Perhaps the biggest shock in the surprising 2016 election was the state of Pennsylvania flipping from a safe blue wall state to a red state. While Donald Trump’s victory there was by less than one percentage point, the repercussions and fallout were immense. It was one of the biggest signs that the conventional wisdom of his defeat and popularity was incorrect.
Trump would have won the election without Pennsylvania, having also flipped key state Michigan, Wisconsin, and the key swing states of Ohio and Florida. But Pennsylvania was easily the most shocking, having gone Democrat in every election of the last 28 years. It was also the only northeastern state to go red — even the contested state of New Hampshire went for Hillary Clinton.
Pennsylvania was a huge get for the GOP too. With 20 electoral votes, it ties with Illinois for the fifth most. It also contains several large cities, like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, that are safely liberal leaning. However, the story of the 2016 election, more than anything else, was how the much more conservative rural areas and smaller communities turned out in droves to overwhelm the population centers — proven by the strong electoral victory Trump had while still receiving nearly 2 million fewer votes than Clinton did.
In nearly every county in the Keystone State the GOP had a stronger showing in 2016 than in 2012. Some counties flipped, and others narrowed. Perhaps the biggest flip was in Northwestern Pennsylvania, in Erie County.
President Obama easily carried the county by 17 points over Mitt Romney, but Trump edged out Clinton by two. A nearly 20 point swing is newsworthy enough, but the reasons behind the switch are even more important, as they serve as a microcosm for what is occurring in the nation as a whole.
It’s location on Lake Erie has made it a center for commerce since its founding in the late 1700s. The Industrial Revolution brought tons of manufacturing and steel jobs to the region as a whole, and Erie was one of the key ports to the Great Lakes and beyond. Plastics are also big business here — more than 10 percent of the nation’s plastics are manufactured here — and modern industry is beginning to come in as well, clean fuels, tech sector jobs, and healthcare are seeing a late boom in the area.
But during the recession of 2008, it was a different story. Unemployment soared here, as it did state and nationwide, peaking at nearly 8.5 percent at one point. Shops and businesses closed, others moved away, and the people of Erie grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of attention they received from both their state and federal governments to address their woes.
Voter turnout in 2016 was slightly higher in Erie County as disaffected voters came out to vote against what they perceived as the status quo. Clinton received 11,000 fewer votes than Obama, while Trump picked up roughly the same number, and third-party candidates like Gary Johnson saw a fivefold increase in the number of votes. The message was clear: Erie had seen enough of the Clintons and the career politicians they represented.
Nowadays Erie’s economy has largely recovered, thanks to a much more diversified market. The aforementioned plastics and biofuels booms in the region, combined with increasing productivity nationwide and healthcare jobs plus a new focus on tourism to the lake and other surrounding areas have lifted Erie County to new heights. Thousands of jobs have poured in and the city appears poised for success for the near future.
Whether this burgeoning economic boom continues is largely dependant of the success or failure of some of President Trump’s programs. Proposed cuts to health care could harm the industry in the region, but an increased focus on American manufacturing and energy could help those industries. The people of Erie are happy to roll with it though — they knew that Trump was unpredictable and are willing to take the risk if it means shaking up the political leadership in Washington.
Erie’s status as a potential stronghold for future GOP candidates, Trump or otherwise, will serve as a bellwether for the rest of Pennsylvania. If they can continue to pick up midsize cities like Erie — the likes of which the state is chock full of — it may remain in play, possibly even flip to red for a few cycles.