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The View from Pennsylvania

A failed Democratic strategy threatens to repeat itself

In August, Rachel Bitecofer—a political scientist working with The Lincoln Project—released a poll of “Battlefield PA,” defined as rural Congressional Districts in the so-called “T” of Pennsylvania. The poll sampling was a disaster, and some of the questions were factually wrong. None of that stopped her from claiming a unique perspective on a region of Pennsylvania that played an enormous role in making Donald Trump president.

In trumpeting her “insight” into Pennsylvania, Bitecofer provides a window into the feckless political class of pundits, politicians, and professional campaign operatives who are still getting this state—and the Rust Belt—horribly, embarrassingly, and, in any just world, career-endingly wrong. She is just one of many trying to interpret the cultural and political “Others” of rural and small-town America, as political strategists and prominent journalists slum it in the region like moralizing Victorian reformers. They aim to divine what “white working class” voters think and interpret it for the consumption of Beltway elites. If you ask them, they know exactly what went wrong for Clinton in 2016, and they know exactly what will happen in 2020. Politicians and those paid to run their campaigns obligingly follow their lead.

Now-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer infamously offered one of the worst political prognostications in American history shortly before the 2016 election, predicting a two-to-one gain of suburban votes for every working class vote lost. His statement of demographic inevitability wasn’t entirely wrong: Democrats did pick up suburban votes. What he missed was just how badly their support would hemorrhage elsewhere. Take Blair County, Pennsylvania. When Trump won Blair County, he didn’t just win. He won historically. Trump won Mifflin, Huntingdon, Clearfield, and Clinton counties—among others—with the highest margins of any candidate since Herbert Hoover in 1928. In some cases, he won them with the largest margins of any presidential candidate ever.

The same pattern repeated itself through Pennsylvania. Hillary Clinton didn’t just lose almost every county outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; she was demolished. As Dave Weigel noted in a recent Washington Post piece on Pennsylvania, Trump bested Mitt Romney’s performance in Central Pennsylvania by one hundred twenty thousand votes, well over double his margin of victory over Clinton. It cost her the election.

Hillary Clinton didn’t just lose almost every county outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; she was demolished.

But Clinton’s loss wasn’t inevitable—it was a result of deliberate choices. In September 2016, Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, sent out a memo to supporters detailing Clinton’s path to victory. In it, he assumed Pennsylvania was a win for Clinton, contrary to Trump’s investment of resources to make Pennsylvania a battleground state. Shortly before the election, WHYY in Philadelphia surveyed the campaigns’ ground games, noting that Trump’s campaign spent a great deal of time in rural Pennsylvania. Clinton, in contrast, focused on suburban Philadelphia; her campaign “played defense” with the assumption that rural voting patterns would follow the norm, and Democratic support in places like Luzerne and Erie counties would hold. They were wrong.

The trends in Pennsylvania could be seen across the wider Rust Belt. After the election, pundits rushed to explain why rural and Rust Belt voters voted the way they did. Racism. Sexism. A general parochialism, sneered at by educated liberals. Well-known liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas suggested that coal miners, a group predisposed to serious health issues like black lung, deserved to lose health insurance for voting for Trump. They should know better, after all—and if they don’t, well, tough.

Sexism and racism did play a role, but what you do with those conclusions matters. Assuming the region’s reactionary politics were intractable led to two simplistic strategies: abandon “Trumpland,” or cater to it. Some did exactly what Twitter user @randydglub predicted they would the day after the 2016 election: they looked in the mirror, took a deep breath, and committed to getting more racist. Whether deflecting demands for racial justice or caving on abortion rights, a number of “sensible” Democrats have spent the last four years scurrying to assure reactionaries that they have a place in the tent. This is an inevitable consequence of the Democratic electoral coalition, according to Ezra Klein.

But are there other explanations for what happened in 2016, and other solutions?

Past and potential plant closures cast long shadows in the Rust Belt. When plants close, they leave unemployment, defunded schools, and social devastation in their wake. The knock-on effect—collapsing union locals—is just as consequential. According to a local union activist, in the early 2000s, Centre County, Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO Central Labor Council folded because of plant closure after plant closure, including an auto parts manufacturer and a Corning Glass facility. The Council wasn’t reestablished until a new charter was issued to the Seven Mountains CLC in 2010. Without a strong voice for organized labor, local Democrats turned their focus to white collar and affluent professionals.

Trump had undeniable success connecting with disaffected voters who’d been left behind: 15 percent of voters in 2016 said it was their first time voting. Many of those voters in Rust Belt towns, including those in Central Pennsylvania like Altoona, were attracted by the simplicity of Trump’s message, how it spoke directly to their experience of economic decline. Late-deciding voters broke heavily for Trump, upending pre-election polls that showed Clinton with a comfortable lead. One union member who had previously voted for Obama, interviewed by ProPublica, made clear her reasons for defecting: “I wanted people like me to be cared about. People don’t realize there’s nothing without a blue-collar worker.”

What will these voters do this time? Some think that Biden’s carefully cultivated (and outrageously untrue) blue-collar image may increase his appeal, but that’s far from a given. According to Sarah Jaffe, a labor expert and journalist who has written extensively about union workers in Lordstown, Ohio, Rust Belt voters and union members—including those who gambled on Trump—may just stay home. Trump isn’t what he said he was; he’s a liar and a conman. He didn’t save their jobs. But Biden isn’t telling them much to get them to the polls, and he hasn’t met a rigged trade agreement he didn’t support. You can’t say you’re for Main Street on one day and cozy up to Wall Street the next. If Trump has taught voters one thing, it’s to smell a con.

One response Democrats have been unwilling to make the centerpiece of their pitch: crack down on offshoring, and make it easier to form, join, and keep a union. (While Biden has identified as a “union man” and attacked Trump on offshoring during a campaign stop in Michigan, the Democrats seem determined to present the election narrowly as a referendum on the current administration.) Expanding union rights would play well with Rust Belt voters; over 65 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, and majorities think corporations have too much power. Unions have been shown to change voter opinion and behavior, and to inoculate against racism; decline in union power also correlates to a decline in Democratic vote share. Pro-worker sentiment recently cut across partisan lines in Missouri’s referendum on “Right-to-Work,” and the potential power of worker organization was demonstrated again during wildcat strikes in West Virginia, when educators and their communities united against a Republican-dominated legislature. Organized labor in Pennsylvania and the Rust Belt has been slowly smothered for decade, with the exception of successes in Philadelphia. Imagine if Philadelphia was the rule instead.

Of course, unions aren’t a silver bullet. Reactionary politics and their convenient scapegoats are not easily displaced. Although some Trump voters were convinced by a Hail Mary pass at more economic security, many (especially the more comfortable rural elite) have actively bought into a poisonous vision of the world—and brought their neighbors with them. Pew Research polls, while unfortunately premised on an intractable rural-urban divide, have shown that a majority of rural (especially compared to urban) Americans view immigration as dangerous, disagree with marriage equality, and want to ban abortion.

Pointing to these polls as a reason for inaction is tempting, and it’s what the pundits would have you do. But read a different way, the same research might show that the margins aren’t as lopsided as conventional wisdom says, that they are shifting, and that there’s room to bring a message to rural and Rust Belt voters without compromising core progressive values. Strong minorities of rural voters are open to more progressive arguments on cultural wedge issues, and when the polling data is broken down by generation, rural millennials hold majority progressive views on the “culture wars.” Rural voters are also evenly split on whether the government should do more to solve problems, leaving room for government-driven solutions to social issues. There’s no reason to believe Central Pennsylvania and rural and small-town Rust Belt communities are any different.

Unfortunately, there’s no sign that high-profile Democrats and the Biden campaign have learned a goddamn thing. Mook, the unexorcised ghost of 2016, has continued to coordinate Democratic messaging for “white working-class” suburban voters with focus groups bashing progressive policies and asking voters what animals they like. Biden’s campaign is abandoning Rust Belt voters and embracing law-and-order political messaging in the suburbs in an effort to distance himself from widespread political turmoil over police murders and Trump’s insistence that he is a Trojan horse for the “radical left.” It’s also in keeping with his record—he notoriously worked with segregationists in the 1980s and 1990s to fuel the rise of mass incarceration.

For all the talk of data-guided politics among Democratic lanyards, there’s no argument for the neglect of this region that makes sense. Over-performance for Trump in Central Pennsylvania was one of the crucial deciding factors in Trump’s victory. The numbers show it—and they show Democrats can do better in the region, even if they can’t yet win it outright. Instead, everything hinges on delivering a dramatic victory exclusively fought for in the suburbs. With Biden’s lead in the Philadelphia suburbs beginning to evaporate as of early September, the battle there will be heated—and made more complicated by the logistics of campaigning during a pandemic.

Biden’s campaign is abandoning Rust Belt voters and embracing law-and-order political messaging in the suburbs.

Campaign decisions don’t occur in isolation, they’re not value-free, and the shifting composition of the Democratic electoral coalition has political consequences that extend far beyond the election. The consequences have already been displayed—the battle over the Democratic platform and the Democratic National Convention program was shaped by a deliberate strategy of outreach toward affluent Republicans alienated by Trump. This isn’t just campaign trail posturing: it’s also how Biden plans to govern, shown by his recently welcoming of Cindy McCain to his transition team. For the first time ever, the Chamber of Commerce—one of the most visible enemies of organized labor, and of working Americans—has issued widespread endorsements of Democrats on the national level.

We’re careening toward an uncertain election, and the blithe certitude and clear ineptitude of the political elite is unfathomable given the stakes. It’s no exaggeration to say that everything is on the line, even setting aside the widespread fears that Trump will not leave office. If Biden wins, the best-case scenario is that we’ll be forced to deal with a Democratic Party of resurgent centrism, convinced that their path to victory is through vacuous messaging calibrated to cause the least offense to the maximum number of people. They’ll insist that their future dominance is assured, normalcy has been restored, and that the nightmare is over. With eyes fixed on a seemingly winning formula, they won’t see who’s getting left behind again, or history repeating itself before their very eyes.

The worst-case scenario is that Trump will win again. In four years, he has done incalculable damage; four more will be apocalyptic. Democrats are unwilling to consider that they might be getting it wrong, and if they lose as a consequence, creeping fascism will become a dead run.