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Donald Trump’s path to the White House runs through Pennsylvania and its working-class white voters

Donald Trump acknowledges the crowd at a recent rally in California. His more likely path to victory could be through Pennsylvania and other Rust Belt states.
Donald Trump acknowledges the crowd at a recent rally in California. His more likely path to victory could be through Pennsylvania and other Rust Belt states.

Years ago on a hot afternoon like this, Steve Brown would be on a ladder painting. The housing collapse took those jobs away, and even as the economy has slowly recovered, he has not. So on Tuesday, Brown sat on a bench downtown waiting for his shift at ShopRite.

The 57-year-old Republican doesn’t blame President Barack Obama. “He inherited a mess.” But for the first time since 2000 Brown is prepared to vote in the presidential election — for Donald Trump.

“He’s got a strong personality and he’s going to go after what he wants,” Brown said, adding that he feels Trump would be tougher abroad and negotiate better deals. Brown makes $15,000 a year as a custodian and isn’t sure he’ll do better under Trump. He has hope, though.

That vote is crucial for Trump and his Rust Belt strategy, an attempt to galvanize white working-class voters from Pennsylvania to Michigan who have lost jobs or seen wages stagnate and are disillusioned with politicians in both parties. Trump thinks he can flip these Democratic-voting states and offset demographic shifts that his party has tried to address.

He needs to perform well in rural areas but a solid showing is needed in places like Media, a mixed economic suburb, to counter overwhelming Democratic support in Philadelphia. Spend time here and it is evident Trump has at least a shot to become the first Republican to win Pennsylvania since 1988.

“The guy knows how to handle business,” said Nick Carlucci, 74, a former warehouse worker and Republican who voted for Obama twice. He said he has “no confidence at all” in presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who in a recent Quinnipiac state poll led Trump by one percentage point.

A block away at the Delaware County Courthouse, 37-year-old Matt Pantellas was selling pretzels and hotdogs from his family’s food cart. He skipped the last election, unmoved by Mitt Romney, but in Trump he sees a bullish outsider and a tough guy on immigration, though he finds the idea of a massive wall drastic.

“It’s not that I’m in love with him, but he’s different,” Pantellas said, pausing to sell a $1 bottle of water to a woman in nursing scrubs. “It’s almost to see what happens. I know it’s risky, but why not?

Pennsylvania, with 20 Electoral College votes, in theory provides a path to the White House for Trump that doesn’t go through Florida, the biggest, most diverse swing state.

The same working-class voters that propelled Trump to the nomination exist here. They have been disenfranchised by the GOP elite in Washington, who have catered to business and the moneyed class. Trump may be a billionaire, but he is not beholden to anyone, these voters say, and he speaks to their frustrations of getting a raw deal and fears of a changing country.

Pennsylvania has seen its once proud steel and coal industries decimated. Manufacturing jobs have dwindled for various reasons, including cheaper overseas labor.

“I have 50-some-year-olds, 40-year-old guys with tears in their eyes who say, 'I lost my job. I’m working two or three part-time jobs. I can’t put my kids through college like I was planning,’ ” said U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Williamsport, who chaired Trump’s state primary campaign. “It’s heartbreaking and there’s a ray of hope with this man.”

Those hard times came at the hands of both parties in Washington, Marino said. “Nothing is changing and here we have somebody who comes in to upset the whole apple cart. The term I have to use is 'revolution.’ ”

Trump was so dominant in Pennsylvania’s primary — he won all 67 counties, drove up voter participation and appealed across economic and education levels — that political experts on both sides of the aisle took notice.

Democrats hold a 923,000 voter registration advantage, but the Keystone State keeps inching Republican. Obama’s margin of victory in 2012 was half that of four years earlier. Before this year’s primary, more than 60,000 Democrats switched their registration to Republican, feeding Trump enthusiasm. And about 50 percent of GOP primary voters turned up vs. 40 percent of Democratic primary voters.

“People are listening,” said T.J. Rooney, a former state Democratic chairman.

“While I do not dispute for a minute that sentiment exists today, I’m very confident that sentiment will change,” he added, predicting blue-collar voters will come to see Trump’s policies as against their interests.

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Trump’s challenge is distinct across the Rust Belt. He has to hold the support Romney got in 2012 while increasing his share of non-college educated white voters. He must attract dormant Republicans like Brown and Pantellas as well as enough Democrats unsatisfied with Clinton.

At the same time, Trump cannot afford to turn off college-educated white voters who typically vote Republican but may find his antics and policies unpalatable.

“It’s not impossible but it’s easy to say, 'Wow, he’s going to attract all these new voters’ and forget he has to hold the old voters,” said Henry Olsen, a conservative election analyst at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. “If he only gets 95 percent of the Romney vote, then he’s already in a hole.”

A reliance on white voters, males in particular, is risky because their share of the overall national electorate is shrinking while Hispanics and other minority groups are rising. Non-college educated white voters made up about 65 percent of the electorate in 1980. In 2012, that fell to 36 percent.

The Republican National Committee confronted the demographic problem after Romney’s 2012 loss, commissioning a sweeping review that stressed a need to diversify. But what followed was a polarizing 2013 fight over the Senate’s immigration overhaul and a sprawling 2016 presidential primary field dominated by Trump’s calls to build a wall on the Mexican border and ban the arrival of Muslims.

“The RNC autopsy was actually a pretty good diagnosis of their problems,” said Ruy Teixeira, co-author of the 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, which foreshadowed the coalition of minorities, women, young people and those with college degrees that carried Obama to two terms and which Clinton wants to replicate.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, right?” Teixeira said. “Now other theories are much more popular, like the so-called missing white voter,” the term given to people who have sat out elections since 1992.

They exist — nearly nine million eligible voters — but largely in noncompetitive states, according to research published by David Wasserman, an elections expert at Nonetheless he concludes that Pennsylvania “could be the keystone of the Electoral College and the ultimate arbiter of whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Rep. Marino acknowledged the hurdles but said enthusiasm for Trump versus past Republican nominees demands attention. “I’ve had many, many people say to me, 'I’ve never voted’ and even more people say, 'I haven’t voted for years and now I’m going to.’ ”

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Trump’s appeal in Pennsylvania tracks other states — voters cite his lack of political correctness and self-financing (which is changing) and business background — but his promises to bring back jobs and to get U.S. workers a fair deal is a central selling point here.

He has already hammered Clinton — and her husband — over trade deals, though Mrs. Clinton has backtracked from her support for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“The state of Pennsylvania has lost more than 35 percent of its manufacturing jobs since 2001,” Trump said at a rally in Harrisburg on April 24. “How did you let this happen, guys? Don’t worry, doesn’t matter, we’re bringing it back.”

It’s expected he’ll do well in the western part of the state, Pittsburgh aside, and the northeast, home to Luzerne County and Wilkes-Barre, where Democrats outnumber Republicans but Trump’s appeal is especially vivid. He got 77 percent of the primary vote there, helped by waves of Democrats who changed party registration.

The key then may be the Philadelphia suburbs, home to swing voters like Jack LaMarra.

“Maybe he can drive the country in a different direction,” said LaMarra, an IT worker from Springfield who was unemployed for a year during the banking crisis. He likes Bernie Sanders but with Clinton poised to take the nomination, plans to vote for Trump.

“She just annoys me,” LaMarra said. “He’s just something different, an outsider.”

At Wawa across the street, high school biology teacher Chrissy Wilson said her informal polling — chatter from her seniors — suggests Trump could play well. “They are excited about the wall and making America great again. No one knows what that means, but people are buying into that message.”

Wilson, 35, is a Democrat and “can’t stand” Clinton, citing Benghazi and the private email server. Yet she cannot fathom Trump. “I think he’s a horrible excuse for a human being. I’m terrified of his snap decisions. He’s going to start World War III.”

Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports.