Pennsylvania’s Bucks County: Ultimate Suburban Bellwether

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Both Ivanka and Lara Trump have recently made separate campaign stops in Bucks County, a suburban bellwether north of Philadelphia. The visits aren’t surprising, given the county’s electoral past. As one GOP operative told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1988, Bucks was “always the least predictable of the suburban counties.” 

In that year’s presidential election, Bucks’s swing voters helped deliver the state to then-vice president George H. W. Bush over Michael Dukakis, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts. Bush became the last Republican to win the county.

And yet, in 2016, Hillary Clinton carried Bucks by fewer than 2,700 votes — the narrowest margin among suburban Philadelphia’s counties. This narrow margin was a forgotten factor in Trump’s statewide victory by about 44,000 votes. “Bucks was a disaster,” one Democratic media strategist told the Inquirer. In a county where Democrats have outnumbered Republicans since 2008, Clinton’s underperformance indicated that Bucks remained an unpredictable battleground. This year, suburban Philadelphia is undoubtedly Joe Biden’s protectorate, but pockets of silent Trump voters still live in the region — especially in Bucks, a microcosm of America’s political realignment. 

Bucks’s shifting electoral landscape results from its historical divisions. In Lower Bucks, working-class Democrats support Trump. These Obama-to-Trump voters are descended from Catholic Philadelphians who, after World War II, settled in places like Levittown — a symbol of 50s-era suburban growth — to work in the area’s industrial base. They resent their now decades-long decline, and they see Trump as a defender of their economic interests.

Meanwhile, Central Bucks’s wealthy, congested townships are the site of a suburban revolt dating to the 2006 midterms, when voters rejected Republicans over the Iraq war. These upper-middle-class communities are made up of moderate Republicans and progressive Democrats who share a contempt for Trump. They favor down-ballot Democrats at the polls.

Finally, less populous Upper Bucks — a mix of suburban and agricultural settings — trends Republican. Upper Bucks, more an extension of the Lehigh Valley, is culturally disconnected from Philadelphia. Overall, Upper Bucks’s lifelong Republicans and Lower Bucks’s disillusioned Democrats comprise Trump’s voting base.

Bucks’s fractious composition keeps it competitive for both political parties. Consider recent election cycles. In 2016, when Clinton barely won Bucks, voters elected Republican Brian Fitzpatrick to the House and supported Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s reelection. Then, in 2017, voters elected Democrats to county offices held by Republicans for decades.

Ticket-splitting continued in the 2018 midterms, when Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey, both Democrats, won Bucks by wide margins, while Fitzpatrick won a second term. Last November, Democrats enjoyed a historic night by ending Republicans’ 40 years of county governance. But in March, a Republican won a special election for a state House seat in Lower Bucks. Countywide, Republicans hold a six-to-four advantage over Democrats in Bucks’s state House delegation.

The 1st Congressional District, which encompasses all of Bucks and part of neighboring Montgomery County, especially captures Bucks’s voting patterns. In 2016, Fitzpatrick won the district, which was held for a self-imposed limit of four terms by his brother, Mike Fitzpatrick, who died earlier this year. In 2010, Mike had reclaimed the seat from Democrat Patrick Murphy, who defeated him in 2006 after one term. Between 1992 and 2004, Jim Greenwood, a Republican, represented the district. Today, Greenwood helps recruit former GOP members of Congress to endorse Biden. 

In a district where voters trend Democrat, recent polls show Fitzpatrick, a moderate, leading his Democratic opponent by double digits. Fitzpatrick — one of just two House Republicans representing a district won by Clinton — is touting his independence in his bid for a third term. Fitzpatrick’s political persona reflects county Republicans’ nonideological tradition.

In the Trump era, Bucks voters have generally moved against Republicans. This opposition, however, doesn’t assure a statewide victory for Biden. RealClearPolitics’ polling average consistently shows Biden leading in Pennsylvania, but his advantage is narrower than Clinton’s at this point in 2016. This is testament to the power of silent Trump supporters — not just in Rust Belt towns, but also in Bucks’s middle-class subdivisions, where families are outraged by the civic breakdown and rising crime in Democratic cities like nearby Philadelphia. 

Indeed, a recent Pew survey found that among registered voters, the issue of violent crime ranks nearly as important as the coronavirus. This applies to Bucks, too, where parents worry about their adult children living in Philadelphia neighborhoods. History appears to be repeating itself. Shortly before the 1988 election, Jeff Greenfield noted that “fear of crime…is not some fanciful bit of hysteria cooked up by a pollster or a media operative. It is real; moreover, it is the kind of concern that can overshadow every other issue.” That November, Bush won Bucks, along with Pennsylvania, in part by addressing crime.

Back then, Greenfield warned that liberals’ “silence on crime is not just politically stupid — it is also intellectually indefensible.” Over 30 years later, this same silence was prominent during the Democratic National Convention. Now polls indicate an opening for Trump. In November, it’s possible that enough swing voters in Bucks County — troubled by the Biden campaign’s reaction to the urban crisis — could narrow the margins, as in 2016. Once again, Bucks could inadvertently help deliver Pennsylvania to Trump.  

 

Charles McElwee edits RealClear’s Public Affairs page on Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter at @CFMcElwee.





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