Trump’s economy hasn’t lifted all boats. Will that matter in Pa. in 2020? | Opinion

January 8, 2020 6:30 am

A new study offers a glimpse of hope for Democrats that they can take back Pennsylvania in the 2020 presidential race.

A analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data shows that 25 counties in Pennsylvania who supported Trump four years ago have seen their poverty rate go up since he was elected in 2016, the Associated Press reported.

The numbers raise questions about whether Trump’s economic policies have helped many of those who voted for him and whether they will continue to support him in the 2020 presidential election.

The poverty rate is the percentage of people in households earning less than the poverty threshold, $25,750 for a family of four. Pennsylvania’s poverty rate in 2016 was 12.9 percent, dropping slightly to 12.2 percent in 2018, according to the census estimates. Statewide, 30 of 67 counties, 45 percent, had a higher poverty rate in 2018 than in 2016, the Associated Press reported.

However, there was some good news in the report for Trump and his supporters as 31 counties that backed him saw their poverty rates decrease from 2016 to 2018. 

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Pennsylvania will be a battleground this year in the 2020 presidential election as the state is tied with Illinois for  the fifth-highest number of electoral college votes. Only California (55), Texas (38, Florida and New York (29 each) have more votes.

Overall, the poverty rate increased in 30 percent of counties in the U.S. with the poverty rate dropping between 2016 and 2018, from 13 percent  to 12 percent.

The poverty rate varied widely between states. In New Jersey and Rhode Island, the poverty rate grew in only one county, compared with 83 in Texas. The poverty rate for Pennsylvania dropped slightly from 12.9 percent in 2016 to 12.2 in 2016.

Trump won Pennsylvania back in 2016, becoming the first GOP presidential candidate to win the state since George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988. The win was surprising to many political experts because Democrats outnumbered Republicans by almost a million registered voters.

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Trump targeted voters, including many Democrats, in rural and depressed counties, promising to turn those areas around by reviving manufacturing industries.

He vowed to reopen steel mills and coal mines, a number of which had been shuttered over the years. Many residents in those areas felt ignored and neglected as the party moved left, particularly on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and gun control.

This year Trump has talked more about the soaring stock exchange numbers, taking full credit for their amazing growth. But the question of how much that’s helped ordinary Americans remains unanswered.

While Trump has made some gains in bringing manufacturing back to Pennsylvania, they’ve been small and certainly nothing on the massive scale he talked about during his 2016 campaign.

Of the 11 counties that backed Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, six saw their poverty rates decrease from 2016 to 2018 while five saw an increase, including Dauphin County 2.1 percent; Centre County, 0.4 percent; Monroe County, 0.3 percent; Allegheny County, 0.2 percent and Lackawanna County, 0.1 percent.

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The other six counties were Bucks County, 0.9 percent, Chester County, 0.3 percent, Delaware County, 2 percent, Lehigh County, 1.3 percent; Montgomery County, 0.3 percent and Philadelphia 1 percent.  Bucks County had the lowest poverty rate in the state followed by Montgomery County. Bucks had the second lowest rate in 2016, trailing only Montgomery County.

In Southwestern Pennsylvania, where Trump clobbered Clinton, the poverty rate rose from 2016 to 2018 in Greene County, 0,2 percent; Beaver County, 1.5 percent; Lawrence County, 2.1 percent and Butler County, 1.4 percent. But it decreased in Fayette County, 2.9 percent; Washington County, 0.7 percent; Westmoreland County, 0.6 percent, Indiana County, 4.5 percent and Armstrong County, 4.5 percent.

It’s also interesting to look at the numbers in Pennsylvania’s three counties which went from backing Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 to supporting Trump in 2016. Erie and Luzerne counties saw decreases in their poverty rates, dropping 0.4 and 0.3 respectively. However, Northampton County saw its poverty rate rise by 0.5 percentage points.

So, what’s it all mean?

Well, that’s hard to tell. But the bottom line is that Trump won Pennsylvania by only 44,000 votes. He will need the full support of those who backed him in 2016. Any slippage in vote totals could well spell defeat for Trump.

However, it remains to be seen if there will be any slippage.

Many of Trump’s supporters are diehard backers who will support him no matter what he does. Will that be true, if Trump’s economic policies don’t really help them. Who knows? Who also knows if some well-to-do people helped by Trump’s policies will switch their positions and vote for him?

The fact is that a Democratic presidential candidate doesn’t need to win a majority of Pennsylvania’s counties. Obama only won 14 counties but he held on to longtime Democratic Party supporters in Southwestern and Northeastern Pennsylvania, beating GOP nominee Mitt Romney 51 percent to 46 percent.

The bottom line is can the Democratic presidential candidate bring back party members who voted for Trump or have they left the party for good?

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.,  is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly. 

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Mark O'Keefe
Mark O'Keefe

Opinion contributor Mark O'Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.,  is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page.