Tim Alberta, Politico, July 28, 2020
Here we are, just under 100 days out from Election Day, and every metric we have at our disposal—right track vs. wrong track numbers, approval and disapproval ratings, horse race polling nationally and in battleground states—suggests that Donald Trump is headed toward defeat on Nov. 3. The data is especially daunting for its consistency. There is zero sign of minority attitudes softening toward the president; if anything, four years after Trump won just 21 percent of all nonwhite voters, there is reason to suspect that number could dip lower still. At the same time, the president’s bleeding of support among affluent white suburbanites—which caused a Democratic wave in the 2018 midterm—has become a full-blown hemorrhage. After winning college-educated whites by 3 points in 2016, Trump’s party lost this group by 8 points in the midterms; GOP officials fear that margin could approach 15 points this fall and carry Joe Biden into the White House.
It all adds up to a dire outlook for Trump. If he is losing badly among the two fastest-growing blocs of voters—minorities and college-educated whites—is there any hope for the president to win a second term?
Yes, there is. And his reason for hope comes from a familiar place: the white working class.
There exists an assumption that because Trump cleaned up with noncollege-educated white voters in 2016—winning them by a margin of 39 points, “the largest among any candidate in exit polls since 1980,” according to Pew Research—the president has maxed out his support among this much-mythologized group. But this is an assumption, not a fact. For one thing, there is evidence to suggest that while Trump won a bigger share of working-class whites than his predecessors, turnout among this group was higher in prior elections. Moreover, it’s not clear that Democrats have bottomed out with this group; the same polarization that continues to depress Trump’s upper-class white support could propel his working-class white support even higher.
The bottom line, Washington, is that for as well as Trump performed with these voters in 2016, he needs to do even better with them in 2020. He needs to convert more blue-collar Democrats. He needs to turn out more unaffiliated nonpartisans. The question is: Can he?
To answer that question, I needed to escape the self-imposed quarantine that has limited my past three letters to my home base of Michigan. I needed to steep myself in a place that should be bleeding red MAGA country but for whatever reason still isn’t. I needed to visit Scranton.
Now, let’s be clear. Scranton is not significant because of Joe Biden’s biography. Many residents I spoke with, including die-hard Democrats, pointed out that the former vice president moved away from their city as a child, scoffing at the notion of Scranton being Biden’s “hometown.”
Rather, the city is significant because it embodies one side of the Trump-era realignment—the inroads made by Republicans, the losses suffered by Democrats—and the opportunities present for both parties this November.
Scranton is the seat of Lackawanna County, the hardhat-and-lunchbox home to generations of coal miners and plant workers who were left behind by the transition to an information economy. Flanked by 360-degree views of the surrounding mountain ranges, Scranton is a steeply pitched grid of antique churches and sprawling cemeteries, rusting homes and shuttered businesses, a clash of urban decay against bucolic splendor. The population is old—hence the abundance of graveyards, locals joke—undereducated and overwhelmingly white, seemingly ripe for Republican politics.
And yet, the county has long been clannishly Democratic, having gone blue in every presidential election since 1984. In a northeastern quarter of Pennsylvania that has grown ever more conservative on cultural grounds, explaining a political evolution from blue to purple to red, Lackawanna County proved to be a stubborn outlier. In 2012, even as Barack Obama suffered losses or eked out hard-fought wins in surrounding counties, he carried Lackawanna by 27 points over Mitt Romney. That margin was 45 points in Scranton—a blowout for the first Black president in a working-class city that’s more than 80 percent white.
Just four years later, however, Lackawanna County succumbed to the long-running regional trends with a suddenness that still feels jarring to residents of the area. Hillary Clinton hung on for a narrow 3-point victory, but all the underlying trends—a decline in Democratic turnout, a decrease in straight-party ballots cast, a lack of visible enthusiasm for her on the ground—made it feel like a defeat. The 24-point swing toward the Republicans in the county from 2012 to 2016 accounted for a total of 23,154 votes—more than half of Trump’s statewide victory in Pennsylvania.
Like the county, Scranton swung hard—by a margin of 22 points—from 2012 to 2016. Unlike the county, Scranton was still a lopsided victory for the Democrats: Clinton carried the city with 60 percent of the vote. Not only did Clinton defeat Trump in each of Scranton’s four dozen precincts, he didn’t come within 5 points of her in any of them.
On its face, this might seem discouraging for Trump, proof that even under the best of electoral conditions he was unable to get over the top. But there’s an alternative interpretation: Trump left points on the board. By pushing his vote-share toward 45 percent in some of the most storied ancestral Democratic neighborhoods of Scranton—areas that for decades were controlled by union voting and machine politics—the president demonstrated a cultural appeal that transcends partisan politics, making a long-term electoral investment that has not yet fully matured. Maybe voters in Scranton will return to their normal voting behaviors in November. Then again, maybe 2016 was the beginning of their new normal.
Butch Manuel drives an armored Brinks truck. He is 53 years old, a bushy salt-and-pepper goatee shining against his bronzed skin and buzzed head. When we first got to talking, he told me I was wasting my breath with him. Manuel had never voted, not in his entire life, and wouldn’t be terribly conversant about the election. “It’s not worth my time,” he said. “All they do is promise things and never follow through. It’s all a bunch of lies. That’s what politics is.”
In the next breath, however, Manuel began to explain his attraction to Donald Trump—a businessman who isn’t “another politician” like the rest. He spoke of how the president is new to Washington; how he’s “doing the best he can” under abysmal circumstances; how he’s been under siege from Democrats and the media “since the day he took the job.”
I told Manuel that he sounded like a Trump voter. He shrugged. For that to be true, Manuel said, he would have to be a voter in the first place. That’s when I asked if there was anything Trump could do, between now and November, to change Manuel’s mind, to get him to the polls for the first time in his life.
“I dunno,” he murmured, taking a long pull on his cigarette, gazing out over the street from his elevated front terrace. “That’s a good question.”
Then he shook his head. “Probably not.”
Manuel explained that for someone like him—a lifelong resident of the area, someone who has battled to keep a job, someone who lies awake at night worried about whether his three kids can hold down good work and afford a decent home—the occupant of the White House has little bearing on his life. “Would I rather have Trump than Biden? Yeah,” he said. “But it doesn’t really matter who wins.”
Kathy Manuel doesn’t share her husband’s apathy.
After Butch went inside to call for her, promising me that she would have more interesting opinions, Kathy emerged with a puzzled look. Her husband was talking politics? With a stranger?
“He’s not gonna vote anyway,” Kathy said, elbowing Butch. “I’m not sure I will, either.”
Kathy is a former Democrat turned independent. She voted for Obama twice, then switched to Trump in 2016, convinced that he would “protect the working people, take care of the elderly, take care of the military, take care of the veterans.” Four years later, she wishes she hadn’t.
“Don’t get me wrong, he’s done some good stuff. But lately he’s just been ticking me off,” Kathy said. She works on the facilities staff at the local hospital, Commonwealth Health Regional, and has been dismayed at the president’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
I asked Kathy if she’s certain that she’ll vote.
“Yeah, I most likely will,” she replied. “And if I do, it won’t be for Trump.”
I heard echoes of this conversation while talking with Bob and Bill McHale, brothers who were born and raised in Scranton.
Bill, the elder brother at age 67, sported a thick white beard and sat atop a black Harley-Davidson while talking with Bob, 61, outside their mother’s home under the shade of a towering elm tree. The house, which appears in fine condition, was condemned—“the type of thing that wouldn’t happen if you knew someone at city hall, or knew who to hand an envelope to,” Bill says—and they’ve dumped money and time into getting it up to code. It’s an outrage, the brothers agreed, government picking on the little guy as the roads crumble and the schools languish, all while the former mayor awaits a recommended 30-year sentence for bribery and extortion.
Neither of the McHale brothers voted in 2016. They are fed up with politics and politicians. Bill, a registered Democrat, “wasn’t a fan of Hillary,” and Bob, a conservative-leaning independent, “couldn’t stomach” supporting Trump. Four years later, their positions haven’t changed much.
“I’m not real happy with my party these days,” said Bill, a custodian with the Scranton Public Schools. “They’re too far to the left for me at this point. The older I get, the more to the right I find myself.” He stops suddenly. “Trust me, I’m no Trumper. I think the Republicans are insane. But I don’t like the guy Democrats are putting up, either.”
Why not? “I could have voted for Buttigieg; I liked him. Maybe even Bernie. But the party wanted Biden. And he’s just too old. I don’t think he’s got Alzheimer’s or anything like that, but he does say the damnedest things. I don’t know. I could have voted for him at one point—when he was younger. But I’ll probably wind up sitting this one out too. He’s just too old. And there’s no way in hell I could vote for Trump.”
That said, Bill knows plenty of people who did just that in 2016. “They were so frustrated with everything that they were willing to try something different. They were sick of everything being about Democrat vs. Republican, and not about them. When they heard Trump say he was going to ‘drain the swamp,’ they believed him—”
Bob cuts him off: “But it never happened.” His brother mmm-hmms in agreement.
Bob, a home-care worker, skipped the last election for different reasons. A staunch opponent of abortion, Bob said he couldn’t vote for Clinton. At the same time, Bob said, “I’m a Christian—at least, I try to be—and that made it hard to vote for Trump, with all his scandals and the way he was carrying on.”
He doesn’t think Trump’s behavior has changed much since. What has changed, Bob told me, is the “chaos” he sees unfolding across America.
“The one thing I do like is the way he stands with the police,” Bob said of Trump. “These protests are criminal. I feel sorry for the Blacks, and there are a lot of crummy cops out there. But I don’t want the government taking money away from the police; I think we should be giving them more money and using it for better training, especially to deal with mentally ill people.”
He continued, “There’s a lot of chaos in this world, everything’s upside down. And for all the stuff that’s been thrown at Trump, he shakes it off and keeps on going. I find that refreshing.”
Is that enough to make him vote? “I haven’t decided,” Bob said. “But if I had to choose between the two men, I’d have to choose Trump.”
[Editor’s Note: Many more conversations with Scranton residents can be read in the original essay.]