Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Pennsylvania Political Geography, I: Introduction

 
Via Wikipedia, a map of Pennsylvania with counties labeled.

Greetings from the center of Presidential politics, rural Pennsylvania.

Most political observers know that Donald Trump was the first Republican since 1988 to carry the Keystone State, but fewer realize that Trump’s victory broke an even longer-standing pattern. Pennsylvania was once one of the most Republican states in the Union, voting for the GOP in every election between the Civil War and New Deal (except 1912, when it went for Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party bid), even sticking with Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Franklin Roosevelt carried the state the other three times he ran, but by smaller margins than he won the national popular vote, and Pennsylvania went for Thomas Dewey over Harry Truman in 1948. In 1952, however, Pennsylvania began a pattern of being slightly more Democratic than the nation as a whole and stuck to it until 2012.

The source for this data and all other election data in this series is Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections at https://uselectionatlas.org/.

As you can see, in every election from 1952 until 2012, Pennsylvania was more Democratic than the national popular vote, but by six percentage points or less in every year except the 1964 and 1984 landslides. The 2016 election broke this pattern, as Donald Trump carried Pennsylvania while losing the popular vote nationwide.

This consistency masked several changes going on within the state. Western Pennsylvania, once heavily Democratic, became solidly Republican outside the city of Pittsburgh. The Philadelphia suburbs, once a Republican stronghold, have become more Democratic. In the central part of the state, Republicans have increased their margins in rural areas while losing ground in some cities, such as State College, Harrisburg, and Lancaster. A number of more blue-collar cities, such as Erie and Scranton, seemed to be getting more Democratic, but swung toward Donald Trump in 2016.

Pennsylvania Regions

The most fundamental division in Pennsylvania’s geography runs along the Blue Mountain, at the eastern edge of the Appalachians. It crosses the Mason-Dixon line almost halfway across the state’s southern border, near Chambersburg, then runs north of Carlisle, Harrisburg, Lebanon, Reading, and Allentown, roughly following the path of Interstates 81 and 78. Pike and Monroe counties, in the Poconos, are north of the Blue Mountain, but their proximity to the New York metropolitan area makes their demographics more aligned with the area to their south.

The area south and east of the Blue Mountain is mostly part of the Piedmont, the area of rolling hills stretching from New York City to Alabama. It tends to align with the Northeastern cities, mostly with Philadelphia, but in some areas with New York or the Baltimore-Washington region. Outside of already densely packed Philadelphia and some of its suburbs, its population has grown at an impressive rate for a northern state. It is relatively affluent. Politically, it has shifted to the Democrats (especially in the areas around Harrisburg, Lancaster, and the Philadelphia suburbs), but Republican margins have been holding, or even increasing, in the areas around York and Reading (rhymes with “wedding”).

The area north and west of the Blue Mountain is the stereotypical Pennsylvania of coal mines and steel mills. It tends to identify with the Midwest or Appalachia. It is not as wealthy as south-central or southeastern Pennsylvania, and, outside of State College and some of the Pittsburgh suburbs, its population is either declining or growing slowly. It is either part of the Appalachian Mountains or the Allegheny Plateau, the easternmost part of the Mississippi River basin. Politically, the Democrats used to have a great deal of support here, but it began turning toward the Republicans around the turn of the millennium (there are counties here that voted for Walter Mondale, John McCain, and Mitt Romney), a trend which has accelerated with the rise of Donald Trump.

Pennsylvania population growth, 2000-10
Median household income by county, 2010

Another way to split Pennsylvania is into four basic regions, one entirely east of the Blue Mountain, one entirely west, and two straddling it. These regions are:

  • Bidenland, a term coined by Brandon Finnigan of Decision Desk HQ. This region consists of several small, blue-collar cities (Reading, Allentown, Bethlehem, Scranton, and Wilkes-Barre) in northeastern and east-central Pennsylvania. The Blue Mountain divides it between the anthracite coal region, stretching from Scranton to Schuylkill County, and a string of exurban areas from Reading to the Poconos. It tends to be evenly divided in elections, but swung to Trump in 2016.
  • Central PA, the area James Carville had in mind when he described Pennsylvania as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” This is the state’s Republican stronghold, and its presence is what keeps Pennsylvania in play for them. The Blue Mountain divides it between the growing area around Harrisburg, Lancaster, and York, and the more thinly populated Appalachian area.
  • SEPA, or Philadelphia and its “collar counties” (Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery). This is the smallest region by land area, but the largest by population. In the past, the Republican suburbs balanced the Democratic city, but recently, both have become Democratic strongholds. Since the mid-20th century, it has held steady at just under a third of the state’s population.
  • Western PA, the most stereotypically “rust belt” region. It contains the Pittsburgh metro area, as well as Erie and several smaller, blue-collar cities such as Johnstown and New Castle. Once heavily Democratic, Republicans have made impressive gains here, but its shrinking population is making it less of an asset in statewide elections.

I’ll look at each of these regions in detail, including the sub-regions and trends within each, in subsequent posts. For now, here is a look at how the four regions voted, both in absolute terms and relative to the national popular vote, showing the trends I’ve mentioned above:

Below is the population of each region, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the state:

As you can see, Bidenland declined slightly before growing again, as the suburban areas around Reading, the Lehigh Valley, and the Poconos grew, while the southeast has been fairly steady at just under one-third of the state’s population. Central Pennsylvania has grown steadily, while Western Pennsylvania has declined.

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There are 18 comments.

  1. Stad Thatcher

    Very detailed analysis! I always thought politically the state was Philly at one end, Pittsburgh at the other end, and everything else in between . . .

    • #1
    • October 21, 2019, at 10:56 AM PST
    • 1 like
  2. Jon1979 Lincoln

    Being the easternmost of the country’s energy-producing states has helped put Pennsylvania in play for the GOP, since the upper- and upper-middle-class urban elites within the Democratic Party have embraced the dual ideas of environmentalism and the supremacy of the changing demographics of America over the past 15-20 years.

    That means, as with Hillary in the 2016 election, they believe they have the votes elsewhere to no longer have to care about what those people think — they might not see the non-urban and near-suburban areas of Pennsylvania as Alabama, like James Carvelle did. But they do see the coal mines and the oilfields as making the western and northern parts of the state outside of Pittsburgh as worthy of their contempt in the same vein as West Virginia or Texas.

    It’s hard to win people over to your side, when your virtue signaling to the bi-coastals means you’re fine with their jobs going away (it’s also why it’s going to be interesting to see how this phenomenon plays out in 2020 in New Mexico, which has its share of rabid progressive environmentalists, but also gets about 40 percent of its state income from the energy sector. N.M. isn’t as big an electoral haul as Pennsylvania, but if Trump adds to his Electoral College margin while winning in 2020, it’s one of the states likely to flip from Blue to Red because of the Democrats’ current policies).

    • #2
    • October 21, 2019, at 11:23 AM PST
    • 1 like
  3. Michael Brehm Member

    Jeff Ditzler: Central Pennsylvania has grown steadily

    My morning commute can attest to that…

    • #3
    • October 21, 2019, at 12:48 PM PST
    • Like
  4. David Carroll Thatcher

    Fascinating. Thanks.

    • #4
    • October 21, 2019, at 1:56 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  5. Gary Robbins Reagan

    This is very insightful. The acronym SEPA is reminiscent of SEPTA, or the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Administration. 

    • #5
    • October 21, 2019, at 2:33 PM PST
    • 1 like
  6. MISTER BITCOIN Coolidge

    this is excellent analysis

     

    • #6
    • October 22, 2019, at 1:43 AM PST
    • Like
  7. Old Bathos Member

    I think Bob Casey Sr. was the last Democrat to broadly reflect all the values of the great majority in PA. Socially conservative but otherwise a liberal. (His son is a pale imitation and caves to the hard left 100% of the time). Bill Clinton could fake a connection convincingly even though he was an abortion-loving globalist. Hillary did not even try to fake it.

    Voters in the west and middle PA like many other Americans have to choose between GOP candidates who are closer to their cultural values but seemingly tone-deaf on blue-collar economic issues and Democrats who sound closer to them on economic issues but are openly contemptuous of their cultural values.

    I would guess that Trump’s support has not eroded. 

    I wonder if the sheer cost and horrific impact of Benito Warren’s Risorgimento will dim the suburban Philadelphia enthusiasm for her. Those more upscale voters will become the ones who have to choose between cultural values (including hatred of Trump) and economics (losing private health plans, being heavily taxed and watching 401(k) etc go into the crapper) this time. Is getting rid of Trump worth it if it means no summer home and a major hit to personal wealth?

    • #7
    • October 22, 2019, at 6:55 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  8. Old Bathos Member

    Really nice post, by the way. Very well done. Thank you.

    I spend a week or two every year in Sullivan County PA. I recall being impressed by the volume of Trump signs I saw in 2016 while driving north from Maryland and the absence of Hillary signs. I assumed it would not matter much because of the leanings elsewhere. It is stunning how easy it should be for a Democrat to win PA and the extent to which Hillary failed to do even the minimum to make that happen.

    • #8
    • October 22, 2019, at 7:01 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. Paul Schinder Member

    I wonder if the sheer cost and horrific impact of Benito Warren’s Risorgimento will dim the suburban Philadelphia enthusiasm for her. Those more upscale voters will become the ones who have to choose between cultural values (including hatred of Trump) and economics (losing private health plans, being heavily taxed and watching 401(k) etc go into the crapper) this time. Is getting rid of Trump worth it if it means no summer home and a major hit to personal wealth?

    Most people like that think they’ll be Inner Party. They’ll have access to Party stores, Party medical facilities, Party jets, Party dachas, Party permission to own IC vehicles, and Party exemptions from taxes that the proles and peasants will have to pay. They don’t think their lifestyles will actually change.

    • #9
    • October 22, 2019, at 7:04 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  10. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    Great analysis, Jeff.

    I question whether the “Alabama” and “Bidenland” analogies really work. I know that Alabama came from Carville, and I wouldn’t really trust him to come up with a good analogy.

    You obviously know the Keystone State far better than I — though coincidentally, I was born there. Here are my musings, which I present for your confirmation or correction.

    An interesting thing that I note is the divergence between Bidenland and Western PA between 1980 and 1992. Western PA did not join in the Reagan Revolution, and actually went significantly Blue in this period, while Bidenland moved slightly in the Republican direction. They converged in 1996-2004, and then Western PA became more red in 2008 and 2012, before converging again with Trump’s victory in 2016 (with Trump gaining in Western PA while gaining even more in Bidenland).

    Here’s my impression and a proposed different analogy:

    Central PA is like Kansas
    Western PA is like Indiana (or like Ohio without the few large, heavily black cities)
    Bidenland is like Michigan (without Detroit)
    SEPA is like Maryland (or Detroit)

    Central PA, like Kansas, stayed solidly Republican throughout the period. Bidenland, like Michigan, has been moving Republican, wasn’t very excited about McCain or Romney, but liked Trump. Western PA, like Indiana, has also been moving Republican, liked McCain and Romney, and was willing to take a chance on Trump. SEPA, like Maryland, has been trending more heavily minority, and the white suburbanites have been trending more Democrat, so it has moved toward the Democrats.

    The anomaly is the dislike of Reagan and Bush 41 in Western PA. This may be the result of the collapse of Pittsburgh and the steel industry. I know that steel was big around Allentown and Bethelhem, too (Bidenland), but perhaps the blow was not as bad as in Pittsburgh. This might explain why Bidenland was part of the Reagan Revolution, while Western PA was not.

    Corrections or comments?

    • #10
    • October 22, 2019, at 12:11 PM PST
    • 1 like
  11. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    Excellent “human terrain analysis” like this underlies any viable election strategy. Which Ricochet member will ante up with Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida?

    This compliments the earlier Ricochet series by @dontillman analyzing competitive districts and notional costs of competing, and @martinknight series on black voters

    • #11
    • October 22, 2019, at 6:02 PM PST
    • 1 like
  12. Jules PA Member

    Very Interesting. 

    Curious on where the fracking industry fits into the PA demographics and trends?

    • #12
    • October 22, 2019, at 6:52 PM PST
    • 1 like
  13. Cosmik Phred Member

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    This is very insightful. The acronym SEPA is reminiscent of SEPTA, or the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Administration.

    As the ad used to say: “You can’t beat the system.”

    • #13
    • October 23, 2019, at 10:17 AM PST
    • 1 like
  14. Cosmik Phred Member

    Nicely done!

    After my family decamped Wilmington at the beginning of Joe’s career (he was our county councilman before he became senator) we spent time in Bucks county from the late 70s through the late 80s.

    Our local representation was already showing signs of schizophrenia and swinging back and forth from R to D.

    • #14
    • October 23, 2019, at 10:27 AM PST
    • 1 like
  15. The Reticulator Member

    Cosmik Phred (View Comment):
    Our local representation was already showing signs of schizophrenia and swinging back and forth from R to D.

    That’s unusual. Usually they just swing toward greater corruption, i.e. D.

    • #15
    • October 23, 2019, at 12:10 PM PST
    • 1 like
  16. Eb Snider Member

    It should be noted that anytime you watch the initial statewide election results coming in the Democrat candidates show some absurdly high advantage. Typically advantages are like 90-98% of the vote – staggering domination you typically only see in autocratic countries with pony-show elections. That’s because the Philly area reports votes first and it’s so thoroughly run by Democrats. Republicans are like a Third Party in representation and acceptance. 

    A note about Western PA, the counties of Butler and Washington show a population increase, this I believe is a little misleading or requires additional explanation. People have left the high tax county of Allegheny (which is mostly run by Democrats and contains Pittsburgh) to the adjacent counties of Butler and Washington. Those two traditionally more rural counties have been steadily building up with spill over business and commuters. Along the highways alternative areas have grown up with business and have shown added wealth. Fewer farms and horses, more strip malls and planned development housing. It is also difficult to build in parts of Allegheny county due to topography of numbers hills, rivers, and creeks. Along with the current erosion issues from heavy rain fall.

    Forest County sharp increase in population beats me, maybe that poll was taken during hunting season. Much more forest than people there, so any increase could show a large result. 

     

    • #16
    • October 23, 2019, at 12:58 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  17. Eb Snider Member

    Jules PA (View Comment):

    Curious on where the fracking industry fits into the PA demographics and trends?

    Jules, I doubt the O&G drilling and production business has had a huge effect on demographics. Most of the labor in the industry is transient. Rig hands and service personnel typically fly in. Those that get hired locally work for a time – smart ones save and then move on in life. Those that have worked in traditional gas roles (non-shale boom) in PA petro extradition still more or less do their thing as before.

    The main hubs for offices, warehouses, and shops are based in Western PA off interstate areas. So Washington County and Allegheny mostly. There was some elsewhere like around Williamsport in Lycoming Co.

    The easiest drilling for Marcellus horizontals tends to be southwest PA. Here is a map of well permits to give you an idea of where activity has been.

    Related image

    • #17
    • October 23, 2019, at 1:14 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  18. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    Eb Snider (View Comment):

    Jules PA (View Comment):

    Curious on where the fracking industry fits into the PA demographics and trends?

    Jules, I doubt the O&G drilling and production business has had a huge effect on demographics. Most of the labor in the industry is transient. Rig hands and service personnel typically fly in. Those that get hired locally work for a time – smart ones save and then move on in life. Those that have worked in traditional gas roles (non-shale boom) in PA petro extradition still more or less do their thing as before.

    The main hubs for offices, warehouses, and shops are based in Western PA off interstate areas. So Washington County and Allegheny mostly. There was some elsewhere like around Williamsport in Lycoming Co.

    The easiest drilling for Marcellus horizontals tends to be southwest PA. Here is a map of well permits to give you an idea of where activity has been.

    Related image

    The key question is whether or not Republicans will effectively drive home the message in every precinct that all the goodies are being paid for now by the great new jobs, taxes and fees, all of which every Democrat is actually going to destroy if they get the chance, no matter what your local candidate promises.

    Pelosi and the Squad. Make them own it.

    • #18
    • October 23, 2019, at 5:10 PM PST
    • Like