Western PA voters seek focus on jobs, personal connections in candidates

Credit: Qingyi Dong/ Credit: Qingyi Dong/
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One of the biggest stories of the 2016 Presidential Election was the “white working class voter”. Though part of the Democratic Party’s historic coalition, this block of voters has migrated away from Democrats towards Republicans over the past several decades, and they turned hard for Donald Trump in 2016. In the three most surprising states that Trump won — Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — a dramatic surge of support among the white working class helped propel Trump to victory nationwide. Over spring break, I spoke with voters in neighboring Westmoreland County to better understand why voters in Western PA sided with Trump, and what Democrats need to do to win them back.

The story of Westmoreland County’s morphing political affiliation is the story of changing politics across the “Rust Belt” writ large. Over the past fifty years, Westmoreland County has shifted from total Democratic domination to a Republican stronghold. Westmoreland voters sided with Lydon B. Johnson by a stunning margin of seventy-two percent to twenty-eight percent in 1964. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, elections were much closer, but the county still leaned reliably blue. Even in 1984, when Ronald Reagan won 525 Electoral College votes and won the popular vote by nearly twenty percent, Westmoreland County voters favored Walter Mondale by six points. But Westmoreland County has voted for every Republican presidential candidate since 2000, with an increasing margin in each election. In 2016, Trump bested Hillary Clinton by more than thirty points, the largest margin of victory in the county since Johnson in 1964.

So what prompted such a dramatic change? Looking at the county’s election returns, one important inflection point appears to be the tenure of President Bill Clinton. In 1992, Clinton won in Westmoreland County by nearly fifteen points. But in 1996, Clinton won by a razor-thin margin: just one point. Notably, no Democratic candidate has won Westmoreland County since. Though Clinton’s tenure was good to Westmoreland County residents — unemployment there was 9.3% when Clinton took office in 1993 and just 5.1% when he was re-elected in 1996 — voters were repelled by his policies on free trade, entitlement reform, and social issues.

When I spoke to voters in Westmoreland County, they frequently named three factors that explain why so many historic Democrats have jumped ship since the Clinton days. These factors were jobs, a perception that the Democratic party is “elite” and “out of touch” with working people, and a widening gulf between the values of Westmoreland County residents and the Democratic party.

It’s not surprising that so many voters pointed to jobs as a major reason for Trump’s success and the Republican Party’s growing dominance in Westmoreland County. After all, this was a narrative repeated across the country in 2016. Voters didn’t necessarily like all of the things Trump stood for, but they trusted him to bring back jobs. I pointed out to several voters that Democrats have had a better record of creating jobs than Republicans, both nationwide and in Westmoreland County. They responded by saying that the jobs Democrats were creating weren’t the right kind of jobs. On the one hand, they were creating low-paying jobs without benefits, such as part-time jobs in the service industry that pay minimum wage. On the other hand, they were focusing on jobs that required a college education or even an advanced degree. Neither is right for Westmoreland County, voters insisted, where jobs in manufacturing, steel, and other heavy industries were once the lifeblood of the economy, but have since all but dried up.

“Trump,” one voter said, “is a businessman who knows how to get things done, and that includes creating good jobs.” Bill, a Clinton voter, put it more bluntly: "Twenty-five years ago there were over 40 thousand mill jobs in the community, and now there’s less than four hundred. Those jobs aren’t coming back because of automation. But a person like Donald Trump is going to promise you everything and the moon. And voters in this area bought it.”

Beyond factors like job creation, Westmoreland County voters tended to say that Democrats were out-of-touch with working people. One man I spoke too, a Trump voter, said that Clinton did so poorly in Westmoreland County, first and foremost, because she never campaigned there. “In this election,” he said, “Democrats didn’t even pretend to care about workers in Westmoreland County, so why would they vote for her?” Bob, another Trump voter who used to vote for Democrats but switched in 1996, said Democrats have lost voters in Westmoreland County because “Democrats put themselves above everyone else, saying, 'we’re gonna run everything, you take it or leave it.'” Even Democrats said that their party’s candidates struggled with elitism and didn’t do enough to relate to people. Until they do, voters on both sides of the aisle said, Westmoreland County workers aren’t coming back into the Democratic fold.

While jobs and the economy were far-and-away the dominant reason that voters cited for Trump’s appeal in Westmoreland County, social issues like immigration and abortion loomed heavily in the discussion as well. One woman, an accountant who voted for Donald Trump, said that her vote ultimately came down to abortion. She said she plans to vote for Senator Bob Casey in 2018, a pro-life Democrat. I also spoke to several retirees who said that the last Democrat they voted for was John F. Kennedy in 1960, but they never even considered voting for Democrats since Roe. v. Wade. Trump voters also cited illegal immigration, often saying that his emphasis on building a wall along the southern border and deporting undocumented residents was one of the first promises that attracted them to his campaign during the Republican primary.

While many who I spoke to — Trump and Clinton voters — said that a populist Democrat with a strong economic message like Bernie Sanders would have done better with Westmoreland County voters, it wasn’t clear whether economic policies that were further to the left would actually increase support in the county. Though many voters signaled that they voted against Clinton because they didn’t trust her or feel that she had their best interests at heart, they often said that liberal economic policies, such as stricter regulations, generous welfare plans, and high taxes, were among the factors that had turned area residents away from the Democratic Party in general. Donna, a Trump voter and registered Democrat, said, “Democrats are losing their base because so many people who are going out to work are sitting back and looking at the entitlement programs and saying ‘We’re paying for this?’ and ‘It’s not working, we need to try something different.’”

So what kind of candidate or platform do Democrats need to run to win back voters in Westmoreland County and across the rust belt? Nearly every Trump voter with whom I spoke said that they’ve voted for Democrats before and would do so again for the right candidate. Voters agreed that the only Democrat that can win in the area is one who emphasizes jobs and the economy and makes a real effort to connect with voters at a personal level. Democratic social issues were a non-starter, but if a candidate focused on how they could create jobs, most voters were willing to listen, even if that candidate didn’t share all of their social values. Most importantly, the Democratic candidate that can beat Trump and other Republicans will have to be authentic, probably an outsider with working class honesty, a strong leader, and a fresh, independent thinker who’s willing to buck party norms to serve the people. A change agent. A leader after the worker’s own heart.