President Donald Trump is selling fear in America’s suburbs. But outside Philadelphia, even some Republicans don’t think voters are buying it.
As polls show Trump in an increasingly weak position against Joe Biden in Pennsylvania and other battleground states, he is seeking to boost his standing among the suburban voters who have fled the GOP during his tenure. His television commercials in the Philadelphia media market declare that “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” citing a push by some activists in the Black Lives Matter movement to “defund the police.” One of the ads shows an elderly white woman panicking during a home invasion.
On his Twitter feed and in speeches, Trump has added a new wrinkle to his suburban pitch: Biden would “destroy your neighborhood,” Trump says, by encouraging the construction of low-income housing, increasing crime and reducing property values.
Amid a coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 150,000 lives in the United States, a sputtering economic recovery, and a congressional impasse over new relief measures, the strategy amounts to a bet that voters will fear a Biden presidency as potentially even more catastrophic than the status quo.
But interviews with voters, Republican officials, and independent analysts suggest Trump is misreading a suburban electorate that has become more diverse in recent decades — and more racially progressive. Polls have shown broad support for protests that spread across the country after the police killing of George Floyd. Many were held in the suburbs and also in small towns where Trump won in 2016.
“I do not think that type of messaging is going to help Republican candidates,” said Bucks County Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican who served in the state legislature for 25 years.
“I’m watching Joe Biden, most of his ads have been positive — build up the economy,” DiGirolamo said. “I’m [thinking] to myself, if I was the president, that’s what I would be doing. I would talk about what I’ve done and what my vision is for America, and get that garbage off the TV, because I don’t think it’s going to work.”
Nationwide, Trump outperformed Hillary Clinton in the suburbs in 2016 by 50% to 45%, according to exit polls. Biden now leads among those voters by double digits, according to surveys by ABC News and the Washington Post, and others. Trump didn’t perform as well in the Philadelphia suburbs, but still narrowly carried the state by outperforming previous GOP nominees in former Democratic strongholds like Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Trump’s strongest showing in the suburbs came in the Bucks County-based 1st Congressional District, where Clinton beat him by only 2 points. Trump now trails Biden in the district by 9 points, according to the results of a July poll released by incumbent Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s campaign.
A similar fear-based campaign ahead of the 2018 midterm elections — about a purported caravan of migrants surging toward the U.S.-Mexico border — failed to stop Democrats from sweeping into power in the suburbs that year.
Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who has worked on Pennsylvania campaigns, said college-educated voters have been particularly irked by Trump over things like his treatment of women and his “contempt for science.”
“Immigration, socialism, China, protests, caravans: They’re all kind of the same thing, underlying it,” Greenberg said. “Which is, trying to activate people’s fears around America losing its identity, or people of color having too much power.”
In recent local elections, suburban Republicans have warned that Democrats would invite crime by adopting Philadelphia-style policies like supervised injection sites. In Delaware County Council races last year, an outside Republican group funded mailers warning that Democrats would halt cooperation with federal immigration authorities, who deport “violent immigrants who murder, rape, and kidnap our citizens.”
County GOP Chairman Tom McGarrigle told supporters on election night that Democrat Jack Stollsteimer’s win in the district attorney’s race “should concern every one of you that has a home, a family or a business in Delaware County.”
“You shouldn’t feel safe anymore,” he said.
Democrats now control county government in Delaware, Chester, Montgomery, and Bucks Counties.
Some Trump supporters say there is indeed reason to fear a Biden win. “It would be the fall of this country,” said Brad Loughin, 66, who lives in Elverson, Chester County. “The flag would fall, everything would fall.”
Gordon Eck, chairman of the Chester County GOP, said Trump has a number of accomplishments on the economy, foreign policy, border protection, and the appointment of judges that would appeal to voters in the Philadelphia region.
“He’s accomplished all those things while facing unprecedented attacks from the Democrats and a large segment of the media,” he said.
However, Eck acknowledged, “I think sometimes the president’s style has been something that has perhaps turned some segments of our population off to him.”
Trump’s rhetoric on housing might be another example of that. For weeks Trump has been attacking Biden over a housing rule adopted during the Obama administration, saying Democrats want to “abolish” the suburbs.
“The Suburban Housewives of America must read this article,” Trump tweeted July 23, sharing a New York Post opinion article with the headline, “Joe Biden’s disastrous plans for America’s suburbs.”
“Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream,” Trump tweeted. “I will preserve it, and make it even better!”
At issue is the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which was implemented by the Obama administration to combat housing discrimination by placing conditions on some federal funding to local governments. The Trump administration has not been enforcing the rule, and the president last month officially repealed it.
Vincent J. Reina, assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, said Trump had mischaracterized the federal government’s authority over local government planning.
“It does not have any control over local zoning,” he said. “It does not have control over use of local dollars.”
Changing zoning laws isn’t the only way to comply with the rule, he said, and ultimately municipalities could decide to forgo federal funding if they didn’t want to comply.
Reina said Trump’s claim that low-income housing is associated with crime and lower property values lacks evidence and is rooted in “racist stereotypes” and misconceptions about affordable housing.
Nevertheless, Trump has warned of dire consequences.
“I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood…,” Trump wrote on Twitter last week.
U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said Trump’s rhetoric is “transparently racist.”
“We have a beautiful, diverse country,” she said. “This president doesn’t see that as beauty. Most of us do. This is leadership out of fear.”
Michael Hagen, an associate professor of political science at Temple University, said Philadelphia’s collar counties, like the suburbs of many metropolitan areas, “are much more diverse racially and ethnically than they used to be. They’re not the bastion of white flight they were 30, 40 years ago.”
JoAnne, 59, a lifelong Republican from Delaware County who recently became a registered Democrat, said Trump’s warning to “suburban housewives” didn’t resonate with her.
“I guess technically I’m a suburban housewife, but up until a couple years ago I had a full-time job and raised my kids and did what most people do,” said JoAnne, who insisted on only being identified by her first name. “Not too many people survive on one income anymore,” she said.
JoAnne said Trump had “totally mishandled” the pandemic. She has seen her grandchildren just three times since March, in the backyard with no contact. “I don’t feel safe,” she said.