How Trump Won: The Northeast

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How Trump Won: The Northeast
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The third part in a series

Over the course of this five-part series, we’ve developed a few themes.  One has been that the problems that beset the Democratic Party in 2016 didn’t appear overnight.  They represent a gradual decline of the Clinton coalition.  This was evident (though not obvious) in the 2008 election returns, became apparent in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, and came to a head in 2016. 

In Part 1, we discussed the collapse of the Democratic coalition in the South.  As we noted, this was a case where lots of “little” votes in rural areas added up and overwhelmed a healthier Democratic coalition in the urban areas. In Part 2, we showed what would happen if the same phenomenon occurred in a region with fewer rural areas: In the West, the Democratic coalition remained quite robust.

Today, we explore a region where things look a lot like the West, though with two notable exceptions -- the East.

We begin with some maps:

Whenever people respond to something I’ve written by saying, “This won’t happen in our lifetime,” I think back to the 1988 map of the Northeast.  That year, New Jersey, Maine and New Hampshire were all substantially red, as was Long Island.  Vermont sat roughly at the national average.  Indeed, Vermont had only voted for a Democrat in one election since the founding of that party in the 1830s: Lyndon Johnson (and Pat Leahy is still technically the only Democrat it has elected to the Senate).  Indeed, one can readily imagine a conversation in 1964, where smart folk insisted that it wouldn’t go Democrat: “C’mon, even Roosevelt failed to carry it!”

There are two other noteworthy observations for our purposes. First, Maine maintains a north/south split, but the southern half of the state is more Republican than the northern half. Second, Pennsylvania has an east/west split, with the western half anchoring the Democratic Party in a coalition with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the northeast and Philadelphia in the southeast.

Look how things changed in eight short years:

By now, Maine is completely blue, as are New Hampshire and most of New Jersey.  Upstate New York is “purpling,” as are the Philly suburbs.  Note, however, that western Pennsylvania isn’t quite as blue as it was before.

Fast-forward another eight years:

John Kerry swept the region, but it looks different from Bill Clinton’s map.  Only one county in Connecticut is (barely) red, which would foreshadow the extinction of the state’s Republican congressional delegation four years later.  Upstate New York is still pretty blue, as is New Hampshire.  But look at Maine and Pennsylvania.  In the former, the north-south split has started to reverse, while the Philly suburbs are shifting leftward and the Pittsburgh area is slightly redder.  This demonstrates James Carville’s famous quip that “[b]etween Paoli and Penn Hills, Pennsylvania is Alabama without the blacks. They didn't film ‘The Deer Hunter’ there for nothing.” 

Here’s 2008:

Most of this map is fairly stable, with the exception of Maine and Pennsylvania.  In those two states, the 1988 coalitions have mostly reversed:  Northern Maine is now distinctly more Republican than the southern region, while eastern Pennsylvania now anchors the Democratic coalition.

In 2012, we see a continuation of this pattern:

Note that southeastern New Hampshire is now fairly reddish; you can see this split opening up over time as well.

The 2016 elections represent the acceleration of these trends:

Donald Trump doesn’t make much meaningful progress in New England, Maine aside.  But there are some interesting switches: Kent County Rhode Island leaned red, as did Windham County, Connecticut; this reflects Trump’s strength with non-traditional Republican voters. In the mid-Atlantic, upstate New York swung back, and is actually a bit redder than it was even in 1988 (though New York City is bluer).

But the real stories are in Maine and Pennsylvania.  Northern Maine is now as red as upstate New York, which enabled Trump to almost carry the state (and to win one of its electoral votes).  More importantly, Pennsylvania is no longer a “T”:  The Pittsburgh area is largely indistinguishable from the rest of the state.  The Democratic coalition is now basically Philly and its suburbs.  That represents a lot of votes, but it is not enough to guarantee a win in the state.

Putting this together, we can see what has happened to the Clinton coalition in this region: Vermont moves pretty heavily toward Democrats. Metro New York City moves toward Democrats, which neutralizes movement toward Republicans elsewhere in New Jersey, Connecticut and New York.  Boston performs a similar function for Massachusetts.  Rhode Island actually moves toward Republicans, but it was so heavily Democratic to begin with that it doesn’t matter much:

But the shifts in western Pennsylvania and Northern Maine are pretty astonishing, and did have an impact.  You can see this in greater relief by zooming in on Pennsylvania in 1988:

Versus 1996:

Versus 2008:

Versus 2016:

We can see this again by focusing on the old Dole/Kerry and Clinton’96/Bush ’04 counties:

Basically, Donald Trump turned these swing counties Republican.   The same is true in New England:

Overall, the Northeast looks an awful lot like what we’ve previously seen:

Clinton managed to maintain Democratic strength in cities, but saw substantial drop-offs in rural areas and towns, even from 2012.

It didn’t hurt her much, though, because as in the Mountain West, there simply aren’t that many rural votes in the region:

There are two exceptions to these trends: Maine, which is largely composed of rural areas and towns, and Pennsylvania, which does something different:

Note that Clinton performs as well as Obama in the mega city, which is basically metro Philadelphia.  When we see in rural and small-town Pennsylvania largely mimics what we’ve seen elsewhere.  In fact, rural Pennsylvania was more Republican than the rural South in 2016.  Even when you remove counties that have populations that are more than 10 percent black, the rural South and Pennsylvania are roughly equally Republican.

But the real story is what happened in the “large city,” which in Pennsylvania means Pittsburgh.”  There’s been a gradual erosion of Democratic voting there, which has been offset by increased Democratic voting in metro Philly.  But the latter seemed to top out in 2008, while the erosion in the former continues; Pittsburgh now votes like your average Pennsylvania small city.  This could be a genuine headache for Democrats, if metro Pittsburgh continues to vote increasingly like Pennsyltucky, while Democrats fail to make progress in Philadelphia.

Note also that, as with the South, rural areas and towns cast a lot of the votes, while Philadelphia casts about a third of the votes.  In other words, Democrats simply cannot afford to continue to bleed votes outside of the metro Philly area:

Tomorrow, we focus on the biggie: The Midwest!

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

David Byler is an elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at dbyler@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidbylerRCP.

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