SCRANTON — The numbers are striking. It’s impossible to inspect them and deny that President Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 because of his performance in the seven northeastern counties
That year, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming Counties went Trump’s way by 51,026 votes. He won the state by 44,292 votes. In every presidential election this century, this region voted the same way as the state.
In other words, it swung blue.
“The region is important because it’s an area where there has been movement and change as far as political party registration and in voting patterns as we saw in the 2016 election,” Julie Schumacher Cohen, the director of Community and Government Relations at the University of Scranton,told the Capital-Star.
The region, which is mostly made up of rural areas, is dominated by two cities. With a population of 40,000 Wilkes-Barre anchors Luzerne County.
Scranton, a 20-minute ride north on Interstate 81, is the county seat of Lackawanna County., It boasts a population of 70,000 people.
“More generally,” Schumacher Cohen added, “the city of Scranton is a microcosm of issues around the economy and diversity that are facing small cities around the country and that both candidates want to be seen as speaking to — longstanding fiscal distress due to loss of industry, a need for more family sustaining jobs, new immigrants arriving, protests for racial justice, and a need to reimagine and reinvent.”
If Trump is going to win the state again, he’s going to have to keep the region in his pocket. He admitted as much in a recent visit to nearby Old Forge.
“This used to be all Democrat until I came along,” Trump said. “I’ll be back to Pennsylvania, that I promise.”
He’ll have to keep that promise if he’s going to beat his opponent, Joe Biden, on the former vice president’s home turf.
For Trump, that might be more difficult than beating Hillary Clinton in 2016, who had her own roots to the region.
Unlike Clinton, who was born in Illinois but whose father was from Scranton, Biden was actually born here and lived here for the early part of his life. He still has friends here and has visited regularly over the years.
He’s made Scranton a staple of his sales pitch to the nation. The image he portrays of the city – of a predominantly white working class town still stinging from the closing of mines and textile mills – isn’t always accurate.
Scranton, the hometown of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, another big-deal Pennsyvlania Democrat, has consistently voted for the Democrat in presidential elections since 1984.
Just to the south, the region’s most populous county, Luzerne, swung hard to Trump in 2016.
The switch even caught the attention of Ben Bradlee, Jr.
The author and journalist, who – helped guide the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church – decided to look into the matter. He ended up writing a book, “The Forgotten: How the People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America.”
“I didn’t know much about the region until I started the book,” Bradlee told the Capital-Star. “I was shocked that a candidate as unusual as Trump got elected.”
In the end, Bradlee spent 18 months traveling to Luzerne County, and getting to know the people. His book includes profiles of die-hard Trumpers, disaffected Democrats, and reluctant Trump voters.
Bradlee, who will be doing a Zoom event through King’s College in Wilkes-Barre on Sept. 9, says there is no doubt Trump still appeals to his base. That was evident in the crowds that showed up, flying Trump flags to support the president during his visit to Old Forge.
“The key for the election is can he expand his base,” Bradlee says. “He doesn’t seem to be trying to. I think it’s a questionable strategy myself, because he behaves as president of the base and not the country.”
He thinks Biden’s appeal can blunt some of the president’s power.
First, Bradlee said, Biden doesn’t come off as elitist as Hillary Clinton did. For evidence, he points to Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment. That’s not the type of gaffe Biden would make, he argued.
The second thing he pointed out is that Biden comes off as more of a centrist.
The evidence for that narrative was a driving part of the Democratic National Convention last week, with republicans like Colin Powell and John Kasich endorsing Biden.
The Biden campaign is betting on that message hitting hard in places such as northeastern Pennsylvania.
The conventional wisdom is that a place like this, known for its “traditional values” and religiosity, will be tempted by that idea. Or it could stick with the culture wars argument pushed by President Trump.
The region’s economy is partially built around a dozen colleges, many of which are Catholic. The area has repeatedly elected pro-life Democrats, or Democrats that didn’t always toe the official party line on abortion.
Bernard Prusak, a professor of philosophy and the director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, said it’s hard to tell what drives people to vote in the area without seeing hard numbers.
“I’m hesitant to make general statements,” said Prusak, who organized the Zoom event with Bradlee at King’s. “I would like to see the data.”
Trump’s message tends to push the values of law and order, the culture wars and the economy.
But Trump also has to face the failings of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It does seem like the Biden campaign, in the convention, was pushing much greater responsibility for coming to terms with the pandemic,“ Prusak said.
He’s curious about the people who were hesitant in their support for the president in 2016. Have they latched on whole-heartedly, or have other issues made them back away.
Biden keeps saying this election is about the soul of the nation, but based on their frequent campaign stops here, it seems like they’re fighting over the soul of northeastern Pennsylvania.
Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers northeastern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @PaddyAbs.