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Pennsylvania counties where Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 are full of warning signs for him now

Some voters in rural areas of Pa. say they supported Sanders in 2016 as a protest vote against Hillary Clinton. Some went on to vote for Donald Trump and have left the Democratic Party.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders outside of a polling location in Detroit on Tuesday.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders outside of a polling location in Detroit on Tuesday.Read morePaul Sancya / AP

DUNCANNON, Pa. — Michael Wendt liked what he saw in Bernie Sanders in 2016. An electrician, Wendt thought that Sanders, more than Hillary Clinton, spoke to him and his neighbors in this mostly Republican town 20 miles from Harrisburg. He liked Sanders’ ideas for the middle class — and still does.

But this time around, Wendt is not even considering Sanders. A more moderate voter, most concerned with defeating Donald Trump, he’s worried about what “the S word” will mean for Sanders in places like rural Pennsylvania.

“Sanders has that socialism tag to him, and I think that will stick with him and discourage people to come out and vote,” Wendt said at the local pub, where he was one of only two Democrats inside late last month. “Here the thought is, everybody’s going to get welfare. Everybody gets something for nothing. Right here, that’s the Bernie Sanders feeling. They hate him.”

Wendt’s fears in Perry County, a place where Sanders beat Clinton in 2016, have played out in similar rural areas in Texas, Oklahoma, and recently in Michigan — starving Sanders’ campaign of support that fueled him four years ago. The disappearance of those working-class supporters showed that in contrast to his base of younger, fervent followers, some people who voted for him in 2016 weren’t so much invested in him as they were averse to Clinton.

“Hillary did considerably worse than Obama in those counties.... If anything, I don’t think it was so much a vote for Bernie and his policies as much as a vote against Hillary,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist in Pittsburgh.

Perry County spans Pennsylvania hunting ground, swaths of the Appalachian Trail, small towns, and farms. With a countywide population of 45,000, it’s not a spot presidential candidates flock to.

But it is one of 30 counties where Sanders beat Clinton in 2016. Trump went on to win all but one — Centre County, home to Pennsylvania State University.

That overlap — Sanders’ wins in more rural, Republican places where Trump won in the general election — is something his supporters have pointed to as a sign of electability, showing he can appeal to rural America and pull in dissatisfied voters.

But so far, it hasn’t worked out that way. Results in Michigan showed Sanders doing far worse with white working-class voters, who shifted to Joe Biden.

Democrats who backed Sanders here, and in similar Pennsylvania counties, said in interviews over the last few weeks that they aren’t necessarily all-in four years later. There are passionate repeat supporters, of course, but there are also people who say they supported Sanders as a protest vote against Clinton. Some went on to vote for Trump and have left the Democratic Party. Others are wary of Sanders’ ability to accomplish all he promises.

“I’m really disillusioned about the whole political system,” said John Takach, 68, a retired construction manager from Perry County who backed Sanders in 2016. When Clinton won, Takach went into the voting booth not sure what he’d do. He voted for Trump.

“I’d never vote for him again," Takach said. "He’s disgusting,” he added, lowering his voice in the bar, where most of his neighbors and friends are Republicans. Takach said he backed Trump because he was “fed up with our government. I figured, get somebody in there to make some changes. He’s made some changes, but he just lies too much.”

Takach said he wasn’t interested in Sanders a second time around. He said he mostly supported him because he didn’t want to vote for another Clinton. He’s lukewarm on Biden but said he’ll probably vote for him.

“Nobody really impresses me," Takach said.

The Obama-Trump voter

It’s estimated that 12% of voters nationwide voted for Sanders and then Trump in 2016. In Pennsylvania, the percentage was a little higher — about 116,000 people, or 16%. Primary voters backing the other party’s candidate in the general election isn’t new. More people voted for Clinton in the 2008 primary and then for John McCain than swung from Sanders to Trump eight years later.

But given the ideological differences between the two candidates and how close the election was, it’s a group that has gotten a lot of attention.

This time around, though, most Sanders-Trump voters have probably joined the Republican Party, said Brian Schaffner, a Tufts University professor who researched the phenomenon.

“A lot of this group already had one foot out the door,” Schaffner said. “They might actually be part of Trump’s base now.”

Schaffner said the reason Sanders isn’t faring as well this time is “because the person he’s running against is not quite as unpopular.”

At the Reading Fairgrounds Farmers Market in Berks County, which Sanders won in 2016, Greg Melcher said he backed Sanders in 2016 because he disliked Clinton. Now that he’s heard more about Sanders, he’s less interested.

“I’ve become disillusioned," Melcher said. "I think Trump’s insane, Sanders is so far left, and the whole process is a mess.” Melcher voted for Jill Stein in the 2016 general election. He’d consider a third-party candidate again if someone came along who spoke to him. The Democrats have not so far, he said. “I know people say that’s throwing your vote away, but I guess I’d throw my vote away again,” Melcher said.

The counties Sanders won in 2016 have tiny populations of Democrats. But an erosion of that rural support across the state could make it hard for Sanders to rack up delegates in Pennsylvania, especially given Biden’s deep support among elected officials and his Scranton roots. Most of the dozen Sanders 2016 voters interviewed said they like Biden now, citing the former vice president’s appeal among blue-collar workers.

In Michigan, another so-called Blue Wall state Trump captured from Democrats, Sanders lost by 16 points this month. That came after he won the state in 2016, when he appealed to voters who felt left behind by the Democratic establishment.

That was Dwayne Heisler in 2016. The current local party chair in Pennsylvania’s Columbia County and head of the state party’s progressive caucus recalled the excitement around Sanders last time. Heisler was one of three Sanders delegates from the county — unprecedented for such a small area. (He calls Bloomsburg, where there’s a state university and where most Democrats live, “the blueberry in the tomato soup.”)

“I felt he really spoke to people in rural Pennsylvania about the feeling of being left behind, which is kind of the same thing that Trump did,” Heisler said.

Heisler, who works for the SEIU labor union, said he thinks Sanders still has a base of support, but “it doesn’t have that same feel.”

In addition to the anti-Clinton vote, rural voters may be more resistant to a self-described democratic socialist’s approach to politics, or skeptical of plans that overhaul existing systems such as Medicare for All, said Mikus, the political strategist.

“In a lot of ways, for these rural voters, Sanders may go too far," Mikus said. “Voters are skeptical and when you have a proposal, they like knowing how you’re going to get it done. Democratic voters who want Donald Trump to lose think about ‘What would my neighbor think about this candidate?’ and I can’t imagine a lot of them thinking Sanders would be a strong candidate."

Mark Whitmoyer, chair of the Perry County Democrats, has always backed Sanders. He canvassed for him in 2016 — a truly daunting task in his hilly hometown, where houses are spread out. He says there’s genuine interest in his more populist views then and now. “I think there is definitely support in rural areas and generally working-class, middle-class areas — especially the younger you get," Whitmoyer said. "They’re not scared by this socialist label, which is a red herring anyway.”

Shane McQuaid, 32 of Millerstown, an auditor for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority, said Sanders’ recent struggles won’t stop him from backing the candidate in Pennsylvania’s April 28 primary.

“A lot of people, they’re not going to vote for the Democrat regardless of if we put up a moderate or someone else," he said. "Just put up someone who has clearly stated ideas.”

Another problem for Sanders, which he’s noted himself, is that younger supporters don’t turn out at the same rate.

Melanie Wertz, who backed Sanders last time, is vice chair of the Perry County Democratic Committee. She was supporting Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren until Warren dropped out. Now she’s at a loss.

Biden is most mentioned in her circle, but she’s impressed with how Sanders appeals to younger voters — a demographic the county party is desperately trying to bring in as the area’s population continues to decline.

“We pretty much have to beat them out of the mountains and hollows to find them," she said of younger Democrats. "But when they do, they do come out for Bernie. They believe in him.”