborhoods and office parks between the Conodoguinet Creek’s many bends.

Today, Cumberland is the state’s wealthiest county outside the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia regions. It’s also the state’s fastest-growing county. Transient professionals move here for low taxes, excellent schools, and relatively affordable new homes. They’re living in what remains the heart of south-central Pennsylvania’s Republican territory. In 2016, Trump won Cumberland by 22,000 votes.

And yet, Cumberland’s unrelenting suburban growth, long term, could weaken the GOP’s position. Since 2016, Democrats have formed local clubs and added about 8,400 registered voters. In 2018, Wolf and fellow Democrat Sen. Bob Casey won the county. And on Tuesday, Cumberland’s West Shore — where Democratic numbers are rising — could help state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale unseat GOP incumbent Scott Perry in the 10th Congressional District.

In the West Shore’s Camp Hill borough, Biden regalia prevails among the attractive homes surrounding Willow Park. Farther west, though, outlying suburban and rural townships indicate that Trump will handily win Cumberland. But his winning margin — along with the outcome of down-ballot races — could signal if this county one day becomes Pennsylvania’s version of Virginia’s Fairfax County.

3) Luzerne County’s Greater Hazleton area

A small, mountaintop city — at one time, the regional center of the anthracite coal and garment industries — Hazleton has played an outsized political role in Pennsylvania’s history.

In 1902, the United Mine Workers met in Hazleton to begin one of the longest strikes in U.S. history. Then, on election eve in 1934, a massacre of parading Democrats outside the city mobilized voters statewide to elect George Earle, the first Democrat to win a gubernatorial race in decades. Earle’s running mate, Hazleton resident Thomas Kennedy, was Pennsylvania’s first Catholic lieutenant governor, who later became the UMW’s national president. In 1960, just days before the election, John F. Kennedy held a rally in downtown Hazleton before a massive crowd of Catholic supporters, who helped secure his Pennsylvania victory.

Hazleton also prefigured the Trump era when, in 2006, the city enacted illegal-immigration ordinances that led to a U.S. Supreme Court battle. The Republican mayor, Lou Barletta, was later elected to Congress, where he became one of Trump’s earliest supporters. In 2016, the Hazleton area — once reliably Democratic — contributed to Luzerne County’s pivotal role in Trump’s statewide victory. This political enthusiasm led Barletta to run for U.S. Senate in 2018, though he lost to incumbent Casey.

Today, Trump flags and signs dominate the area’s scenic Conyngham Valley. There’s no doubt that southern Luzerne is Trump country. Hazleton, though, could be the exception. In 2016, Trump had a slim victory in the Latino-majority city. This year, Hazleton’s wards could fuel a local Biden victory in otherwise fervent Trump territory.

4) Suburban Philadelphia’s Delaware County

Biden will undoubtedly win Delaware County, the site of historic Republican losses during Trump’s presidency. Just last year, for example, Democrats ended the GOP’s 150-year streak of one-party rule at the county courthouse.

But last week’s urban unrest in West Philadelphia could lead to a suburban surprise in certain Delaware County communities. After all, in 2016 Trump won precincts in Ridley Park and Springfield, where middle-class voters reject a party associated with Philadelphia’s progressive mayor and district attorney. Could the city’s recent events lead more suburban voters in this county to silently support Trump? Look to certain Delaware County communities as a test of where Trump’s message of law and order could resonate.

Overall, when all eyes are set on battlegrounds like Erie or Bucks, do not discount how these four places could shape Pennsylvania’s electoral outcome.