Two Pennsylvania counties may decide the presidency this fall.
After voting twice for Barack Obama, Northampton County went for Donald Trump in 2016. Home to Bethlehem and Easton, and 90 minutes north of Philadelphia, Northampton was one of 209 counties nationwide to flip from Obama to Trump over the last three presidential cycles.
After manufacturing suffered in the 1990s, large numbers of Northampton residents grew disaffected with voting. Trump’s 2016 campaign changed that.
Chester County, an exurb of Philadelphia, went for Mitt Romney in 2012 – but Hillary Clinton in 2016. The county had only voted for two Democratic presidential candidates in 50 years — Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Obama in 2008. Wealthier than average, highly educated, economically conservative and pro-environment, this county is no fan of Trump.
How will these counties vote in 2020? And what will it mean in the contest for Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes?
Northampton went for Trump in 2016; will it be there for Trump in 2020?
Northampton County was the home of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation for nearly a century. After the company closed its factory in 1995, the area suffered an economic downturn, with thousands of job losses. There has been some economic renewal around Bethlehem and Easton in recent years, thanks to its thriving colleges, including Lehigh University and Lafayette College.
But the area is far from wealthy. Economic conditions do not resemble its heyday.
Donald Trump’s call for the restoration of manufacturing jobs inspired voters across Northampton County. Republicans came out in large numbers. Some Democrats, while they won’t openly admit it, cast their ballot for Trump to deliver change to Washington or because they figured Clinton was a shoe-in to win and disliked the former secretary of state. After 2016’s polling errors, it’s hard to imagine many voters carrying the same assumption about Biden cruising to an easy victory.
Candidate Trump’s voice was simple and consistent. He offered easy answers, declaring he would make America great again, scapegoating immigrants, blaming the establishment, criticizing China and tagging opponents with nicknames like “Crooked” Hillary and “Lying” Ted Cruz.
Northampton County, despite its excellent universities, has a lower proportion of residents with college degrees than the national average. Trump’s voice especially reached residents without a college degree.
Hillary Clinton earned almost the same number of votes as Obama had four years earlier in Northampton County (66,272 compared to 67,606). But Trump earned about 10,300 more votes than Romney — 71,736 compared to 61,446. Votes for third party candidates or write-ins jumped from 1.3 to 3.8 percent. In a state decided by a 44,292 difference, the Northampton County swing proved crucial.
In the 2018 midterms, the county swung back to voting Democratic, delivering an open U.S. House seat to Susan Wild by a margin of over 10 points. Turnout was high – matching the rate in presidential years.
Whether this indicates higher turnout in the 2020 presidential race, and whether Democrats can maintain momentum, remains to be seen.
Democrats are counting on Chester County. Will it come through for Biden?
Chester County is Pennsylvania’s wealthiest, with a median income of over $86,000 – more than $23,000 above the national average. It is home to doctors, lawyers and executives in pharmaceuticals and finance. Pricey homes line communities off Route 30.
Residents are highly educated – 49 percent have college degrees (19 percent above the national average). Voters gravitated away from Obama in 2012 toward Romney, who was a highly educated business leader with a relatively civil tone and even-keeled temperament. Romney’s tax proposals attracted Chester County swing voters, and he narrowly took the county back from Obama.
But in 2016, seeing Trump as too brash for the Oval Office, these voters swung back to Hillary Clinton. Her centrist history attracted a moderate and economically conservative voting base that is also pro-environment. Chester County residents are staunchly supportive of open space and conservation. Take a drive from West Chester Borough to Kennett Square to grasp the beauty of the vast landscapes and glistening verdant properties.
Clinton earned over 17,300 more votes in the county than Obama. Trump received 12,700 fewer than Romney.
In recent years, Chester County’s trend toward Democrats has continued. Democrats swept local municipal elections, taking control of county commissioner offices for the first time in decades. That followed Democrat Chrissy Houlahan’s congressional victory to succeed a moderate Republican, Ryan Costello. Democrats surpassed Republicans in registrations for the first time last spring — 152,550 to 150,216.
Behind Chester County’s politics is a history of Quakerism. Boorish and nasty rhetoric is frowned upon as voters prefer more civil discourse.
For this reason, and because Biden is a relative centrist who supports environmental regulation, Chester County is likely to vote Democratic once again.
But by what margin? Running up the score in Chester County would help Biden’s chances at winning the state. If Biden’s margin mirrors 2016, Trump could win Pennsylvania by reprising results in Northeast, Central and Western Pennsylvania.
The wildcard: Much of Delaware’s 12-mile border is shared with Chester County. Biden has been known to stop into the delicious La Michoacana Homemade Ice Cream shop in Kennett Square. His personal touch with local residents all those years may give him the bump he needs in this crucial county.
David Huppert is an Associate in Ceisler Media’s Philadelphia Office.