7 things we learned from our travels across the Divided States of Pennsylvania
When you spend days traveling through Pennsylvania and interview more than 100 people about the political and cultural divides that make the state so complex, you come back with a lot of thoughts.
When you spend days traveling through Pennsylvania and interview nearly 100 people about the political and cultural divides that make the state so complex, you come back with a lot of thoughts.
Many were in my story on The Divided States of Pennsylvania, but some didn’t quite make it — or were only briefly touched upon.
Here, then, are seven more observations about what I saw, the politics of this moment, and the differences that make Pennsylvania one of America’s most complex and politically competitive states.
Divisions are getting personal
Politics is always intense, but the past five years have strained and at times fractured relationships.
Alita Rovito is one example. She took an interest in politics as a fifth-grader, when her father, a Republican, was recovering from a heart attack. As part of his rehab, he had to take short walks, so Rovito would join him on trips around their neighborhood in Northumberland County.
She’d ask about the campaign signs they saw.
“I was like, 'Who’s that? What do they stand for?" Rovito recalled. "I grew up watching political conventions on TV.”
Rovito followed her father into the GOP, but over the years the attorney, who now lives in Chester County, became a Democrat and is part of the wave of suburban women who have become more politically active since President Donald Trump’s election.
Talking politics with her family back home, though, has changed.
“I don’t talk politics with my family,” she said. “It’s very difficult.”
It’s a story I heard often as people talked about deleting Facebook friends, or family debates turning acrimonious.
“It’s like I’ve never seen in my life and I hope to never see it again,” said state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, an Erie County Democrat. “I think a lot of people are tired of it.”
Suburban activism is about more than just voting
By now you’ve probably read a ton about the Democratic, suburban wave driven by female activism. But when you talk to some of the women involved, it’s not just about showing up and voting.
Democratic women like Rovito, who had never been very politically active, are now volunteering for campaigns, working on their local party committees, persuading people in their social networks, pushing for votes in their neighborhoods, donating to campaigns, and running for office themselves.
» READ MORE: The Divided States of Pennsylvania: How one state embodies America's political discord
We focus so much on national politics, but this kind of activism can be hugely important in local races that don’t get much attention and that can be swayed with a relatively small surge of votes.
One question is whether the same level of enthusiasm continues after the Trump presidency. but the women I met seemed fully committed to the cause. If so, Democrats may have a powerful and motivated edge in these areas for a long time.
Even in these Divided States, there are nuances
We tend to write about politics in broad strokes.
Philadelphia is almost entirely regarded as a deep-blue city, where Democrats regularly get more than 80% of the vote. But last presidential election, that still left nearly 109,000 Philadelphians who voted for Trump. We talk about suburban voters trending Democratic while white, working class voters get more Republican — which is accurate.
But there are still many exceptions.
Getting out on the road helps remind that people are more nuanced in their views than the typical political talking points allow.
I met a woman who helped make hoses for fracking, but who supports environmental protection efforts. A conservative man who has a libertarian bent and doesn’t like regulations, but allowed that they could sometimes be good — pointing to how much cleaner Lake Erie has become. There were hunters who support broader background checks for gun purchases.
Outside of carefully crafted professional politics, ordinary people don’t always fit into neat ideological boxes.
Trump’s persona drives the debate
When I asked people their thoughts on the election, the first response was almost always about Trump and a personality trait they loved or hated.
He’s a bully, or a racist, or a liar, or a narcissist.
Or he’s a great businessman who’s not afraid to say what he thinks.
If you pressed people, they would bring up specific policies they support or oppose — but for the most part it was Trump’s persona that drove reactions.
Support for Trump often seems less of a policy preference and more a statement of personal identity and attitude. As one student told Alison Dagnes of Shippensburg University, “If you insult Trump, you are insulting me.”
Changing places, and those that aren’t
Many of Pennsylvania’s divides fall along predictable lines: People in cities live different lives than those in rural areas. People in wealthy suburbs have different concerns than those in low-income parts of Philadelphia, or in rural areas.
But one of the starkest divides was less concrete: between places that are changing and those that remain rooted in the past, whether by choice or circumstance. In Philadelphia and its suburbs, I met many people who had come to the city after growing up elsewhere. They came for opportunities and vibrancy. It means there’s a changing mix of faces and perspectives in those places. And often evolving economies.
Franklin County, along the Maryland border, has a long agricultural tradition, but it’s also a growing logistics hub with new distribution centers bringing new jobs. And it’s attracting transplants, including some leaving the high-cost areas of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and Latino migrants arriving for agricultural and construction work.
Yet in Cambria County, you sense the loss felt by people who have seen their major local industries — coal and steel — depleted without an equal replacement. Several acknowledge that the economy there will probably never be the same. For some, there’s still a pride in those industries that their grandparents and parents worked in, as if it’s part of their identity — even if many of today’s Cambria residents haven’t worked in coal mines themselves.
But the pride is mixed with worry that some young people leave for opportunities elsewhere and never return. The county is rapidly losing population.
“In small towns like this in Pennsylvania, everyone had to leave to big cities for work,” said Ron Inzana, a carpenter who grew up on a farm. “Not everyone goes to a four-year college and gets an engineering degree.”
It was an affecting comment, one that showed the gap between people who feel they have opportunity and mobility, and those who feel their options are too narrow. It helped explain why, among white voters, college education is such a dividing line. Degrees can shape careers, opportunity, and mobility.
In downtown Greencastle, in Franklin County, I met Justin Kingsley, who was thoughtful about issues and had a clear-eyed view of what Trump has and hasn’t done.
Kingsley is a former Democrat who said he believes the country is rich enough to do more to help its needy citizens, but also that Democrats have moved too far left. And while he doesn’t love everything about Trump, he said the mainstream media has done nothing but attack the president.
“If they don’t like somebody, then I’m on that person’s side,” said Kingsley, 37.
Another group of Trump supporters in Erie County declined an interview, because even if I tried to tell the truth, they said, it would never make it past my liberal (they assumed) editors in Philadelphia.
It was a reminder that while Trump has driven some of the fury against the media, part of his appeal is that he has tapped into an anger that was already latent.
It’s an incredibly beautiful state
Look, you don’t want to get on a plane right now. But if you live in or around Pennsylvania, go take a drive. It’ll be worth it. Go the Laurel Highlands. Get on Route 30 between Chambersburg and Johnstown. Go north to Ebensburg and beyond in Cambria County. And check out the Rust Belt wine country in Erie County.
For a glimpse, here are some photos from The Inquirer’s Tom Gralish: