On Saturday, following his introduction of Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee, President Trump held a rally in Pennsylvania’s Dauphin County, home to Harrisburg, the capital city and county seat.
Trump’s visit wasn’t surprising. In the state’s largely Republican south-central region, Dauphin is the lone Democratic county, which Hillary Clinton carried by less than three percentage points in 2016. Though Democrats have outnumbered GOP voters since 2008 — when Barack Obama became the first Democrat since 1964 to win the county — Dauphin still trends Republican in lower offices, from state legislators to county governance.
In other words, Dauphin is competitive for both parties. This year, the county’s largely suburban voters view the election as a referendum on the pandemic era. Their verdict could complicate the path to a Pennsylvania victory for Trump or Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee.
This is particularly evident in Hershey, the town synonymous with chocolate. Most of the municipal area, formally known as Derry Township (population 25,000), went for Trump in 2016. And yet, Hershey contributes to the county’s political unpredictability.
Over time, it has transitioned from a rural company town into a flourishing suburb. To visitors, it’s a major tourist destination — known for its amusement park, Chocolate World, and resort hotels — where founder Milton Hershey’s dream reigns supreme. Indeed, the famous chocolate company remains a major community presence. But today, Hershey is also a health care hub. It’s home to Penn State’s research hospital, which is the county’s top private employer.
In recent decades, the Hershey medical center has erased the community’s quaint, blue-collar roots. It’s now home to highly educated transplants — moderates and progressives less attuned to the town’s cherished past. This transient population is pitted against the largely conservative Pennsylvania Dutch and Italian natives, who believe Milton Hershey’s vision has faded from memory. This demographic shift no longer makes Hershey a reliably GOP area.
The town’s political divisions were only heightened by the pandemic. The crisis has illustrated a tale of two economies. At first glance, Hershey appears to have thrived despite the economic consequences of COVID-19. Along the leafy avenues surrounding downtown, there’s a residential construction boom as large Craftsman homes replace old postwar ranchers. Meanwhile, McMansion-packed neighborhoods define the hills and former farms near the medical center. In this part of town, a tract of bucolic farmland — dubbed the West End — is turning into a massive, mixed-use community that will only intensify Hershey’s demographic change.
Biden yard signs are proliferating in these neighborhoods, where many residents are employed in medicine and research. Their political preference reflects a national trend. As the Wall Street Journal noted last year, today’s doctors — once “America’s quintessential Republicans” — lean Democratic. According to the Journal’s analysis, in 2018 almost two-thirds of physician campaign contributions went to Democrats.
Hershey’s prosperity, though, is an illusion. Indeed, the pandemic has battered the community. In the spring, the medical center’s vast complex became an ominous site when it restricted visitors and treated coronavirus patients. The dangers of COVID-19 remain a dark reality for the hospital’s employees.
Outside the facility, Hershey has suffered the economic costs of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency lockdown measures, which resulted in the closure of “non-essential” businesses. For a time, Hershey — dependent on its tourism season — became a ghost town. It’s now paying the price. Hundreds of employees in its tourism sector, for example, were laid off. Meanwhile, the local government confronts a bleak fiscal future, with lost revenue from its amusement and parking taxes. At one point, there was even talk about foreclosure at the Giant Center, the arena where Trump held a jam-packed rally just days before the 2016 election.
Many Hershey residents express anger over Wolf’s arbitrary — even illogical — mandates. In a recent letter to a local newspaper, one restaurant owner wrote that it was “time to call out our Governor for killing the restaurant industry and all of the employees that are associated with it.” This month, a federal judge ruled that components of Wolf’s pandemic restrictions — including limits on public gatherings — were unconstitutional. Last week, the judge denied Wolf’s attempt to stop the ruling.
In Pennsylvania towns like Hershey, anger over the governor’s policies could translate into votes against Biden. For now, though, Hershey — especially in its upper-middle-class neighborhoods — has never looked so Democratic.
Still, evidence suggests this town has plenty of Trump supporters. In recent weeks, Trump yard signs and flags have appeared everywhere — including in those wealthier neighborhoods. The president’s latest visit to Dauphin is a reminder that the county is still in play. Suburbs like those in Hershey, moreover, indicate that Pennsylvania remains an unpredictable battleground.