Could Pennsylvania surprise the pundits in the 2016 presidential election by handing its electoral votes to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — State Dept. employees targets of spyware Ohio Republican Party meeting ends abruptly over anti-DeWine protesters Jan. 6 panel faces new test as first witness pleads the Fifth MORE?
Just a few weeks ago, experts seemed prepared to dismiss the idea, given that Pennsylvania has gone blue in every presidential election since 1992 and Clinton was leading state polls.
Yet as a Keystone State native and resident, I detect a strong groundswell of unexpected support for this year’s most unconventional Republican candidate that can’t be dismissed.
I live in Butler County, in the third Congressional District, a traditional stronghold of working and middle-class Democrats in the western part of the state, just north of Pittsburgh. If posted signs were an indicator, the Republican nominee would be unstoppable. “Trump-Pence” signs are everywhere, while there’s little indication of enthusiasm for Clinton.
Of course, Clinton isn’t completely absent. Her media advertising is ubiquitous and relentless, with a seemingly constant stream of well-produced and tough television ads attacking Trump.
Those are just anecdotal observations, but the contrast is striking. Clinton is running the traditional top-down campaign strategy, jetting from fundraiser to fundraiser with wealthy elites to secure the millions upon millions of dollars she needs to jam the airwaves with ads day and night. It’s an approach that looks a lot like Jeb Bush’s Republican primary bid — and we know how that ended.
By comparison, the Trump campaign is almost a guerilla operation, marked by a bottom-up groundswell from average voters who are rejecting the top-down, consultant-driven approach of the establishment Democrat.
It’s not just Republican Pennsylvanians growing disenchanted with that model. A flurry of recent reports have examined shifting partisan alignments among a sizable number of traditional Democratic voters in Pennsylvania. Reporters from The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, the Guardian and others find significant — in some places overwhelming—pockets of support for the Republican from long-time Democrats in rural and suburban Pennsylvania.
Many Pennsylvanians, particularly outside the bustling city centers, are anxious about the decline of their own communities, and they see something in Trump they haven’t gotten from traditional politicos: respect for their communities and way of life.
As one 55-year-old worker in Charleroi, PA, told the Atlantic: “They think it is the celebrity of Trump. It’s not. They think we’ve all gone mad. We’ve not. Communities like where I live do not need to shutter and die. We lead solid, honest lives, we work hard, we play hard, we pray hard … we love where we are from, and we feel a duty to make sure that it is here for generations.”
That Trump supporter, like others cited in the article, is a registered Democrat. His viewpoints, like those of the other small town voters cited, reflect an outlook and set of values that, according to Clinton, are now to be considered “deplorable.” It’s a perspective I’ve heard from many others in Pennsylvania who are tired of being the targets of denigration and condescension.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign is seeking to maximize its advantages in urban centers like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, metropolitan areas that with their surrounding suburbs account for the majority of the state’s votes.
Yet for all the Clinton team’s sound and fury, here on the ground, the feeling is that the race has been tightening, and the polls have been a lagging indicator. A CNN poll conducted last week shows Clinton with just a single-point lead over Trump in the Keystone State.
It’s worth remembering that while GOP candidates in Pennsylvania haven’t had much luck at the presidential level since the 1980s, Republicans prevail regularly in other statewide races. Candidates like Gov. Tom Ridge, Gov. Tom Corbett and Senator Pat Toomey (though he’s locked in a tight campaign for reelection) prove Republicans can win statewide.
Trump looks increasingly determined to follow that path, which begins with actually going to communities and making the case for new leadership. It’s not lost on Pennsylvanians that the candidate has been here, speaking to large crowds not only in city centers like Pittsburgh and Philly, but elsewhere around the state as well.
Perhaps Clinton’s top-down strategy will soon show results, and her lead will widen in the weeks go come. But I’m doubtful. Not only is Trump closing the gap here, but he’s showing unexpected strength while being vastly outspent in other battleground states like Ohio and Florida, which have also gone for Democratic candidates in recent cycles.
The pollsters and pundits may very well dismiss the suggestion of a Trump victory in Pennsylvania as wishful thinking. But it’s worth remembering that the political expert class has gotten an awful lot wrong in the last year and a half. What else might they be missing today in Pennsylvania and other battleground states?
Parnell is a retired U.S. Army Infantry Captain who served in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. He is the author of the national bestseller, "Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan."
The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.