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‘Ticket-splitting’ voters in Bucks County show it’s the most competitive Philly suburb

Tens of thousands of people voted for both Joe Biden and Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District.

Michael Harcum is one of tens of thousands of voters in Bucks County's 1st Congressional District who voted for Democrat Joe Biden for president but also voted to re-elect Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.
Michael Harcum is one of tens of thousands of voters in Bucks County's 1st Congressional District who voted for Democrat Joe Biden for president but also voted to re-elect Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Michael Harcum is active in his church, watches both CNN and Fox News, and wants property taxes to stay low. A registered Democrat, he tends to vote for Republicans at the local level, and this year he cast a ballot for Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, crediting the GOP congressman for sometimes breaking ranks with his party.

Yet Harcum, a 36-year-old college administrator from Bensalem, also hears from former students who are mired in debt well after they have graduated, a crisis he calls “ridiculous and unacceptable.”

Harcum voted for Joe Biden, saying he was the “lesser of two evils” compared with President Donald Trump.

“Sometimes when things are so bad, you do need the government to step in, to intervene, to try to make things a little bit better,” he said.

Harcum is among tens of thousands of people who voted for both Biden and Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District, which spans Bucks County and a slice of Montgomery County. Those so-called ticket-splitters helped deliver Fitzpatrick 57% of the vote for a resounding 13-point win over Democrat Christina Finello, even as Biden won the district with 53% of the vote, beating Trump by 6 points.

Fitzpatrick’s share of the vote compared with Trump’s was the biggest of any Republican House candidate in Pennsylvania, and among the strongest performances nationwide in races that were seriously contested by both parties. Republicans also swept all five competitive state House races in Bucks, helping the party maintain its majority in Harrisburg.

And yet Bucks County, which makes up the vast majority of the district, also helped fuel Biden’s 81,000-vote victory in Pennsylvania. Biden’s advantage in the county exceeded Hillary Clinton’s margin there by 14,600 votes. Only Montgomery, Allegheny, Chester, and Delaware Counties gave Biden bigger margins compared with Clinton’s share of the vote in 2016, when Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes.

Taken together, the mixed results — both in 2020 and in other elections over the last four years — suggest that in the increasingly Democratic Philadelphia suburbs, Bucks has emerged as the most competitive county in the region.

Likely no more than 20 congressional districts in the country voted for one party for president and another for Congress this year, according to J. Miles Coleman, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. That continued a decades-long trend that has been accelerated by increasing polarization extending well beyond politics.

“We’ve always been a ticket-splitting district,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview last week. “The overwhelming majority of people in our community are very pragmatic. They’re independent thinkers like I am.

“They really do value people who take the same approach to government as we all do to our personal relationship,” he added. “You listen more than you lecture” and “don’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good when it comes to legislation.”

Both parties will be analyzing the results in Bucks and across Pennsylvania as they look ahead to statewide elections for governor and U.S. Senate in 2022, when turnout will likely be lower and the national political climate could favor Republicans during Biden’s first midterm election as president.

“I think an awful lot of Republican women voted for Biden, then voted for the Republican candidates” down-ballot, said Bucks County Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican.

» READ MORE: The Philadelphia suburbs were the key to Joe Biden’s Pennsylvania victory. Here are the numbers.

Democrats’ success in the Philadelphia suburbs has been driven in part by demographic changes. Over the last two decades, the suburbs have become more racially diverse, better educated, and home to more young adults, according to census data.

Bucks County has experienced some of this, but not as much as the other collar counties. It’s the whitest and oldest of the four.

The share of voter registrations in both parties in Bucks has stayed relatively stable since 2008, when Democrats gained an advantage. Today, Democrats account for about 43% of registered voters in Bucks, while 41% are registered Republicans. In the three other collar counties, Democratic registrations have been steadily increasing, and GOP registrations declining, for years.

A quarter-century ago, the Philadelphia suburbs were largely a reliable GOP stronghold, and Bucks was something of a bright spot for Democrats. But while Democrats’ strength there used to be concentrated in inner-ring, blue-collar suburban towns like Bensalem and Bristol, Biden did better in more affluent towns in the central part of the county around Doylestown.

As recently as 2012, Barack Obama got 58% of the vote in Bensalem, beating Mitt Romney by more than 4,000 votes. Four years later, Clinton’s margin dipped to 2,400 votes. And Biden’s advantage fell to 1,700, or 53% of the vote.

He offset declining support there with gains in historically Republican towns like Warrington and by increasing margins in affluent Democratic-leaning areas like Lower Makefield and Newtown, thanks in part to voters like Scott Young.

» READ MORE: Wealthy towns outside Pittsburgh went big for Biden. Can Democrats count on them again?

Young, 52, of Newtown, said he’s fiscally conservative and socially liberal. He used to vote straight-Republican and backed Trump in 2016. But Young said the “turmoil” of the Trump administration, compounded by the president’s personal conduct and “absolute mendacity,” pushed him to vote for Biden.

He also backed Fitzpatrick.

“His voting track record has been pretty consistent,” said Young, who works in technology sales and is a member of The Inquirer’s Election 2020 Roundtable. “He seems to vote his conscience and vote his stated position.”

“I don’t feel as tethered to a party” anymore, Young said. He said he was bothered by Republican officials’ baseless attacks on the electoral system and Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the reality that he lost. And he’s “flabbergasted” that, according to public opinion polls, many Republican voters appear to not trust the results.

The 1st District’s preference for Biden puts Fitzpatrick, who was first elected in 2016, in an unusual political position at a time when Trump is falsely declaring the election was rigged against him and pressuring state and congressional lawmakers and other public officials to try to overturn the results.

Last week, 126 House Republicans, including seven from Pennsylvania, signed on to a legal brief supporting a lawsuit filed by Texas seeking to nullify Biden’s win in Pennsylvania and three other states. The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday refused to hear the case.

» READ MORE: Fact-checking false claims about Pennsylvania’s presidential election by Trump and his allies

Fitzpatrick, who didn’t join the brief, is one of just a couple of dozen Republican members of Congress who have publicly acknowledged Biden as president-elect.

“We have a president-elect in Joe Biden. And we have a president and a campaign that are utilizing their legal access and rights to the courts,” Fitzpatrick said. “... I think the alternative — if litigation were deep-sixed and short-circuited — there’s going to be lingering questions in the minds of too many people.”

Fitzpatrick said he hopes the election results in the House and Senate, which narrowed majorities in both chambers, will empower rank-and-file centrist lawmakers to drive the agenda in Congress.

“I think that’s what the American people are starving for,” he said, citing frustration over congressional leadership’s inability to strike a deal on a new coronavirus relief package. “They’re so tired of the polarization. It just results in gridlock.”