Donald Trump didn’t visit the Lehigh Valley in 2016. But the region played a big role in helping him win Pennsylvania and the White House. So his visit Thursday to a medical supply company near Allentown is an opportunity for an audience with a region coveted by his reelection campaign, one expected to be critical again in November.
The Lehigh Valley is not bedrock Trump Country — in fact, it’s been shifting Democratic lately. But in a state Trump won by less than 1% last time, it’s an important bellwether for Pennsylvania as a whole. The region is sort of a miniature of Pennsylvania, with three cities, rural areas, white working-class populations, growing suburbs, and a large population of Latino voters. And elections there are almost always close.
“Its importance is as great as ever,” said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown. “It’s always been one of the swing regions in the state, and so this visit is the perfect kind of staged event in the perfect location at a time when he so desperately wants to get out on the trail.”
Trump won the Lehigh Valley’s Northampton County by about 5,464 votes in 2016, four years after Barack Obama won it by 6,160 votes. It’s one of only three counties in the state that backed Obama before flipping to Trump. Hillary Clinton won Lehigh County by just 7,634 votes.
Trump will visit an Owens & Minor Inc. medical distribution center in Upper Macungie Township, a growing suburb outside of Allentown. While the area has historically been a swing region, the plant employs people from neighboring counties like Schuylkill, Carbon, and Luzerne, where Trump won by large margins in 2016.
The visit is an official White House trip, not a campaign rally, but local Republican groups are planning a welcoming scene outside of the plant all the same.
“We’ll be along the roadway with banners, welcoming him to the Lehigh Valley," said Gloria Lee Snover, chair of the Northampton County Republicans. "I’ve had people calling all day, energized wanting to know how they can be involved.”
Local Democrats have blasted the president for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Lehigh Valley residents and the employees of the warehouse he is visiting would like to know if he will social distance and wear a mask, since members of his White House staff have tested positive for COVID-19," said Ed Hozza, chair of the Lehigh County Democrats. “We would also like to know, where are the test kits for the Lehigh Valley? Are they in the warehouse he is visiting?”
While the region is still seen as something of a toss-up politically, Democrats have romped in state and local races since 2016.
“To put it bluntly, it’s been a disaster for Republicans,” Borick said.
Democrats started capturing county board seats in 2017, and in 2018, Democrat Susan Wild flipped a newly redrawn congressional district. Northampton and Lehigh Counties also saw historic turnout for municipal elections in 2019.
“We’ve been on an upswing the last three years,” said Matt Munsey, chair of the Northampton County Democrats.
Demographically, Northampton County is a microcosm of the state, with two cities in different corners, rural areas, and tight elections. It’s also one of the few swing areas in the state where the population is growing — which means an opportunity for both Trump and presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
“Typically nobody wins by a huge landslide here,” Munsey said.
Munsey said he thinks Democrats will ride the momentum of the Trump backlash of recent elections, and that the party has learned from mistakes in 2016, when the Clinton campaign sent running mate Tim Kaine to the valley — but never Clinton herself. More damaging, he said, was that the campaign failed to engage and work with local Democrats who know the region.
“I think that they definitely want to integrate with what’s happening on the ground and not send people from the national level down,” Munsey said. The state party reached out in January to hire local operatives to work Lehigh County before Biden was the presumptive nominee, which Munsey took as a sign that Democratic leaders aren’t taking the area for granted.
Trump, meanwhile, has a far more sophisticated and robust campaign footprint than he did four years ago.
Presidential campaigns, the parties, and independent outside groups have spent millions on ads in the state’s smaller TV markets, but relatively little in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The Lehigh Valley is in the Philadelphia media market.
Snover, of the Northampton GOP, noted that Democrats have a voter registration advantage and said it takes “the perfect storm” for Republicans to win local races. But she thinks many Trump supporters stayed home the last three years and will turn out in November for the president.
“Trumpers, we have found, and I have found personally, in Northampton County, they’re not interested unless Trump is on the ballot," Snover said. "Some of these folks think the only time there’s an election is if I’m voting for Trump.”
Trump is expected to use the visit to promote his response to the pandemic and urge the state to more quickly reopen its economy. Pennsylvania polling shows about 45% of residents approve of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who favors a more gradual easing of restrictions, gets much higher marks, with about 72% approving of his performance.
Despite those numbers, Snover believes that when it comes to the presidential election, voters will blame governors, who have imposed restrictions that have slowed the spread of the virus but that have also sent the economy into free fall. Across the country, the governors with the highest approval ratings tend to be the ones who moved fastest to impose shutdown orders and have been most cautious to lift them.