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Understanding mixed results in Pennsylvania key to future elections

Understanding mixed results in Pennsylvania key to future elections
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The 2020 American election, marked by more cross currents than any in memory, will generate a cottage industry in analyzing what went right or wrong and why.

In evaluating voters and the candidates, a focus naturally will be on key states with an eye to 2022 and the next presidential election in 2024. The top of that list will be Pennsylvania and North Carolina, both decided by only one percent. Each has a critical Senate race in two years.

On the presidential level, both parties start by assuming their base: for Republicans it will be all states Trump won this year; for Democrats, all the ones they took four years ago and how to keep the five new ones Biden picked up this month.

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A priority for both sides will be Pennsylvania, which Biden carried by a little over 80,000 votes out of almost 7 million cast. The state offers an insight into the changing nature of American politics and the challenges that presents. Democrats need to recapture some of those working-class, lower- to moderate-income, less college educated workers; Republicans need to stem the Democratic tide in the more affluent, highly educated and faster growing suburbs.

On Labor Day, a Biden campaign assumption was that he would make inroads in those white working-class counties that won the state for Trump last time. The Republicans assumed Trump could cut in a little on the big majorities Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGroups seek to get Black vote out for Democrats in Georgia runoffs Biden's political position is tougher than Trump's Valadao unseats Cox in election rematch MORE ran up in the Philadelphia suburbs.

For the most part, both failed.

Although Biden did manage to regain two of the three Obama counties that Trump turned red in 2016, the winning margin was elsewhere: Biden won Pennsylvania by running up massive margins in those four Philadelphia suburban counties: Montgomery, Delaware, Chester and Bucks. They comprise 22 percent of the statewide tally and gave him nearly a 300,000-vote advantage, which was 100,000 above the 2016 Democrat margin.

These counties used to be the heart of Republican country; as recently as 1988, George H.W. Bush won over 60 percent of these votes.

They and the Republican party have changed. These counties are affluent, highly educated and increasingly diverse. Issues like climate change and gun control resonate; Trump does not. His fear mongering that Democrats will send Black Lives Matters thugs into suburban neighborhoods bombed.

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“The Republicans are getting killed with college educated women and millennials in these voter rich suburbs,” says Terry Madonna, who conducts the Pennsylvania poll at Franklin & Marshall College. “This is deep rooted.”

The Democrats' margin in the city of Philadelphia was the same as Clinton's. Biden did better in Pittsburgh and made some small gains in the northeastern part of the state near Scranton where he was born.

In the Western counties — Westmoreland, Washington, Fayette, Cambria and Beaver — that once were a central to the Democrats’ base and where Michael Dukakis carried over 60 percent of the vote in 1988, Trump actually increased his margins from four years ago, trouncing Biden.

These former Democratic strongholds are far less affluent and educated than those eastern suburbs 250 miles to the East. They care about fracking, guns and standing up to the “elites” who look down on them. Trump was very much their guy.

The problem for Republicans in the next presidential cycle and gubernatorial and Senate races in 2022 is these counties are all losing population. Republicans are dominant, but the base is smaller.

They can keep piling up votes in those blue-collar counties and in the rural and small towns of central Pennsylvania, but longer-term the Republicans have to cut into those populous counties in the East, which are becoming more Democratic with each cycle.

To do that, the GOP has to convey more support for women's issues (not abortion, as that has become a litmus test for most in both parties), climate change, modest gun restrictions and — above all — they must curb the vitriol.

The Democrats' challenges look a little less daunting, but real.

While Biden took the top of the ticket and Democratic State Attorney General Josh Shapiro got more votes than any statewide candidate, Republicans won the other two statewide contests — auditor general and treasurer — and increased their majority in the state legislature.

With a likely loss of a congressional seat and with redistricting, Democrats have to figure out a way to appeal to those non-urban and non-suburban counties. They need to better understand and relate to these former Democrats. “You can't be demeaning to these voters; they see themselves as ignored, disaffected,” notes Tom Ridge, the popular former Republican governor who actively supported Biden.

Substantively, a unifying issue for Democrats might be health care, while also disavowing crazy notions like defunding the police.

Republicans need some distance from Trump, while retaining some elements of Trumpism, a delicate task.

Either way, the Keystone State will continue to be key for at least the next several election cycles.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.