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The view from a Pa. county that swung from Obama to Trump — and where Trump needs a repeat

Northampton County is a coveted electoral prize in a state that could determine who wins the White House.

A Biden sign on the front lawn of Wind Gap Mayor Mitchell D. Mogilski.
A Biden sign on the front lawn of Wind Gap Mayor Mitchell D. Mogilski.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

WIND GAP, Pa. — From his front porch, Mayor Mitchell D. Mogilski has a clear view of the Trump flag waving from his neighbor’s home across the street.

But the rivalry here isn’t bitter. Mogilski’s neighbor happens to be the Republican former mayor of this small borough that Mogilski now oversees, and the two are friends. And although Mogilski is a Democrat, he’s no party loyalist. In 2016, Hillary Clinton didn’t get his vote. Neither did Donald Trump. He didn’t think either deserved it.

But 2020 is different.

“Donald Trump has proven over and over that he doesn’t care about anybody but Donald Trump,” said Mogilski, 63. “It’s between Trump and George Bush Jr., I think they’re two of the worst presidents we’ve ever had.”

The 2,700-resident town of Wind Gap is part of Northampton County’s Slate Belt, a series of former mining towns a few miles south of the Poconos. It’s a county Trump captured by just fewer than 5,500 votes four years ago, a place where voters pride themselves on being independent-minded and willing to choose policy over party.

One of three Pennsylvania counties where voters twice backed Barack Obama then flipped to Trump, Northampton is a coveted electoral prize in a state that could determine who wins the White House.

With a mix of rural and suburban areas, the county mirrors the statewide trends that helped propel Trump to the presidency, but also those that now point to trouble for his reelection hopes. It’s part of the Lehigh Valley, a political bellwether that sits between the increasingly Democratic Philadelphia suburbs and the state’s post-industrial northeast, an epicenter of where voters with deep Democratic roots broke for Trump in 2016.

Northampton’s swing from Obama to Trump was smaller by total votes than in other counties. And it remains competitive, with Democrats up and down the ballot winning races in the years after Trump’s victory here. Two years ago, Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey carried it by double-digit margins.

A poll released this month by Muhlenberg College in Allentown found Trump leading Biden by 3 percentage points in Northampton County, well within the survey’s margin of error, while Biden was ahead by 17% in neighboring Lehigh County and 7% in the Lehigh Valley overall.

“I can’t see the president winning Pennsylvania without repeating in Northampton County,” said Christopher Borick, a pollster and political scientist at Muhlenberg. “It’s the type of place he needs to at least match what he did in 2016, because he’s going to lose big in other areas."

» READ MORE: Democrats are looking for a rebound in Erie, a symbol of Trump’s Rust Belt appeal

Northampton County is about a 90-minute drive north of Philadelphia and is in the same media market, meaning residents mostly see the same TV campaign ads. Much of the county is made up of rural land and small towns along the handful of highways running through the area. But it more closely resembles the Philadelphia suburbs than it does the two other Obama-Trump counties.

In the cities of Bethlehem and Easton, colleges, hospitals, and a handful of big companies have kept the economy relatively robust compared with Luzerne and Erie Counties, the state’s two other Obama-Trump counties.

And the population in Northampton is growing, thanks to residents who moved from New York or across the river from New Jersey in search of affordable living. The median household income is higher than in other swing counties, and there are more college-educated voters, who polls show are backing Biden in big numbers.

In 2016, Trump narrowly carried the nation’s suburbs as a whole, although not those surrounding Philadelphia. That support has largely collapsed, particularly among women.

“Trump has really done great damage to a Republican base that was largely dependent on college-educated voters, especially in the suburbs," said former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, a Republican and vocal Trump opponent who represented the district that encompasses Northampton before retiring from Congress in 2018. ″The erosion of Republican voters in the suburbs has accelerated dramatically under President Trump, there’s no way around it.”

In Bangor, another Slate Belt town about 30 miles north of Allentown, Brooke Kerzner called herself a blue mayor in a red area. A real estate agent, she said she won election in her borough of less than 5,300 people in 2017 because voters support her straightforward approach to local problems.

She’s also a former independent voter who chose John McCain over Obama in 2008. She became a Democrat in 2012 because she felt increasingly alienated by the views of party leaders, particularly those she felt reflected racism and an ignorance of the challenges faced by working-class people.

“In my mind, I’m a centrist,” she said. “But I’m a Democrat because I want people to have a fair chance in life.”

» READ MORE: How the Divided States of Pennsylvania reflect America

Bangor, she said, is a hardworking community that has struggled to reclaim an identity lost as the slate and textile industries declined over the last century. The town started a mural program, and business owners are trying to revitalize the downtown corridor with restaurants and shops.

Across the street from Bangor’s public library, Sam Hotchner owns a record and antiques shop that doubles as a Trump store with flags and paraphernalia. The president appeals to Hotchner’s desire for smaller government, and he cited face-mask mandates and coronavirus restrictions on businesses as examples of overreach.

He supported Trump in 2016 and likes him even more now.

“We have more jobs, more opportunities,” he said. “Everything he’s doing to bring this country back, just look around.”

And if the steady stream of people who buy Hotchner’s Trump-branded products are any indication, he said, the president is still on solid footing in 2020.

“You have to be out of your mind to think Biden’s gonna win,” Hotchner said.

Even with mail voting already well underway, Northampton County officials this month warned those who plan to vote in person on Nov. 3 to expect long lines and consider bringing chairs. They have said there will be no repeat of the fiasco that happened last year, when incorrectly installed voting machines resulted in widespread issues and a recount of paper ballots.

» READ MORE: A Pennsylvania county voted for Obama twice. But it’s ‘Trump Country’ now.

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, a Democrat who won Dent’s seat two years ago in the redrawn 7th Congressional District, said she’s been struck by the level of engagement among suburban voters as she campaigns for reelection. Everywhere, she said, health care seems to be the top worry.

“The volunteers who text and phone-bank for us are people who I’m not sure would have gotten involved 10 years ago,” she said. “The pandemic has made bread-and-butter issues that have always mattered to people in this district even more important.”

This month’s Muhlenberg poll showed Wild leading her opponent Lisa Scheller by 13 percentage points. But Scheller, a former Lehigh County commissioner and president of an aluminum-pigment manufacturing company, said she’s met voters who are concerned a Biden presidency would usher in unchecked government regulation and make it harder for companies to create jobs.

“People in this area, when I’m out talking to them, will pick specific issues that are important,” she said. “Very rarely will they ask right away what party I belong to.”