The Top 10 Pa. cities — that aren’t Philly and Pittsburgh — where the 2020 Dems have to campaign | Analysis

The PPL Building in downtown Allentown, Pa., seen at night (Image via Flickr Commons)

The New Year is right around the corner, and the Keystone State is almost universally considered to be the pivotal battleground in the presidential election.

The quintessential question: How does the Democratic Party win back a state that was blue for six straight elections until then-candidate Donald Trump won by it four years ago by a slender 44,292-vote margin?  

There is a stereotype of Pennsylvania among national Democrats that we’re pretty much just Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with little in the middle. I blame James Carville for this. This “Philly and Pitt” centric attitude was widely cited as a reason for Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

Indeed while compiling my 2016 autopsy, I found that Clinton actually did spend most of her time in the two metropolises, whereas Trump (rather haphazardly) held events practically everywhere.

So what about those not as well-known places that will determine which way this toss-up state ultimately tips? 

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I contemplated a lengthy, detailed deep-dive into every corner of the commonwealth to answer this question. In the interest of clarity, brevity and SEO, however, I decided instead to use the always popular top ten list template. 

The following are the other towns the 2020 Democratic nominee for President needs to visit and why each of these cities is so vital to their hopes of winning back Pennsylvania’s twenty electoral votes. 

Allentown

This list will be done alphabetically, so we’ll start with the only entry here with its own Billy Joel song. Allentown is the state’s third-largest city and the reason Lehigh County has gone Democratic in every presidential election since 1992.

In my piece on voter registration trends over the past three years, I noted how important Berks, Lehigh and Northampton Counties will be next year. Since Lehigh is the sole Clinton county of the trio and Allentown it’s heart, any effort to flip this region will necessitate huge margins out of the city.

This region also contains a higher percentage of Hispanic/Latino residents than any other in the commonwealth. In fact, the latest Census found that the Hispanic population in Allentown to be over 40% thanks to an influx of Puerto Ricans.

As a result, this is one spot where targeting President Trump’s derogatory comments towards the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria could pay dividends for Democrats.

Bethlehem

It’s appropriate in a way to transition from Allentown to its neighbor Bethlehem, which is one of the rare PA cities to cross county lines, stretching from Lehigh into Northampton County. Northampton is the first county on this list that flipped from backing Barack Obama in 2012 to voting for Donald Trump in 2016. 

In fact, despite the overall participation surge, Hillary Clinton secured fewer votes in Northampton than Obama did four years prior. So there should be a quite few Obama/Trump, Obama/Johnson and Obama/Stein voters to target here. 

Republicans have a problem with suburban voters, Democrats have a problem with rural voters. Where does that leave Pa.’s balance of power?

The close proximity to Allentown also presents a prime opportunity for a two-stop visit that could double the focus on the pivotal region. Furthermore, the famous steel plant would make a compelling campaign backdrop for a number of possible candidates whose argument is that larger economic forces, beyond just Trump, are negatively impacting Americans. 

Erie

Michael Dukakis could win Erie, but Clinton couldn’t. That pretty well epitomizes the sizable conundrum Democrats face in Pennsylvania’s Northwest corner.

Since 2016, Erie’s become a popular destination for newspaper profiles and focus groups of Obama/Trump voters. These endeavors have found that Erie residents are increasingly trending towards the Appalachian Southwest, where the Democratic Party has been hemorrhaging voters for years now.

How can Democrats suspend this development? Simple, show up and prevent it from gaining any more momentum. After all, Erie is one of those cities that candidate Trump visited in 2016 that Clinton avoided (they sent Bill instead).

Harrisburg

Now this was a city Clinton visited three years ago, and for good reason, as our state’s capital is a burgeoning blue lake in Pennsylvania’s historically red south-central section. Much like the nation’s capital, Harrisburg is populated by African-Americans and college-educated whites who work in government.

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Additionally, much as the outgrowth of D.C. turned Northern Virginia blue, communities across the river in Cumberland County are becoming more Democratic. So much so that Cumberland was the sole county that Governor Tom Wolf picked up in his 2018 re-election that he didn’t initially win in 2014. 

So instead of taking Harrisburg for granted, the 2020 nominee should recognize it as one of the handful of areas where Democrats are on the offense and press on for full advantage. Also make sure to mention that the President once said the city looked like a war-zone.

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Lancaster

Speaking of south-central Pennsylvania, the quietest story in the state right now is the shift happening in Lancaster County. It’s so quiet that Republicans, including the Trump campaign, don’t seem aware of it. One 2019 election night anecdote that flew under the radar was that in Manheim, where the Trump team had held a Halloween party, Dems ended up taking power

This county-wide movement is flowing outward from the town of Lancaster itself. I know what you must be thinking: Amish Country turning towards America’s progressive political party? Yet despite a coordinated Trump effort, the city is a prime Democratic prospect

My original theory upon discovering this development was that Amish voters, much like Mormons out west, were much less inclined to forgive Trump’s personal faux pas than other religious groups. It’s also quite possible that the rapid growth in the Philly collar countries is beginning to bleed west into the South Central. Either way it shouldn’t be overlooked.

Levittown

Levittown, named for its real estate developer William Levitt, was a quintessential 1950s suburban development, with its ambitious design and its shameful segregationist legacy. Situated in lower Bucks County, a blue-collar area of fading economic fortune, Levittown was practically destined to serve as the subject of infinite periodical profiles.

It’s doubtful an election cycle has passed without a journalist dropping in to take the temperature there. It may be hackneyed, but it’s still true. Clinton narrowly carried Bucks but didn’t hit the numbers in places like Levittown to make up for losses elsewhere.

As I’ve written before, Bucks is a microcosm of Pennsylvania and America. Wealthier, more educated areas that were traditionally Republican are turning blue. Meanwhile working-class, struggling areas that were once heavily Democratic are beginning to bleed red. Barack Obama faced it head-on in 2008, and the next Democratic President will have to as well.

Reading

Similar to Allentown and Bethlehem, Reading is a city that showcases the fault line between the struggling Appalachian areas of the state and the more successful Acela corridor. The manufacturing plants have largely disappeared and the population went through a precipitous drop in the second half of the 20th century.

At the same time, emigrants from Puerto Rico fueled growth in the 21st century and the medical profession has taken over as the dominant economic driver.

So much so that the Reading Hospital is the town’s largest employer and the second-biggest in the county. Nonetheless, the Great Recession was tough, with one 2011 Census survey even identifying Reading as the poorest city in the nation. 

Reading is a place where Democrats can reverse course with both an economic and values message, particularly one targeted towards women. Trump’s gender gap could come back to bite him here if he’s alienated and/or outraged enough women who are normally passive political participants. Taylor Swift, the city’s most famous native daughter, would be the prime example

Scranton

As Pennsylvania drifted towards Donald Trump on Election Night 2016 and analysts tried to spy the culprit in real time, the numbers in Lackawanna County jumped out. Clinton had dropped thirteen points, ultimately just over 23,000 votes, under Obama’s 2012 margin. Scranton, traditionally navy blue, now had several light red cracks in it.

A major reason Democrats should be worried is that, unlike other places, they did not forget about this area. In August 2016, Clinton and former Veep Joe Biden made a joint appearance in Scranton. The city has familial links for both of them, as Clinton’s father and Biden both were born and grew up there. 

I’ve noted that the Northeast is quietly the PA Dems’ biggest problem, as voter registration trends show the GOP rapidly gaining strength there. The party simply must arrest this movement and their nominee has to reach the city’s electorate and post an impressive number out of there. If not, Pennsylvania will break Democratic hearts yet again.

State College

Ever since Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, college campuses have been an integral ingredient to success for the party’s candidates. Therefore, the home to Penn State University is a vital stop for the 2020 nominee. Back when he was considered a contender, Beto O’Rourke recognized this by making a visit to State College one of his first events and over 1,000 people came to see him speak.

That turnout should serve as a reminder that young people are not only possible voters, but a potential haven of passionate volunteers. Although the flip side of that coin is that they’re also highly distrustful of organized political parties. So direct outreach becomes even more important. 

Even with tepid enthusiasm for Clinton, 18-24 year olds were still her strongest age demographic. A more moderate, establishment nominee has to make improving those numbers a major goal, while a progressive insurgent will be particularly dependent on youthful excitement. Regardless, State College is too rich a prize to take for granted.

Wilkes-Barre

Now that we’ve reached the end, you might have noticed something. There aren’t any Southwestern cities on this list. If I actually went full galaxy-brain mode and given you a top 100 list, this obviously wouldn’t be the case. In reality, though, I truly believe that the Southwest is far too much of an uphill climb to solve before 2020. 

Another reason is that a place like Wilkes-Barre is far more favorable territory in which to have essentially the same fight.

Together with Scranton, the cities were once a solid blue corridor for Democrats. Intense focus from Trump ever since 2016, however, is having a noticeable effect.

For example, just recently state Sen. John Yudichak left the party and became an independent in a bid for survival. This is an inflection point for Democrats as they can’t afford to let Wilkes-Barre go.

Moreover, if the 2020 nominee can legitimately compete here, then there should be a corresponding improvement in their performance throughout the economically-similar areas in the Southwest.

To back up this point, and preemptively respond to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman before he chastises me for this decision, I’ll note that he cited Luzerne and Erie as the decisive toss-up areas when he commented on my recent voter registration piece.

Running up the margins in favorable places and keeping it close in less favorable spots is, of course, always the name of the game when it comes to elections. What truly makes the difference, though, is knowing exactly where to go.

Capital-Star contributor Nick Field, a former managing editor of PoliticsPA, writes from Bucks County.