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The Forgotten Pennsylvania Battleground

Northeast Philadelphia and lower Bucks County, which are majority white-working-class, were an overlooked part of Trump’s 2016 victory and will be crucial in 2020.

The Five Points intersection in Northeast Philadelphia.
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Oct. 7, 2019, 8 p.m.

The endless dissection of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss in Pennsylvania has largely focused on Erie, Scranton, rural voters, underperformance in Philadelphia, and affluent suburban voters who were wary of President Trump but couldn’t bring themselves to back her.

But there is one under-covered potential 2020 trouble spot for Democrats: Northeast Philadelphia and lower Bucks County, a 350,000-person region in the backyard of one of America’s most Democratic cities that, like many other majority white-working-class areas, swung sharply toward Trump.

Trump outperformed Mitt Romney across the region, according to 2012 and 2016 election results compiled from the various localities. In the six wards commonly considered to be Far Northeast Philadelphia, furthest away from downtown and suburban in character, Trump won 39,134 votes to Clinton’s 43,835 and won two wards outright; Obama won those wards by 12,718 votes and took at least 53 percent in each.

Towns in lower Bucks County, directly north of Northeast Philadelphia and for the most part demographically similar, show a similar trend. In Delaware River-adjacent Bristol Township, 77 percent white and with a median income below $50,000, Democrats went from 64 percent of the vote in 2012 to 52 percent in 2016.

“When we talk about reverting form, it’s not a huge percentage,” Democratic consultant Michael Bronstein said.

But in a state that was decided by 44,000 votes in 2016, smaller shifts like these help explain how Trump cobbled together a plurality and how Democrats can take the state back in 2020.

“It doesn’t get national attention, per se, because people are looking at counties,” said Chris Vogler, the Philadelphia Republican Party’s executive director and vice chairman.

Vogler noted that there is still enthusiasm for Trump in the city, and that the RNC and state party have the area on their radar as a growth opportunity.

“You have a healthy number of Democrats who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton,” public-affairs executive Larry Ceisler said of the region, where Democratic registration outpaces Republican.

The area is heavily Catholic and more socially conservative than other parts of suburban Philadelphia, and was a stronghold for Frank Rizzo, the authoritarian Democrat-turned-Republican two-term mayor who loomed over the city’s politics from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.

The Trump/Rizzo parallel—that both have a unique appeal to working-class white voters based on ethic identity, political incorrectness, and law-and-order policies— has been brought up before. Lingering fondness for Rizzo among older voters could help Trump weather a storm in 2020, and Ceisler pointed out that both tended to underperform in preelection polling.

The unanswered question for Democrats is whether Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, should either be the nominee, can overcome the conventional wisdom that former Vice President Joe Biden is the only candidate who can win back white-working-class Obama-Trump voters.

“People are going to look to see whether Bernie and Warren can tap into that frustration [with government] and present a broad, sweeping vision,” said Democratic state Rep. Jared Solomon, recalling a voter he met in 2016 who had both a Franklin Roosevelt poster and a MAGA button. “When you’re dealing with an increasing poverty rate and serious infrastructure problems not being addressed, people are going to move away from Trump.”

State Rep. Kevin Boyle said he isn’t “concerned” about either fellow Democrat’s electability but pointed out that Biden has run there twice and has a long history with the region since his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, is 20 miles away.

Not everyone is convinced. One senior Democrat in the state said Sanders’s and Warren’s stances on Medicare-for-all are nonstarters for voters with union health plans, an outsized percentage in the area, while another noted that Warren didn’t attend September’s AFL-CIO summit in Philadelphia.

While leadership of the city’s politically dominant construction unions continues to support Democrats for president, the rank-and-file are up for grabs, as are endorsements in down-ballot races. Additionally, Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a lower Bucks County native, garnered the backing of the state AFL-CIO and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, led by now-indicted Democratic power broker John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty.

“Every time you see a crane go up, it’s about 200 jobs,” said one Democratic consultant. But multiple sources countered that Trump’s policies on the whole have not benefited the rank-and-file but rather the developers behind the projects.

Next month’s local elections will give both parties a temperature reading. Philadelphia has a mayoral race and a potentially competitive City Council race in the Northeast, and in Bucks County, Democrats could take control of the Board of Commissioners for the first time in decades.

Bensalem School Board director Rachel Fingles, a Democrat who is running for a GOP-held Bucks County state House seat, believes grassroots enthusiasm will remain high. She pointed to the fact that Democrats are a handful of seats from flipping both state legislative chambers as one factor that could get voters to the polls next year.

State Rep. Joe Hohenstein, who flipped a Republican seat last year, said he expects presidential race margins to revert to where they were under Obama. But he acknowledged that his district “has an independent streak.”

“If we can motivate the out-on-a-limb Trump voters but also standard GOP voters and get them to the polls, that bodes well,” Republican consultant Albert Eisenberg said.

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