Pennsylvania, the Presidency, & Populism

by Trevor Waldron

For the first time since 1988, the year Ronald Reagan left office; the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes went to a Republican Presidential nominee. Pennsylvania proved its worth as a swing state in the 2017 election cycle after nearly three decades of statewide Democratic presidential victories. During the previous thirty years, Pennsylvania was hit hard by the decline in American manufacturing, notably in the steel sector, and increased regulation of the Coal industry that occurred under the Obama administration. The Steel and Coal industries have long been the benchmark of many Pennsylvanian families, and have touched the lives of many generations.

As the once thriving steel and coal towns moved deeper into a post-industrial economy, many struggled but never forgot. As Donald Trump and Mike Pence traveled around the state, visiting towns that once supplied most of the steel during the infrastructure expansion in the post-war era, thousands poured into stadiums and town centers to attend their rallies. Many of these citizens may not have worked in those industries, but their parents and grandparents did, and that proved meaningful. Like many populists in history, Trump said the right things, at the right time, to the right audiences. He promised to restore American manufacturing and use more American steel domestically, which would benefit Pennsylvania and the rust belt immensely. However, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute, American companies produced 70% of the steel used in the United States in 2016. That is a lot of steel, but it does not feel that way to many rust belt residents. In order for the Trump administration to achieve the promised restorations of the steel industry that Pennsylvanian trump voters care about, simply increasing the domestic use of American-produced steel from 70% to 100% is not the answer. The solution lies in the increase in infrastructure spending and expansion through the passage of infrastructure legislation reminiscent of the Eisenhower era. Only then can the steel industry expand domestically and the national infrastructure dilemma be addressed and ultimately solved. From dams in California to bridges in Pennsylvania and highways nationwide, if properly designed infrastructure legislation is introduced it is clear that such legislation could garner bi-partisan support, create more jobs, and restore the national interior.

But infrastructure and steel are not the only major issues that helped Trump turn Pennsylvania red for the first time in three decades. The lack of Democratic voter turnout in two key areas, Scranton and Philadelphia, helped push Trump over the top. Both cities voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the previous two election cycles, and the DNC believed that they would do so again for Clinton. However, it is clear that Clinton was no Obama and her lack of visibility in those two areas leading up to the election proved fatal. In Philadelphia, Clinton received about 550,000 votes to Trumps 100,000. That is not all that unusual, but Clinton’s numbers were still about 45,000 votes shy of Obama’s in the 2008 election. Those extra votes probably would not have given Clinton a victory in Pennsylvania, but they could have helped. In Lackawanna County, where Scranton is located, Clinton did win the county, but her margin was far less than her counterpart in 2008 and 2012. Lackawanna is coal country, and the Clinton Campaigns discussion of increased regulation of the coal industry during the election coupled with the lack of democratic voter turnout and an increase in Democrat to Republican voter registration changes contributed to Trump’s victory.

As the new administration begins to address the infrastructure dilemma that our nation surely faces, the question becomes; can meaningful and extensive legislation be proposed and passed? Individuals from both sides have shown support for Trumps $1 Trillion infrastructure plan because of the belief that it will create millions of jobs. Former Democratic Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell hailed Trump’s infrastructure plan but believes that the proposed $1 Trillion may not be enough. Furthermore, a spokesman for the Chairman of the Freedom Caucus has stated that conservative lawmakers within the caucus are open to increased transportation spending if more clarification can be made on specific projects. When two very different groups, such as the ones mentioned above, show support for an Executive proposal it is clear that the proposal has serious potential to move forward. Infrastructure spending is something that benefits the country as a whole regardless of the political party that someone identifies with, the potential for the restoration of the American interior is possible now more the ever.

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