The Divided States of Pennsylvania
From the Northeast corridor through Appalachia to the industrial Midwest, a tour of what makes Pennsylvania one of America’s most complex and politically competitive states.
On a sunny day in Philadelphia this fall, James McFadden worried about the future of America as he loaded groceries into his Toyota Prius.
“It’s been the worst time that I have ever seen,” said McFadden, 81.
That was saying something: He grew up as a Black man in segregation-era Alabama and led sit-ins to protest discrimination during the 1950s and ’60s. Yet outside an Aldi grocery store in the city’s Brewerytown neighborhood, McFadden, a retired teacher and activist, was shaken by the hatred he said President Donald Trump has inflamed. “It has permeated the country,” he said. “I think it has affected a lot of decent people.”
On another morning soon after in rural Franklin County, David Bookheimer loaded his groceries into the back of his Jeep Grand Cherokee outside a Walmart and said he’s “100% Trump.”
“I work for my money, and I’d like to see everyone else do the same,” said Bookheimer, 59, a retired home builder with a surgical mask and pack of Marlboros tucked together into his T-shirt pocket. “Some of these politicians, I’d like to see them spend a week as a dairy farmer. They’d never make it.”
The two men live 150 miles apart, maybe a 2½-hour drive, in the same state. But they inhabit different worlds — culturally, demographically, and politically.
They represent just two of the many facets of Pennsylvania, a state that sprawls from the Northeast corridor to Appalachia to the Midwest. It’s a place of big, crowded cities, affluent suburbs, and vast farmland. Cascading mountains, forested lakefronts, fracking wells, cul-de-sacs, corner stores, and gleaming skyscrapers. Sheetz and Wawa. World-class colleges and shuttered factories. Diverse, dynamic cities and huge rural stretches where the population is almost entirely white.
Each piece is big enough that no one aspect dominates the rest. A “big, beautiful, complicated, diverse state,” as Sen. Pat Toomey put it.
In other words, it mirrors America — so it’s fitting that Pennsylvania is one of the country’s most politically competitive states.
With nearly 13 million people spread over almost 45,000 square miles, Pennsylvania also reflects America another way: It is increasingly divided. It is separated into geographic clusters — liberals in cities and suburbs, conservatives in rural areas and small towns — that seem entirely distinct. You can drive places where seemingly everyone supports Trump, and others where almost no one does. People often view their neighbors with disdain or fear, worried their way of life is under threat from fellow Pennsylvanians. They absorb different information, work different jobs, live different lives.
The 2020 presidential election lays all these divisions bare.
We visited five distinct regions this fall and interviewed almost 100 voters, public officials, political operatives, and analysts to capture the places that represent Pennsylvania’s defining political elements — and the contrasts that make it such a close call in presidential races.
We swung east to west, from Philadelphia and its suburbs to farmland, Appalachian coal country, and Lake Erie.
Each has its own beauty, complexity, and values in The Divided States of Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia and urban Pennsylvania
Anton Moore steps out of his South Philadelphia rowhouse and the honking horns, fist bumps, and shout-outs begin.
“Hey, Anton!” hollers a young man with a bushy beard across the street, carrying a Styrofoam food container.
“You register to vote?” Moore yells back.
The man nods. “This year I did.”
This is how it goes on a sunny September afternoon with Moore, a 34-year-old Democratic ward leader. He talks fast, knows seemingly every neighbor.
“I call this guy the mayor,” says next-door neighbor Scott Rodrigue, who sits on a faded sidewalk love seat. “Out here’s kind of the office.”
Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are the big-city anchors of liberalism in the divided state, deep-blue foundations in a place where so much of the map is red.
The cities — one East Coast, one at the edge of the Midwest — are more diverse, and in many ways more dynamic than much of Pennsylvania. As the U.S. economy and population has changed, so have they — with, for example, a burgeoning tech sector that has reshaped Pittsburgh’s steel and smokestack heritage. They draw people from around the world, bringing a changing mix of faces.
Philadelphia is also home to many big-city ills — crime, poverty, racial inequality — right in the shadow of wealth, power, and American history. Nearly one in four Philadelphians lives in poverty.
Moore, 34, in track pants, a white T-shirt, and a chunky digital watch, walks the neighborhood with two young volunteers, brothers Antoine and Arthur McDaniels, carrying stacks of mail ballot applications and Biden-Harris campaign signs. It’s all red brick and concrete, narrow streets lined by parked cars and homes packed tight.
Moore chose this piece of his South Philadelphia ward based on data showing which parts are lagging in ballot applications. Walking the gridded streets, almost everyone Moore encounters is Black or brown. Almost all say they despise Trump.
“Ignorant people get other ignorant people riled up,” Antoine says. “Once Trump became president ... racism spiked. Well, racism didn’t spike, racism’s always around, it just became nondormant.”
About 55% of Philadelphia is nonwhite, compared with 18% statewide.
Antoine, 22, and Arthur, 20, staple signs to telephone poles and slide ballot applications into mail slots.
Antoine, as energetic as Arthur is withdrawn, unspools a story that starts with picking up two simple assault charges and one grand theft auto by the time he turned 15. Reform school, a juvenile probation officer, and a caring 10th-grade English teacher helped him change. Now he’s in community college and hopes to become a probation officer himself.
“I actually want to improve my neighborhood,” Antoine says. “Overall, the system helped me. ... I don’t want kids to have to get to the juvenile justice system to get these programs.”
Moore asks everyone he encounters if they’re going to vote, but he doesn’t ask whom they’re voting for: In presidential races in Philly, more than 80% of the vote goes to Democrats.
Democrats aren’t perfect, Moore says, but they at least listen to communities like his.
“Republicans come off as ‘We don’t give a hell what you think, we’re going to tell you what you need,’ ” Moore says. “We have some Democrats who listen, you know what I mean? Not all of them, but some … that sit down at the table with you and not judge you, but work with you.”
“In Philadelphia, if you’re talking about gun rights, that’s a nonstarter for us.”
While Black voters are critical to Democrats, Moore says they’re wary of being taken for granted. People want opportunities, he says, “and we’re not talking about small jobs that are paying 8, 9 dollars an hour.”
And tougher gun laws. While in much of Pennsylvania guns are a cherished cultural touchstone, here they’re a tool for muggings, shootings, and robberies.
“We need the federal government to come in and find out how these guns are crossing state lines and getting into the hands of young people,” Moore says. “In Philadelphia, if you’re talking about gun rights, that’s a nonstarter for us.”
Along his walk, he meets Charlene Jones, 52, a nurse still in her black scrubs. He mentions a food giveaway. “I don’t need it, I’ll leave it for the less fortunate,” Jones says. But she insists Moore give her some campaign signs.
“Y’all think I’m playing?” she says, “I’m putting this stuff in my window.”
Chester County and the fast-changing suburbs
When Lauren Cortesi woke up on Nov. 9, 2016, she looked at her phone, and gasped. Trump had won.
“It was just shock,” said Cortesi, 58, “and then the fear and anger got me into Twitter in January, and I was like, ‘I’ve got to learn as much as I can right now.’ ”
Cortesi, of Glenmoore, is part of a wave of female activism that has reshaped politics in suburbs across the country. She volunteered for a local congressional candidate. She managed a county commissioner campaign. She says OpenSecrets.org, which tracks money in politics, is “one of my favorite websites.”
In 2017, she was so eager to do something that she cast her first vote in a judicial race, supporting a Democrat for state Supreme Court who later helped throw out Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered congressional map. “I thank God every day that I voted that day,” she says.
Cortesi grew up near New York in suburban Connecticut and owns a dessert catering company. She describes her political awakening on a rust-red wooden deck, overlooking her inground pool and surrounded by a thick ring of trees. We’re only about 45 miles west of Anton Moore’s stomping grounds, but here, most of the noise comes from lawn mowers.
Affluent, highly educated places like Chester County leaned right for decades, favoring lower taxes and business-friendly policies, even while holding moderate views on social issues. The median household income approaches $100,000, making it Pennsylvania’s wealthiest county, full of luxury SUVs and grand fieldstone homes with emerald-green lawns.
Voters here were comfortable with Republicans like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.
But now, suburbs like this are key prongs of the Democratic coalition. Hillary Clinton won 53% of the vote here, and Joe Biden is aiming to do better.
White-collar, college-educated professionals, especially women, recoiled from what they see as Trump’s cruelty, lying, and racism. He accelerated a trend that was already cleaving suburbanites from the GOP as their communities grew more diverse. Despite the president’s warning about protests supposedly threatening these areas with violence, the boutique shops in West Chester are dotted with “Black Lives Matter” signs.
While blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania’s coal and steel country worry about environmental regulations destroying jobs, parents in these leafy neighborhoods worry about climate change ravaging the world their children and grandchildren will inherit.
As in Philadelphia, guns come up often. In fact, people raise the topic unprompted throughout the state. It becomes a constant through-line, a reliable stand-in for cultural and political values.
In the suburbs, it isn’t street crime that terrifies people. It’s school shootings.
“My son’s at Penn State with 40,000 kids,” says Margaret Reif, 52. “I worry about that all the time and I didn’t worry about that when they were small.”
Reif grew up in a Republican family on Long Island, but drifted over the years. The Tea Party and Sarah Palin troubled her. Then Trump won. “Literally, he scared me.”
She had never done much more than vote, but in 2017 she booked five buses to the Women’s March in Washington, and ran for Chester County controller, expecting to lose.
“To push a progressive agenda just ain’t gonna fly here. We just turned blue.”
Still, there are enough “Trump” flags here to remind of the area’s recent past, especially as suburbs transition to exurbs. Democrats didn’t outnumber Republicans until May. Even activists worry about moving too fast.
For “progressives that are trying to shove progressivism down the throats of America: Slow down, people,” Cortesi says. “To push a progressive agenda just ain’t gonna fly here. We just turned blue.”
Franklin County and rural Pennsylvania
Heading west from Chester County, suburbia gives way to cornfields, dairy farms, and orchards.
Philadelphia and its collar counties fit neatly into the Northeastern, urban corridor. With its Civil War markers and the occasional Confederate flag, rural and exurban Franklin County has a tinge of the South. The economy is tied to nearby communities in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Greencastle, on the edge of the Maryland panhandle, has a Norman Rockwell feel. As you enter town, a line of homes with pillars out front hang American flags at identical angles. Parking meters only take coins and carry a $10 fine if you run out of time.
As blue as Philadelphia is, Franklin is nearly as red. Trump won 71% of the vote.
“We’ve been very agrarian throughout our history, very blue collar,” says Mike Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corporation. “That work ethic, attitude, has permeated our county.”
“I see people saying, ‘I can’t get a job.’ You can get a job, but you gotta work.”
David Bookheimer, the retiree loading his groceries at the Walmart in Chambersburg, says: “It’s a live-and-let-live kind of place. You’ll help out your neighbor, you’ll give him a hand, but you don’t want to give him a handout.”
That sentiment echoes through much of rural Pennsylvania: People want to be left alone, but worry that they’re picking up the tab for others elsewhere.
“I see people saying, ‘I can’t get a job.’ You can get a job, but you gotta work,” says Dave Leidig, 79, a retired welder who voted once for Barack Obama but now supports Trump. He and his wife, Barb, sit outside the Butcher Shoppe, a grocery store and restaurant serving up sandwiches, fresh meats, and impossibly fluffy baked goods.
“Kids want stuff given to them,” says Barb Leidig, pointing to Democratic calls for free college and universal health care.
Franklin County only accounted for about 70,000 votes in 2016, roughly 1% of the state total. Philadelphians cast more than 700,000. But there are a lot more Franklin Counties spread across Pennsylvania.
The landscape here is full of Trump signs, flags, and banners — on lawns, on flagpoles, on garages, cars, and bicycles. Some depict Trump atop a tank, explosions and bald eagles behind him. They’re frequently paired with American flags and seem less a statement of policy preference and more of personal identity, cultural belonging, and attitude.
“Trump 2020: No More Bullshit,” goes one slogan. Another: “Trump 2020: Fuck Your Feelings.”
Alison Dagnes, who teaches political science at Shippensburg University, vividly recalls one student telling her, “If you insult Trump, you are insulting me.”
“He really campaigns on this idea that he has this deep personal connection with his supporters, that he is their protector,” Dagnes says.
Guns are prevalent here. Democrat Connie Sly is among the many local hunters, but, she says, “We don’t need assault weapons.”
“Because there are so many Republicans here, most of our friends were Republican, but we have other common interests and we all got along,” Sly says. “But it’s different now. I don’t know how to say this. This really, it’s driven a wedge.”
Cambria County and Appalachia
Leaving Franklin County, driving past rolling farmland and stands selling apples and peaches, the pastoral scenes turn more rugged. The road climbs sharply through stunning Appalachian Mountain vistas overlooking deep green valleys.
It brings you to Cambria County, five times the area of Philadelphia, with less than a tenth of the people. Pickup trucks drive winding roads lined with antiabortion signs.
At the Republican county headquarters in Johnstown, a group crowds around a computer, without face coverings.
“You don’t need a mask,” Ron Woznak, a volunteer, tells me. “We don’t deal with Democrats here.”
Cambria County is now where Franklin is politically — Trump won 67% of the vote here — but for decades this was a Democratic stronghold. Blue-collar workers who clocked into mines and steel mills — including Woznak’s father — sided with the party of labor unions. Al Gore and Barack Obama won the county narrowly.
But as Cambria suffered a long economic slide and union power waned, disenchantment grew. The area’s largely religious voters gravitated toward the GOP — repelled, in part, by Democrats’ increasingly liberal stands on issues like abortion and guns. That made Cambria, and Southwestern Pennsylvania more broadly, a forerunner of the wider white, working-class shift that swept through other parts of Pennsylvania in 2016 and powered Trump to victory.
“The Democrat Party was leaving the common person,” says Woznak, 58.
A self-described “educated redneck,” he says three friends at a local pub just asked about changing their registration to Republican. Others are registering for the first time.
“The economy, the employment, and a lot of disdain for what Democrats are doing,” Woznak says. What don’t they like? “Pelosi.”
The one-word answer invoking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is clearly meant to be self-explanatory. Many Trump supporters here tout the president’s tax cuts and support for fracking. But as much as anything, they fear what Democrats might do: Impose socialism. The name of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the liberal New York congresswoman, is often invoked.
They especially hate recent protests against police brutality, seeing them almost entirely through the lens of riots and destruction. In a county that’s 94% white, most people view racism as rare, and police as protectors.
“Black Lives Matter: What have they done to actually help Black lives? Nothing,” says Woznak, a former state game commission officer.
Cambria is like Chester County in reverse. While Philadelphia and upscale suburbs are growing thanks to transplants like Lauren Cortesi, many struggling, postindustrial areas are shrinking. Since 2010 Cambria has lost nearly 1 in 10 residents.
“In small towns like this in Pennsylvania, everyone had to leave to big cities for work,” says Ron Inzana, a carpenter from Ebensburg who grew up on a farm and laments the loss of blue-collar jobs. “Not everyone goes to a four-year college and gets an engineering degree.”
Among white voters, educational attainment — a major influence on careers and culture — has become one of the sharpest dividing lines in American politics, with noncollege whites at the core of Trump’s support. In Chester County, 52% of adults have degrees. In Cambria, it’s 21%.
And while guns and the environment have pushed suburbanites left, here, those same issues move people right.
“Every friend I know, they have guns,” says Jackie Kulback, the local GOP chair who prizes the shotgun passed down from her grandfather.
Schools here close for the first day of buck season. And, Kulback adds, in a place this rural, police assistance can be far, far away.
Registered Republicans surpassed Democrats in September. Much as Democrats are counting on the suburbs to turn even bluer, Kulback predicts even greater margins here for Trump.
It becomes apparent why his appeal to lost greatness resonates. It’s hard to have a conversation in Cambria without a reference to old days: the Flood of 1977, or the long gone time when the mills and mines ran three shifts.
“A lot of people depend upon those industries or they had parents who were in that industry, and it’s still part of their heart,” says Tom Callihan, a former high school basketball star here who’s now a high school athletic director.
When the national anthem plays that Friday night at a high school football game in Sidman, 10 miles east of Johnstown, even people in the parking lot stop what they’re doing.
While some like Trump’s policies in spite of his personality, to others, the attitude is part of the appeal.
“He’s saying what we’re really thinking and can’t say,” says Tom Lauffer, 43. Like what? “China virus. ... He ain’t afraid. They’re the ones that brought it here. He just tells the truth.”
Erie County and the Industrial Midwest
Not long ago, conservative Democrats like the late Rep. John Murtha could compete in places like Cambria, while liberal Philadelphia butted up against moderate Republican suburbs. No more.
Now blue areas grow bluer, and red redder.
Erie County, in Pennsylvania’s far northwest corner, is one of the few places where the competing pieces come together.
The blue-collar county along Lake Erie is where Pennsylvania meets the industrial Midwest. It’s closer to Cleveland and Buffalo than Pittsburgh and has the Browns and Bills fans to prove it, along with a proud but eroded manufacturing legacy.
There’s the liberal city of Erie surrounded by more affluent, politically divided suburbs, and sprawling, conservative rural areas. It’s Pennsylvania’s Pennsylvania, a battleground that journalists from around the world are visiting for clues to who will win the presidency.
A residential street just outside the city sums up the split. One lawn sign reads: “Say no to socialism.” A few doors down another retorts: “You can’t fix stupid. But you can vote it out.”
In rural Union City, home to a faded business district breaking up the farmland, a group of locals gathers in a small downtown office. They’re white, mostly older, wearing camouflage ball caps, faded jeans, and dusty boots. And they’re Democrats.
The county party opened this outpost about 20 miles south of the city of Erie after seeing the county swing sharply toward Trump, a key ingredient in flipping Pennsylvania and sealing his national victory. Erie County became a symbol of Trump’s Rust Belt appeal.
"I don’t want to go out and go look for another job right now starting at $9 an hour.”
Democrats are trying to reestablish their presence in parts of the county that felt ignored in 2016. Kelly Chelton, a former Republican, volunteers at the office nearly every day.
Laid off since April because of the pandemic, Chelton, 58, worries about what she’ll do when her unemployment benefits expire. She was making $16 an hour weaving parts for hoses used in fracking.
“For me that’s good. I didn’t go to college or anything," she says. "I don’t want to go out and go look for another job right now starting at $9 an hour.”
Chelton, with her fracking connection, would seem a prime target for Trump. But Biden “wants clean energy, and I do also," she says. "We need to do something about this before my grandchildren don’t have clean air.”
It’s a reminder that within these communities, there are still individual nuances that defy broad political categorization. Some men here say they are enthusiastic hunters but support stricter gun laws.
Of the places that swung to Trump in 2016, Erie gives off the strongest indicators of a Democratic rebound. There are 8-foot-by-20 ″Farmers for Biden” signs on the sides of some barns.
Chelton says there’s a steady stream of people coming to the office to register or get lawn signs. “They’re so sick of his mouth," she says.
But even this strip of 3,000-person Union City is a cultural battleground. Two doors down from the Democratic office, a group of locals set up one supporting Trump. The men at the Trump office won’t agree to an interview — they don’t trust the mainstream media — but chatting informally they emphasize that they love their country and law enforcement. If anyone tried to riot here, they say, they’d use their own guns to stop them.
Farther north, at a Tim Horton’s just outside the city of Erie, Brian Shank explains Trump’s appeal in a longtime Democratic county.
“He loves his country and loves the flag. A lot of people take that as being racist nowadays and I don’t know why,” says Shank, a former corrections officer who grew up in a Democratic family and is now a Republican county councilman.
Shank, a onetime activist for open-carry laws who voted twice for Obama before switching to Trump, calls racism a “trigger word” that “gets overplayed.” He doesn’t think all Mexican immigrants are “rapists and killers." He condemns Trump’s insults but supports the president’s tough immigration policies and support for police.
“All lives matter," he says. “If you actually put a label of ‘Black,’ you’re actually kind of being a racist yourself. … We’re all important, we’re all God’s children.”
From corner to corner
On the last day of my tour, Democrats hold a rally of about 100 people at Perry Square, a park in downtown Erie. State Rep. Donna Bullock takes the stage some 420 miles from her Philadelphia home.
She represents a district that includes Fairmount, part of West Philadelphia, and Brewerytown — where James McFadden was buying his groceries. That Aldi and this park are about as far apart as you can get while within Pennsylvania. She talks about trying to slow the shootings in her district, and the Republicans who oppose her efforts.
“You don’t understand why I’m fighting for gun-violence reform in the Capitol when you haven’t had those experiences,” Bullock says. It’s a statement that could apply to so many issues.
I ask her about those disparate experiences in a state split so many ways. She tells a story about visiting a lawmaker’s home in central Pennsylvania in 2016, when she was getting to know her Republican colleagues. As they talked politics, Bullock’s boys, then ages 8 and 5, explored the farmland.
They soon came back with souvenirs found on the ground: bullet casings.
“They practice shooting … and they have wild turkeys that they shoot," Bullock says of her hosts. “And I realized very quickly that if my boys grew up in this community, in this environment, that they would have been learning how to shoot at a very early age. But I also said to them, jokingly but seriously: ‘I get it, but if you were back home, we don’t pick that up.’ ”
Because in Philadelphia, she told her sons, “that’s evidence.”
“That story for me just kind of illustrated how we all need to understand the different cultures to be able to move forward, right?” Bullock says.
That kind of tolerance is rare these days in The Divided States of Pennsylvania.
"You can’t mention anything without it turning into some political rant,” says State Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, an Erie County Democrat who represents a divided district, in a divided county, in a divided state.
“It’s like I’ve never seen in my life and I hope to never see it again,” he says. “I think a lot of people are tired of it.”