Politics & Policy

The Pennsylvania Upset: Trump and Toomey’s Different Paths to Victory

Trump waves to supporters at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., October 10, 2016. (Reuters photo: Mike Segar)
If Republicans could merge the two approaches, they could continue to win demographically changing swing states.

Two of the most consequential elections of 2016 took place among the same voters in the same state. Pennsylvania effectively put Donald Trump over the top of the 270 electoral-college votes needed to win the presidency, and Pat Toomey’s reelection helped secure a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate for at least another two years.

Both of these results were remarkable. Trump succeeded in a state where Bob Dole, George W. Bush (twice), John McCain, and Mitt Romney all failed. Toomey won a second term, despite having more money spent against him than any Senate candidate in U.S. history.

Trump won the state by 1.2 percentage points, or about 68,000 votes; Toomey won by 1.7 percentage points, or about 100,000 votes. Given the closeness of these outcomes, it’s tempting to conclude that there was little difference between the two races and that just enough voters went generically Republican for both candidates to prevail. That conclusion would be wrong. Trump and Toomey took distinctly different paths to victory and never appeared together in the state. The differences between their paths present significant implications for the future of the Republican party in an increasingly polarized nation.

Toomey and Trump are two of the most dissimilar individuals you could find in the same political party. Toomey is a free-market, fiscal-conservative true believer. In temperament, he is thoughtful, wonkish, polite, and civil. Trump is, well, Trump. Their differences in policy views and personality led to their different paths to success.

Pennsylvania is sometimes mischaracterized as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on each end and Kentucky in between.” It’s a pithy summary, but it’s much too simplistic and does not reflect the state’s political diversity. Three counties in particular epitomize the Trump–Toomey divergence and point to the future of the GOP nationally.

York County is in the Republican heartland of the state. While Pennsylvania has the nation’s seventh-highest unemployment rate, York County’s rate is more than a full point lower than the state’s. With about 440,000 residents, York’s population grew by 14 percent between 2000 and 2010, and has continued to grow since; it is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the Northeast. The county is home to recognizable food brands such as Utz potato chips and Snyder’s of Hanover pretzels. This is not a place of heavy industry, nor is it a capital of the upscale service sector. York County works well in the modern economy.

Registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by 15 points in the county, and York votes as one of the most reliably Republican parts of the state. It is, if you will, the Kansas or Nebraska of Pennsylvania. Donald Trump carried the county by 29 points. Pat Toomey won it by 28 points. No meaningful difference. As reflected by York County, the mainstream of Republican voters came to accept, more or less equally, the conflicting styles and substances of Trump and Toomey. York is especially notable for how different it was from two other counties that represent the divergent paths facing the GOP.

Chester County holds a portion of the famous “Philadelphia suburbs” that many analysts claimed were the key to this year’s national elections. With about half a million people, encompassing parts of the elite “Main Line,” Chester has the highest average income of any county in the state and the 24th-highest income of all counties in America. Its population grew by 15 percent from 2000 to 2010 and has grown another 3.4 percent since — it is a healthy, wealthy, and bustling place.

Politically, Chester has become swing territory. It is ancestrally Republican, and Republicans still hold a five-point registration advantage, but like the rest of the Philadelphia suburbs, Chester has trended Democratic in recent years and has recoiled sharply from some Republicans. In the 2006 Senate race, Democrat Bob Casey beat Republican Rick Santorum by ten points in this county, and in 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain by nine points.

This year in Chester, Toomey performed twelve points better than Trump, winning the county by three points as Trump lost it by nine. That gap fairly well represents the total statewide vote margin between Toomey and Trump. Ticket-splitting was a widespread phenomenon in Pennsylvania this year.

About 200 miles west of Chester County lies Cambria County. It might as well be on a different planet. Nestled within rural, west-central Pennsylvania, Cambria County’s population center is the small city of Johnstown. The total county population is about 140,000 and shrinking fast. It lost 6 percent of its people from 2000 to 2010, and in the last five years it has led Pennsylvania in population loss. Johnstown is a suffering former steel-manufacturing city doing its best to diversify its economy while getting hammered by EPA regulations.

Politically and economically, Cambria is the inverse of Chester. It is ancestrally Democratic and has a 15-point Democratic registration advantage. Old Bull Democrat John Murtha, who was known for his mastery of the pork barrel, represented the area in Congress for 36 years, until his death in 2010. Despite the Democrats’ large registration advantage, Cambria has moved steadily in the Republican direction in recent years. Obama managed to carry the county by one point in 2008, but that wall had clearly broken down by 2012, when Romney won it by 18 points.

Relatively modest flexibility regarding Second Amendment and free-market orthodoxies can make a major difference in the swing parts of America.

This year, the GOP advance continued, but not evenly. Toomey won Cambria by 24 points, beating Romney’s margin by six points and besting his own 2010 margin by two points. But Trump’s performance was something else; he won the county by an incredible 38 points, 67 percent to Clinton’s 29. At the presidential level, and in just eight years, Cambria County went from Obama +1 to Romney +18 to Trump +38. And on Election Day, Trump’s margin exceeded Toomey’s by 14 points — just about the same as Toomey’s twelve-point margin over Trump in Chester County, on the other side of the political moon.

What does all of this mean?

If York County is predictably Republican, like Kansas, neither Chester nor Cambria can be so easily typecast. They are both swing territories, but of vastly different natures. Upscale Chester is similar to the politically decisive regions of Colorado and Virginia, two heavily contested states that ended up in the Clinton column, while downscale Cambria is similar to the politically decisive regions of Ohio and Michigan, states that proved critical to Trump’s success.

Trump and Toomey showed that either path can be successful, at least in 2016. Trump won Pennsylvania without Chester, just as he won nationally without Colorado or Virginia. Toomey won Pennsylvania by carrying Chester, while underperforming Trump in Cambria. These counties fit a pattern. Toomey outpolled Trump by seven to ten points in the other three suburban counties outside Philadelphia and by 29,000 votes in the city of Philadelphia, while Trump significantly outpolled Toomey in a dozen smaller, rural counties.

Which is the better path to political success? Population trends favor Chester, and it’s questionable whether any Republican other than Trump could have achieved his stratospheric heights in Cambria. But perhaps this is a false choice. After all, Trump and Toomey are Republicans who won Pennsylvania by nearly the same margin, even though their paths were distinct. Thinking about it differently, what would happen if, rather than choosing between the two paths, you merged them? If you gave Toomey’s suburban margins to Trump, and Trump’s rural margins to Toomey, neither race would have been particularly close.

#related#This implies things about both policy and style. Toomey’s serious temperament contributed to his win in Chester. For example, he aired a TV ad that quoted the state’s former Democratic governor Ed Rendell calling him “a man of uncommon decency.” Not many people would say the same of Trump. Toomey also emphasized his support for expanded background checks for gun purchases. These ads aired in Chester County, but not in Cambria County. Conversely, Trump’s vigorous attacks on long-established free-trade agreements, and his wish to leave entitlements untouched, played well in Cambria but less so in Chester.

These differences are worth noting. At the same time, Toomey is no gun-grabber, and Trump is unlikely to be a tax hiker or an Obamacare defender. Relatively modest flexibility regarding Second Amendment and free-market orthodoxies can make a major difference in the swing parts of America that determine who becomes president and which party controls Congress.

This election showed that it’s possible for Republicans to narrowly win tough states like Pennsylvania with either the Toomey approach or the Trump approach. If the party can determine how to combine the two methods, then Pennsylvania and several other states could become reliably red.

— Jon Lerner served as lead strategist for the Pat Toomey U.S. Senate campaign.

* National Review magazine content is typically available only to paid subscribers. Due to the immediacy of this article, it has been made available to you for free. To enjoy the full complement of exceptional National Review magazine content, sign up for a subscription today. A special discounted rate is available for you here.

Jon Lerner is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute  and served as deputy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2017–18.

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