Wednesday, July 29, 2020

White Women in Pennyslvania Still All In for Trump


At Vanity Fair, "“You Might See People Digging In”: Can Joe Biden Actually Sway Obama–Trump Voters?":

In Pennsylvania, Joe Biden is hoping to peel off just enough white, working-class voters in crucial counties to edge out the president. But the women here—waitresses, churchgoers, bingo players, lifelong Democrats—show no signs of budging, pandemic be damned. “I am 110% Trump,” says one. “I love him.”

It was a Thursday night in January, before the coronavirus shut everything down, meaning it was time for bingo at St. Andrew Parish in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Three dozen regulars—almost all of them women—filed into the church basement. Some grabbed “cuts” of pizza from the front of the room; a few lingered in the cold for one last smoke. As the clock approached 6:00, they settled into metal folding chairs, spread out their game sheets, and focused on the numbers.

The entire political world, in turn, has been focused on these women and the numbers—and potential power—they represent. The bingo players are part of the white working class, a prized group that helped elect Donald Trump in 2016. Many are Democrats who supported Barack Obama in one or both of his races and had never pulled the GOP lever before. To Republicans they represent the path to the president’s reelection. To Democrats they personify opportunity, a chance to siphon off just enough Trump votes in swing states to remove him from office. “I don’t need to win them,” said Democratic pollster Jill Normington. “I need to lose by less.”

Ever since Trump pulled off upset victories in the former Democratic strongholds of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, both parties have viewed white women without college degrees as pivotal 2020 voters. White, working-class women and men are the nation’s largest bloc of voters, especially here in the Rust Belt, and women are considered more likely to reject Trump this time around. Polls bear this out, showing that the men in this group remain overwhelmingly behind the president, while many of the women are having second thoughts. Democrats hope that just as suburban women outside cities like Philadelphia, about two hours south of Wilkes-Barre, turned on Republicans in 2018, white, working-class women will follow suit this year.

But the bingo players at St. Andrew and their counterparts in their key region of Pennsylvania may be unexpectedly resistant. In this historically Democratic bastion, where coal once ruled and black-and-white photos of JFK still adorn walls, women who voted for Trump show few signs of wavering. They applaud his brusque demeanor, or they don’t. They support his right-wing policies, or they don’t. It doesn’t matter. They think Democrats have persecuted him without justification, believe he’s doing everything possible to combat COVID-19, and generally support his “law-and-order” response to what are likely the most pervasive protests in U.S. history. They have faith that he has the business acumen to reinvigorate the economy. Mainly, they have faith in him.

They support Trump because they like him. Actually, the word many of them use is “love.”

The reason is simple: He speaks to them, not down to them, eschewing words like “eschew.” While his life experience as a New York playboy-celebrity rich kid is wholly different from their own, they feel he’s one of them. “I am 110% Trump. I love him,” Barbara Bono said as she set up her bingo cards. “I love the way he talks. I understand him more than any other president. This whole place is Trump,” she said, sweeping her arm across the room as women around her nodded.

Bono, a 63-year-old retired Lord & Taylor warehouse worker, is precisely the kind of voter Joe Biden’s campaign hopes to win over: She’s a registered Democrat and former union member who never voted Republican before casting a ballot for Trump. She is Catholic, like so many in these parts, but supports abortion rights. She thought Bill Clinton was a “wonderful” president and didn’t care for George W. Bush. She voted for Obama in 2008, but sat out the election of 2012 because, she said, his Affordable Care Act drove up her health insurance costs. Still, she didn’t support Obama’s GOP opponent, Mitt Romney, another rich guy who, it must be noted, speaks nothing like her.

“I love the way he talks! Crazy Nancy!” Bono said, echoing the president’s nickname for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking elected woman officeholder in the history of the United States. “I love it. He is up early in the morning...He’s always talking to the American people. He’s all about our country.

“Pelooooski,” she continued, drawing laughs from the other bingo players. Then, in the spirit of Trump: “I can’t wait for her teeth to fall out!”

Bono is like a lot of the women I met during visits to Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties in northeastern Pennsylvania, called “NEPA” by locals, in late 2019 and early 2020. She has lived in Wilkes-Barre, the county seat of Luzerne, her entire life, though she now spends part of her winters in Valdosta, Georgia. She is a high school graduate, one of the white women without college degrees whose support Trump can’t afford to lose.

During conversations spanning seven months, the women I spoke to made plain that there is little, if anything, that would make them abandon Trump. Not the emergence of Biden, who’s fond of invoking his early childhood in nearby Scranton. Not a quarantine that has cost some of them their wages. Not the ensuing economic fallout. And certainly not the Trump detractors who say he has mishandled life-and-death issues that have consumed the nation: the coronavirus, the police killing of George Floyd, and the systemic racism it brought to the fore.

“A lot of people hate him, but I don’t get it,” said Florence “Flo” Eldredge, a waitress who missed months of work because of the pandemic. “I think he’s doing the best he can under the circumstances.”

Added her next-door neighbor Linda Stetzar: “I would give him a crown.”

It’s hard for an outsider to distinguish between Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties, which share a rolling landscape in the Appalachian Mountains and in the valleys along the Susquehanna River. Many of their towns flow smoothly into one another, their Americana displayed in street banners that celebrate their war heroes. But locals know the difference between Pittston and West Pittston, Old Forge and Forty Fort. They will tell you that the Irish settled this town, the Italians that town, the Poles moved here and the Germans there. They say it while acknowledging that influxes of immigrants weren’t always made to feel welcome. Their ancestors came from Europe to mine anthracite coal, which they did for generations until the mines closed in the middle of the last century. All these years later, they wear their heritage proudly.

Families remain close. I came across more than one pair of sisters, mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces dining or working or playing bingo together. Almost all were descendants of those early miners. But in recent years, after the mines closed and lace factories came and went, more and more residents have departed. Young people who attend college leave most frequently, unable to find white-collar jobs close to home. Those who stay are mostly white and older. They are often more conservative than their children. They still attend the churches, predominantly Catholic, that their forebears built. They are courteous and unhurried, the kind of people who call strangers like me “hon.” They work for state or local government or health care providers or a local university or, increasingly, one of the numerous warehouses and call centers that have popped up along the tangle of highways that crisscross here. They don’t expect something for nothing.

“There’s that dignity piece,” Scranton mayor Paige Cognetti told me. “If mom and dad worked in coal and lace, they worked their asses off. People don’t want programs or help. They want to earn it.”

Before the novel coronavirus, the economies in these two counties had improved considerably. Though they weren’t as strong as elsewhere in the state—the median income was lower, the unemployment rate higher—people didn’t despair. In fact, in Donald Trump, a lot of them saw hope.

Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a total of just 77,744 votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, states once considered Democrats’ “blue wall.” More than half of that vote margin—44,292—came from Pennsylvania. And more than one third came from Luzerne County, a place that hadn’t voted Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1988 and that has voted for the presidential candidate who carried Pennsylvania since 1932. Trump carried Luzerne by 26,237 votes and had the biggest margin of victory there—19 points—since Richard Nixon in 1972. Next door, in Lackawanna County, Clinton won by a scant 3,599 votes even though she had personal ties to the area, having spent her childhood summers at a family cottage on Lake Winola, a short drive from her father’s hometown and final resting place, Scranton. Four years earlier Obama beat Romney there by 26,579 votes.

Theories abound as to why Trump did so well, particularly in Luzerne, which Pennsylvania pollster G. Terry Madonna told me was “a place where in my lifetime I never thought a Republican would win.” Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll, said Trump stepped into a void created by Democrats, who essentially abandoned cultural conservatives. “As the Democrats became an urban-based party, they moved away from the working-class roots that had been a part of their constituency,” he said...
Still more.