Working-Class Voters Will Shape PA’s Political Future

Working-Class Voters Will Shape PA’s Political Future



In the past 30 years, eastern Pennsylvania’s demographic and economic landscape changed with a rapidity reminiscent of the Industrial Age, when booming extractive industries drew European immigrants to the state’s cities and towns.

Take the example of Hazleton, my family’s hometown, a small city in the anthracite coal region. According to tract-level U.S. Census data, Hazleton’s South Side – long a predominately Irish-Catholic section – was 98% white in 1990, even after a local manufacturing base had displaced the coal industry, which collapsed in the 1950s. Based on recently released U.S. Census data, however, white residents now account for just 30% of this section of the Mountain City, which itself has significantly changed. In 2000, Hispanics – mostly Dominican Americans from metropolitan New York, but also Dominican Republic immigrants – made up less than 5% of the population; today, at 63%, they’re Hazleton’s majority.

Hazleton’s regional economy, in turn, has changed much since the presidential years of George H.W. Bush, whose trade liberalization policies altered the course of Rust Belt communities. Today, the city is fueled by eastern Pennsylvania’s Interstate 78/Interstate 81 corridor, which tops the nation in warehousing growth. The pandemic era’s e-commerce demands have only accelerated this trend. In the years ahead, about 17 million square-feet of warehousing projects are planned around the six-square-mile city.

In Reading, the socioeconomic profile has also changed dramatically. The state’s fourth-largest city is now 69% Hispanic. In nearby Allentown, Pennsylvania’s third-largest city, Hispanics make up 54% of the population. Their presence dates to after World War II, when Puerto Rican migrants arrived to work for Bethlehem Steel. Now, in many instances, their descendants – along with more recent metro New York transplants – work in the Lehigh Valley’s dominant warehousing and logistics industries.

In the 2020 election, despite losing Pennsylvania, Donald Trump enjoyed gains in Hispanic neighborhoods, including in North Philadelphia. Moreover, nationwide, Trump expanded Hispanic voter support compared to 2016 – challenging Democrats’ significant advantage among this bloc since Barack Obama’s presidency. “This is a potentially seismic shift: as the Hispanic population continues to grow, especially in large swing states, its voting power becomes more and more relevant to winning the Electoral College,” wrote Noah Rudnick at City Journal.

Last fall, Allentown Republican Tim Ramos, a son of New York-born Puerto Rican parents, told the Washington Post that Hispanics’ support for Trump was “not a big to-do” because “Latinos en masse are blue-collar workers.”  

Ramos, who supported Trump, is now the GOP mayoral candidate in heavily Democratic Allentown. His campaign message – cleaner neighborhoods, landlord accountability, and increased homeownership in a city of renters – could resonate with a cross-section of working-class voters. Allentown, moreover, was another Hispanic-majority locale where some precincts significantly shifted more Republican in 2020. This electoral phenomenon was evident, too, in Reading, where Trump improved on his 2016 results in some precincts by up to 15 percentage points, and on the South Side in Hazleton – a city that Trump won and where my Irish-Catholic Republican family was once vastly outnumbered by militantly Democratic voters.

If anything, the GOP should take note that its electoral future in Pennsylvania depends on working-class voters, regardless of background, who flocked to the party during Trump’s presidency. In blue-collar communities, Democrats’ ever-leftward turn has alienated families who once associated the party with the labor movement and upward mobility. While suburban Philadelphia’s upper-middle-class voters punished Republican candidates in recent election cycles, the party still managed to enjoy statewide down-ballot success. The GOP has even significantly narrowed Democrats’ voter advantage: It’s down to approximately 606,000, compared to 1.2 million in 2008.

Pennsylvania’s changing voting patterns reflect the findings of a recent study of “factory towns – essentially smaller manufacturing counties in 10 profiled states – released by the political organization 21st Century Democrats. “In general,” the study noted, “in both the small and midsized counties … the greater the dependence on manufacturing 20 years ago, the harder the loss of manufacturing was felt, which we found was linked to a larger percentage vote shift to the GOP.”

Though Democrats’ margin in the 10 states’ big cities and metro suburbs increased by approximately 1,550,000 votes since 2012, the party’s “losses in small and midsized manufacturing counties overwhelmed those gains, with combined losses of about 2,635,000 votes.” This trend was evident in traditionally Democratic Pennsylvania counties like Luzerne, home to Hazleton, where manufacturing jobs declined by 28% since 2001. It’s even apparent in neighboring Lackawanna County – it lost 38% of its factory jobs during that period – where Biden just pitched his economic agenda in Scranton, his hometown. Luzerne and Lackawanna lost about 28,000 and 17,000 Democratic votes, respectively, between 2012 and 2020.

Republicans, though, should not take this increasing working-class support for granted. The party’s future depends on widening its margins among these voters, who, in places like Luzerne, flocked to the GOP during the Trump years. As major elections loom – including open gubernatorial and U.S. Senate seats, along with high-stakes congressional races, once redistricting is resolved – Republicans must continue their efforts to mobilize this critical voting bloc.

Of course, the GOP must consider the political composition of Pennsylvania’s Hispanic voters, who still reliably trend Democratic, have lower voter turnout in cities like Reading, and in a region like the Poconos, increasingly register as independent. But as Republicans build their growing working-class coalition, outreach to Hispanic voters in the coal region and Lehigh Valley is a necessity. After all, the legions of GOP-voting, working-class voters in these areas – many with roots dating back generations – are a fairly recent party addition. Luzerne and Northumberland counties, for instance, went for Trump in 2016 after supporting Obama in both of his presidential races.

Overall, Republicans must maintain a conservative message that rejects Democrats’ progressive excesses, including their identitarian preoccupations. But the GOP must also speak to the economic priorities of working-class voters. Referencing the Reagan era, which is now as distant and unrecognizable as Kodachrome slides, doesn’t work in these communities. As Michael Lind recently wrote in Tablet, these voters “have no objection to government programs that hugely benefit them and their families.” These blue-collar voters are “realist in foreign policy, supportive of strategic trade and industrial policy, and latitudinarian on most social controversies.” 

Even with a popular working-class message, Republicans must still navigate the complex game of voting margins in 2022. Trump’s 2016 populist campaign message, for instance, still resonates more than anything with working-class voters – but repels many suburbanites. In suburban Philadelphia, for instance, the Democrats’ advantage appears irreversible. Moreover, metro Harrisburg – most notably, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania’s fastest-growing county – could start to resemble the political and economic composition of northern Virginia. And in the state’s health care-driven suburbs, upper-middle-class remote workers are becoming Democrats’ electoral base. They’re far removed from the issues facing working-class voters in the old industrial regions north of Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountains.

Republicans can improve their electoral prospects if they build on existing working-class margins – and increase turnout – in places like Greater Hazleton, where residents yearn for political leaders to address their socioeconomic concerns. And like Allentown’s Ramos, Republicans must effectively speak to working-class families’ aspirations. For now, amid the uncertainty of an inflationary economy, Republicans have the upper hand among these voters. The coming year will determine if their working-class advantage is a long-term trend or a short-lived romance.

Charles McElwee is the editor of RealClear’s public affairs page on Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @CFMcElwee.





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