Op-Ed: Dissecting Pennsylvania’s Realignment

Originally published in City Journal.

On Saturday, not long after the networks called Pennsylvania—and the presidential race—for Joe Biden, I walked with a friend in Conyngham, a picturesque borough in Luzerne County. Ascending Main Street, we passed residents embracing an unseasonably warm afternoon, one that called for yardwork, not politics. Except for a few stray Trump and Biden signs, it was as if the election never happened.

Five days before, long lines extended from Conyngham’s municipal building and other polling sites in the Hazleton area, which, in 2016, helped mark Luzerne’s distinction as one of three Obama-to-Trump counties statewide. This election, Luzerne once again heavily favored Trump, though the other counties—Erie and Northampton—delivered narrow wins for Biden. Even in Luzerne, though, Biden made small gains. After all, it’s still a county—not far from the president-elect’s boyhood home—where legions of older Catholic Democrats remain party loyalists. And in a community like Conyngham, situated in one of Pennsylvania’s largest public school districts, teachers were inclined to support Biden.

Biden’s Luzerne performance—a resounding defeat, but a slightly better performance than Hillary Clinton’s in 2016—helps explain Trump’s narrow loss in Pennsylvania (if it holds following legal challenges). In rural counties, even those where Trump had large leads, Biden managed to outperform Clinton. Central Pennsylvania’s Montour County, for example, was among the areas where Biden made notable gains. The county seat, Danville, is also the headquarters of Geisinger, a massive health-care system. In recent weeks, Geisinger’s hospitals have admitted a new coronavirus patient about every two hours. Montour’s medical employment base undoubtedly worked against Trump’s 2016 margin.

In Montour and elsewhere, many Pennsylvanians considered this election a referendum on Trump’s Covid-19 leadership. In Dauphin County’s Hershey, another health-care hub, Biden flipped the one-time GOP stronghold, surpassing Trump by about 1,580 votes. Meantime, voters in the state’s tourism-dependent regions, including the Poconos, issued their verdict on a pandemic-era economy. In Monroe County, for instance, Trump lost by only 532 votes in 2016. Last week, Biden won the northeastern Pennsylvania county by over 4,800 votes.

But it was Pennsylvania’s suburbs, especially in the Philadelphia region, that ultimately fueled Biden’s victory. By this weekend, Biden was surpassing Trump by over 283,000 votes in Philadelphia’s collar counties—a significant increase over Clinton’s 2016 advantage and double Barack Obama’s winning margin in the 2012 campaign. The dramatic turnout for Biden followed an ongoing suburban revolt during the Trump presidency, which included historic losses for Republicans in county courthouses, down-ballot offices, and a congressional seat.

If anything, suburban Philadelphia’s post-2016 Democratic gains foretold how the region would disrupt Trump’s path to reelection. A similar dynamic played out in November 1991, a year before Bill Clinton’s first win. In a special election to fill the late GOP senator John Heinz’s seat, Democrat Harris Wofford, a state cabinet secretary and Kennedy administration alum, beat Dick Thornburgh, a former governor who served as attorney general under George H. W. Bush. Wofford’s upset victory resulted in Democratic pick-ups in suburban townships like Montgomery County’s Lower Merion and Cheltenham. It also hinted at Bush’s 1992 loss in Pennsylvania, which stayed blue until Trump’s 2016 victory. Now, Trump is the first incumbent president to lose reelection since Bush.

The Democratic wins in 1992 and 2020, however, have several key differences. Clinton enjoyed a resounding Pennsylvania victory thanks to conservative, working-class regions that traditionally voted Democrat. The same can’t be said for Biden, whose statewide victory was hardly a mandate. Today, most of those Clinton-supporting counties comprise Trump’s Pennsylvania base. Instead, suburbs in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh—many Republican-leaning as recent as the 2012 election—favored Biden out of contempt for Trump.

The suburbs’ preference for Biden didn’t translate into a down-ballot Democratic advantage. In south-central Pennsylvania, GOP representative Scott Perry, considered an underdogbeat Eugene DePasquale, the outgoing state auditor general. And in suburban Philadelphia’s Bucks County, moderate Republican Mike Fitzpatrick easily won a third term. Meantime, among the state row offices, a Republican won the auditor general’s race for the first time in more than 20 years. Finally, Republicans kept the state House and Senate—a crucial victory for the GOP in the looming fight over congressional redistricting.

“It’s pretty clear that the Republican message on the economy, on police funding . . . worked,” one Pittsburgh-based GOP strategist told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The far left in [the Democratic] party, which is increasingly ascendant, has a political message that’s just toxic to Democrats in suburban communities.” This was evident in places like Hershey, where numerous homes displayed yard signs in support of the local police—in many cases alongside those for Biden.

In Pennsylvania, Biden prevailed because enough voters in rural counties, working-class regions, and suburban towns found him inoffensive, if not appealing, during a turbulent period. Outside Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, this wasn’t necessarily a vote of confidence in Biden’s party. In Democratic-leaning counties like Luzerne, voters credit Trump for local economic gains; they resent the media for portraying their support as divisive. Meantime, in moderate suburbs, there are still swing voters who, behind closed doors or off social media, express fear over the Democrats’ left-leaning direction.

If not for a pandemic and recession, it’s likely that Trump would have won reelection in Pennsylvania. A controversial mail-in ballot process, moreover, complicated his electoral path—especially as Pennsylvanians began mailing votes during what became a brutal final stretch of Trump’s campaign. As a Biden presidency looms, perhaps history is repeating itself. In 1994 and 2010, two years after Democratic presidential wins, Republicans enjoyed widespread victories in Pennsylvania, including gubernatorial and Senate races. On Saturday, Biden won a blue state, but as voter-registration numbers make clear, Pennsylvania’s GOP is becoming a working-class party. The 2022 midterms will determine whether this trend was a Trump-era anomaly or a true political realignment.