In 2016, rural counties upended the Democrats' strategy to win Pennsylvania. That November, Democratic voters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh couldn’t overcome bipartisan enthusiasm for Donald Trump in the state’s postindustrial regions. Eastern Pennsylvania’s Berks County exemplified the pivotal role that rural voters played in Trump’s victory.
“Berks' impact in 2016 was significant and overlooked,” says Christopher Borick, director of Muhlenberg College’s Institute of Public Opinion. As Borick notes, Trump’s results in Berks outperformed nearby Northampton County, an Obama-to-Trump county considered a bellwether in electoral politics.
In the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country — tucked between suburban Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley, and the anthracite coal region — Berks illustrates an important political trend in Pennsylvania: Democratic underperformance in urban centers and Republican overperformance in rural areas. Four years ago, Berks handily went to Trump by 10 points, even though Reading — its county seat and Pennsylvania’s fifth-largest city — is overwhelmingly Democratic in registration. This November, Berks’ urban-rural divide could prove crucial in the battle between Trump and Joe Biden.
“There is a sense among analysts and people within the Democratic Party that their strength is in cities,” Jonathan Rodden, a political science professor at Stanford, told me. “They kind of forget about rural areas, and that seems wrong — especially given that turnout is so much higher in rural areas.” This is evident in Berks, where only one Democrat — Barack Obama in 2008 — has won since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Berks’ political dynamics — with Democratic voters in Reading outnumbered by rural GOP voters — featured prominently in Rodden’s 2019 book, Why Cities Lose, which explored the Left’s electoral disadvantages. In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton won approximately 80% of the vote in Latino-majority Reading, but she earned less than 25% of the vote in Berks’ more rural areas. “Reading’s population today is only 88,000,” writes Rodden, “while the population of Berks County has grown to over 411,000, so that Reading now accounts for only 21 percent of its population.” Berks’ rural base ensures a Republican advantage.
In the early 20th century, Reading was a booming industrial city, where working-class Germans inhabited turreted rowhouses and attended ornate Protestant churches. Even then, though, this traditional group presented a paradox. In 1901, Pennsylvania’s Socialist Party formed in Reading and soon thrived among German voters, thanks to vigorous recruitment efforts. By 1929, Reading had America’s only socialist-controlled city council. Yet, that same year, Cornelius Weygandt, a University of Pennsylvania professor, described the Pennsylvania Dutch as “the most conservative people in America.”
This conservatism outlasted Reading’s socialist phase, the New Deal era, and the city’s eventual industrial decline. The political culture was best captured by Berks native John Updike in his quartet of Rabbit novels, which cataloged middle-class life in the county between 1959 and 1989. In Rabbit Redux, set in the late 1960s, the protagonist — Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom — describes his stubborn affection for the American Flag and President Nixon; Rabbit’s father, a union member, lauds Medicare and Lyndon Johnson. Decades later, the Rabbit prototype — socially conservative, economically moderate — is alive and well in Berks’ rural townships and middle-class suburbs. Indeed, the “Rabbit” voter makes up Trump’s base in Berks, where Republicans have significantly narrowed Democrats' voter-registration advantage since Obama’s countywide victory in 2008.
On a recent drive along Berks’ scenic Route 183, off I-78, I noted prevalent Trump signs along the landscape of historic churches, hilly cemeteries, farmers markets, and middle-class neighborhoods. Meantime, outside Wyomissing — a prosperous suburb, where Trump essentially split the vote in 2016 — office-lease signs dot the surroundings of emptying, Nineties-era corporate parks. These signs reflect the moment: a pandemic-era economy, with remote workers navigating an uncertain future.
Nearly a decade ago, Reading was known as America’s poorest city. Last year, it elected its first Latino mayor, who ran on economic growth. COVID-19 complicates such goals, of course. In November, the city will doubtless favor Biden, but Trump still holds the countywide advantage. Reading continues to reflect a national trend: “As you get closer to the city center, turnout gets lower,” as Rodden puts it.
Trump should enjoy an encore victory in Berks County, where rural and even suburban residents are mobilized to vote against the present cultural tumult, urban violence, and the Democratic Party’s leftward turn. They’re motivated, moreover, to vote Republican after Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s devastating COVID-19 mandates, which a federal judge ruled unconstitutional this month. This November, Berks’ “Rabbit” voters — German descendants of New Deal Democrats and even socialists — could put Joe Biden at a statewide disadvantage.