WASHINGTON — When Theo Hoffman sees news about the latest economic gains, such as another solid jobs report Friday, he wonders who is actually benefiting.
Hoffman works as a security guard at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, a job he took after the 2008 recession swallowed his position building a health database. “I went from a job where I was using my degree and getting paid pretty well and doing brain work to taking a job where I’m basically a warm body,” said Hoffman, 55.
His 2006 Dodge Caravan died in December, but every time he and his wife try to save for a down payment on a new car, some other expense arises. So Hoffman takes the bus or bikes the eight miles to work. Many of his colleagues and neighbors on the outskirts of Pittsburgh hustle two jobs to get by.
“I’m sure there are plenty of people that are thrilled with this economy," Hoffman said, "but no people that I know.”
Democrats argue that those feelings are more widespread than typical headlines reveal, and are hoping to tap into that sentiment in Pennsylvania and other key swing states as they try to blunt one of President Donald Trump’s greatest political strengths: robust economic growth.
Democratic groups have launched efforts aiming to show the fragility they say lurks beneath the glossy economic statistics.
Priorities USA, a super PAC, has hired staffers in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida who will emphasize how everyday people are still struggling in places that embraced Trump. They’re posting online ads, promoting news stories that reinforce their arguments, and have created a website intended to draw people who Google for economic information. A news story on the soaring stock market, for example, might be flanked by a digital ad about people struggling to pay their bills, or facing rising health costs.
American Bridge, a Democratic research group, also launched online ads in the same four states, all seen as keys to the 2020 race, to emphasize Trump’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act and its consumer protections.
“Americans are experiencing Donald Trump’s economy in a way that is fundamentally different from most of the headlines,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA. The group’s polling found that 69% of Americans don’t believe their wages will keep pace with inflation. “Most Americans describe the economy as being good. Most Americans also describe their personal economic situation being incredibly tenuous.”
Priorities plans to spend upward of $350,000 a week pushing its message. It says it is trying to draw attention to an issue that gets overlooked amid the daily Trump eruptions but matters more to regular people.
“Most elections are about the conditions of people’s lives," Cecil said.
Trump, of course, pledged to revive the parts of blue-collar America that had been left behind, and rode those promises to election-deciding wins in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
“The American Dream is working again for every American,” Vice President Mike Pence said in his own visit last week at Manitowoc Cranes in Shady Grove, Pa. “The forgotten men and women of America are forgotten no more."
A day earlier, the Democratic National Committee held a news conference across from a General Motors plant in Warren, Mich., that is slated to close.
At a separate event hosted by the United Auto Workers, Danielle Murry, 44, told a reporter how she bought a house in October under the impression her job was secure. Three weeks later, GM announced it was closing Warren Transmission. “My American Dream eroded from under me."
Visibly upset, she didn’t want to talk Trump or politics — this is her livelihood, not a talking point — but viewed from her perspective, the economy is not something to celebrate.
“They keep claiming the economy is growing, but all I see is jobs closing. They keep talking about jobs being created, but those are not jobs that can sustain a lifestyle, that can support the middle class,” Murry said.
Similarly, Deborah West, a 65-year-old security guard at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, said a hike in the minimum wage would have meant far more to her than Trump’s tax cuts. Until Social Security kicks in, she is getting by on $347 take-home pay a week. “I’m really pinching this week. The rent is due, it’s the first of the month, and I’m just trying to make it.”
(West, Murry, and Hoffman are not part of the Democratic campaign, although West and Hoffman both oppose Trump.)
Against such painful individual anecdotes stand extensive data that suggest the economy, which was growing before Trump took office, has continued surging.
Despite the GM closure, manufacturing jobs in Michigan have increased under Trump. They’re up in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, too, though not as much.
A recent Fox News poll found that 52% of Americans approved of Trump’s handling of the economy, a finding consistent with an array of surveys.
A strong economy frequently bodes well for presidents seeking reelection.
Pence, in Pennsylvania, pointed to manufacturing, which has added 4,000 jobs in the state since Trump took office, according to federal data. That’s an increase of less than 1 percent during the president’s tenure. Nationally, manufacturing job growth has been far stronger, about 4 percent, though it has begun to stall amid Trump’s trade war.
David Cross, president and owner of Mowery Construction in York County, has seen the benefits of the boom. Revenue at his commercial building company leapt by 60 percent in the 2017-18 fiscal year.
“In terms of the economy and how the economy is playing out for the construction industry, I don’t think you could ask for anything more,” he said, though he stressed that he did not intend his perspective as a political commentary.
As consumer confidence has grown, so has demand for the e-commerce warehouses and auto dealerships that make up a significant piece of his business. Mowery added 10 jobs in the last year. One of Cross’ biggest challenges is finding enough people to hire. He invested nearly $1 million in new technology, thanks in large part to savings from Trump’s tax cut.
Still, he also had worries. Trump’s steel tariffs have ramped up costs and unpredictability. Mowery ate a $100,000 increase in steel on a recent job. Trump has rattled markets further with an announcement of new tariffs on Chinese goods.
“The whisper of a tariff, the whisper of an increase in foreign steel, translates almost instantly to an increase in steel prices domestically,” Cross said.
York County, which saw a voting surge for Trump in 2016, illustrates some of the contrasts.
The unemployment rate has fallen to 3.3 percent, lower than the state and national averages, and manufacturing remains its top sector, said Kevin Schreiber, president and CEO of the York County Economic Alliance, an economic development agency. Harley-Davidson recently added 450 jobs and invested $150 million at a local plant.
Home values in every York school district have just recently returned to pre-recession levels, said Schreiber, a former Democratic state representative. But he still hears concern from Realtors, because Pennsylvania leads the nation in college debt, a burden that could prevent young people from buying homes.
It’s that tension Democrats hope to emphasize.