STROUDSBURG, Pa. — Before the coronavirus shut down in-person classes at the Bronx middle school where Vivian Jimenez runs an aftercare program, she would take the bus every weekday from Stroudsburg to New York, sleeping on the way there and listening to music on the ride home. The 14-hour days didn’t leave much time to get to know her neighbors — or to pay attention to politics.
“I never cared, and for me, it was never convenient,” Jimenez, 46, said of voting. But in 2020, frustration with Donald Trump and a pandemic that kept her home prompted her to vote for the first time. She registered as a Democrat in Monroe County and voted for Joe Biden.
Farther up in the mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania, Jon Turco’s family fled a Manhattan apartment for their vacation home in Pocono Pines. Turco and his wife, both longtime Democrats, registered and voted in the woodsy vacation town, which is now bursting with full-time residents.
As Democrats look to where they can grow an electorate increasingly consolidated in the Philadelphia region, they might look to the Poconos. Both Monroe and neighboring Pike County shifted Democratic by about five percentage points from 2016 to 2020, two of only six Pennsylvania counties to move that far left. About one in four active voters in the two counties is newly registered since the 2016 election, compared with about 16% statewide, according to an Inquirer analysis of voter-roll data.
The influx of out-of-staters has helped offset a steady stream of older, mostly white working-class voters leaving the Democratic Party across the state.
Democrats’ challenge is maintaining that momentum in a traditionally transient region where people are spread out in gated communities and upward of 15% commuted out of state before the pandemic.
“I call it the great New York escape,” said State Sen. Mario Scavello (R., Monroe), a former Mount Pocono mayor who used to commute to a grocery store he owned in the Bronx.
“You have to give up your firstborn son to get a mortgage here,” said Tarah Probst, mayor of Stroudsburg, the Monroe County seat. Monthly home sales were up 30% late last year compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to a Zillow analysis, and inventory was down 50%.
“Many of the same changes you saw in the Philly suburbs or in Northern Virginia, you see here,” Vince Galko, a Republican strategist who has run campaigns in Northeastern Pennsylvania. “You have a lot of voters coming in from New Jersey and New York and the area just completely changed.”
About 46% of registered voters in Monroe are Democrats, compared with 34% Republican and almost 20% independent. Democrats’ advantage shrunk slightly over the last four years despite the population growth in the county of about 170,000. But the party flipped the county commission in 2019, and towns like Mount Pocono and Stroudsburg have elected their first Democratic mayors in decades.
The western part of the county farthest from New York, with large swaths of state game land and nature preserves, is still reliably Republican. The GOP holds almost all the county row offices, while two Republicans and one Democrat represent Monroe in Harrisburg.
“When Rudy Giuliani comes and speaks to the Republican Party on a Saturday morning and you see the kind of crowd he got, you know we still have a very strong Republican Party here,” said County Commissioner Sharon Laverdure, a Democrat.
Lawyers, bankers, construction workers, teachers, and more are moving in, many drawn by proximity to I-80 and affordable homes nestled near lakes and mountains. Monroe County is among the most diverse in Pennsylvania and has the third-largest proportion of Latinos, including a large community of Puerto Ricans.
“The needs of my district are just so varied,” said U.S. Rep. Susan Wild (D., Pa.), who represents a slice of Monroe County and most of the Lehigh Valley to the south, a similar region demographically that has also seen an infusion of white college-educated voters, as well as working-class Latino voters.
Jimenez’s family moved here about 12 years ago from New York. She’s seen more Latinos moving in and Latino-owned restaurants and businesses popping up. But she doesn’t feel part of the community.
“I’m not doing anything but sleeping there,” she said, “so it’s hard.”
One of every four workers in Monroe commutes out of state, according to Census data. And as of 2018, 15% drove or took buses for 90 minutes or more a day, compared with the national average of 2%.
Commuters have long been a difficult constituency to draw to the polls. Many people in both parties said expanded mail voting and remote work may have boosted participation last year, though studies generally show mail voting doesn’t increase turnout by itself.
Michael Penn, the Mount Pocono mayor and a former commuter, said that when he campaigned at bus stops, people would tell him they got home after polls closed. “Mail-in voting was a good solution for some of those people, no question,” Penn said.
The first wave of this Poconos migration started in the 1970s when I-80 extended to connect New York City and Pennsylvania. As tourism expanded, so did employment. Another wave came after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with people drawn by gated communities with pools. After a period of population decline during the last recession, the region bounced back.
Probst, the Stroudsburg mayor, said families who moved in decades ago now have voting-age children here, further fueling Democratic growth.
“They weren’t connected to this community ... but then you get your roots here, your kids start going to school here, you get that you are attached and then you start caring about voting in these elections locally,” Probst said.
Christina Luna, who hosts a local Spanish and English radio show, said Democrats have struggled to reach the Latino community, which makes up about 17% of Monroe. That’s partly because many Latinos register as independents, she said. The county is also geographically spread out and lacks a prominent Latino political leader.
“There is a lack of time, but there is also something that’s really deep, that Hispanics don’t feel entitled or that they’re allowed a voice,” Luna said.
Democrats also have an opportunity to grow among younger residents. The average age in Monroe County is about 10 years younger than nearby Pike and Wayne Counties. And Democrats’ advantage among voters 18 to 24 is the third largest in the state, behind only Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.
Adán Stevens-Diaz, 37, a community organizer from New York who moved to Stroudsburg in 2005, said he thinks young people want to rally around issues, not political parties. “We just came out of an election where [Bernie] Sanders was favored among young Latinos,” he said of the Vermont senator, “and that came out of a skepticism of both parties.”
Racism can also impact involvement, Stevens-Diaz said, either inspiring coalitions to fight against it, or furthering isolation. Decades of tensions between commuters and other residents have eased but still remain.
Ivette Burgos said anti-Latino racism around Stroudsburg is why she voted for the first time in 2020. Burgos, 47, moved to the Poconos from New Jersey in 2010 and said that after Hurricane Maria and Trump’s presidency, she felt increasingly isolated, even as her community grew more diverse.
“It’s been, like, really bad the way they acted like they were getting infested with a whole bunch of Spanish people,” Burgos, 47, a forklift operator, said of some longtime residents in the area. “I think that’s what motivated me [to vote]. It’s straight out in the open and it didn’t end when Biden came in. We’re still going through it.”
Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.