The votes are in, and barring any shock litigation, Pennsylvania has flipped back from Republican to Democrat in the presidential contest. The top story is that Joe Biden won the Commonwealth’s twenty electoral votes and, with them, the Presidency. Recounts may happen, but they are unlikely to change that result.
Within that story, though, are trends from which Republicans can still take some comfort. For all the concentration on the late-breaking vote out of Philadelphia, Trump’s performance in the city actually improved: in 2016, he won 108,748 votes in the city, or 15.4 percent of the total; this time around, as the count nears completion, Trump has tallied 127,723 Philadelphia votes, amounting to a three percent increase at 18.1 percent.
Had Trump’s totals improved as much statewide as they did in Philly, he would have won the state easily.
Philadelphians are dancing in the streets and claiming credit for the win, but Democratic gains in the suburbs and small cities around the state were responsible for Biden’s claim on Pennsylvania, not Philadelphia.
Trump’s Philly vote expanded in two interesting ways that we can see by comparing ward-by ward vote in 2016 and 2020. Trump’s strength in 2016 was in Northeast Philly, South Philly, and the Riverwards (the less gentrified portions of Fishtown, and up to Kensington, Port Richmond and Bridesburg). This has not changed in 2020, but it has deepened, as Trump picked up larger majorities in some of these regions. This may come as a surprise to many who imagined that Trump’s vote there in 2016 was primarily a protest vote, or a vote against Clinton specifically. After four years, Trump got more votes in these neighborhoods than ever.
Trump’s share of the non-white vote nationwide was the highest for any Republican since 1960. A ward-by-ward look at Philadelphia shows a mirror image of this national phenomenon.
It is evidence of a true sea change in the Republican base. Even as the GOP continues to struggle in wealthier inner suburbs of Philadelphia, its support among white working-class Philadelphians has grown. The only bright spot in the Northeast for Biden was the 55th and 64th wards; these wards, roughly equating to Mayfair and Lexington Park, are the most heavily Irish in the city. It stands to reason that Biden’s Irish Catholic background may have influenced enough of these voters to stave off the decline in voter share he saw in other parts of the Northeast.
Biden scored slightly better in those two wards than Clinton did, but neither approach Obama’s 2012 dominance there. Biden also fared better in the neighborhood than fellow Irish-American Jim Kenney did in his 2019 mayoral reelection, when Democrats failed to carry the 55th and 64th wards in a city-wide race for the first time since 2003. The region is one in which Republicans can look to remain competitive.
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Another trend that is less obvious at first glance is the degree to which Trump added votes from non-white Philadelphians. Trump’s strength among working-class voters was not limited to white working people. We already know that his share of the non-white vote nationwide was the highest for any Republican since 1960. A ward-by-ward look at Philadelphia shows a mirror image of this national phenomenon.
In 2012, Barack Obama received 100% of the vote in 27 divisions, all of them in predominantly black neighborhoods. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had just three unanimous divisions. This year, Joe Biden had just one, division 14-06 in North Philadelphia. This reflects the change in many of the majority-black neighborhoods in the city, where Trump improved by about three to five percent. It also serves as proof against conspiracy theories about the vote in Philadelphia. If the Democrats were stuffing ballot boxes, Trump would have done worse in Philadelphia — not better.
Biden’s best improvements are as good a map as any of the path of gentrification in Philadelphia; if a lot of your neighbors are benefitting from the ten-year property tax abatement, you probably live in a ward where Biden added votes over 2016.
In Philadelphia’s Latino neighborhoods, the effect was even greater. In certain areas of North Philadelphia, Trump improved by double-digits, a reflection of Biden’s trouble with Hispanic voters nationwide. It also makes clear that the problem was not limited to Cuban-Americans, of whom there are not many in Philadelphia (fewer than 4,000, according to the 2010 Census). More than 120,000 Puerto Ricans call Philadelphia home, and in the wards where they are most populous, Trump improved the most. The seventh ward was Trump’s best by this measure, as the margin between him and his Democratic opponent shrank by 22 percentage points.
Trump did not win any division in a non-white neighborhood, but in picking up scores of extra votes in each one, he cut into Biden’s overall total.
For the second straight election, Trump challenged the idea that Republicans could not compete with non-white voters. If future Republican candidates can continue this trend, it will remake the political landscape in Pennsylvania and beyond.
Where did Trump lose vote share? Mostly in areas inhabited by rich and upper-middle-class whites and college students. Indeed, Biden’s best improvements are as good a map as any of the path of gentrification in Philadelphia; if a lot of your neighbors are benefitting from the ten-year property tax abatement, you probably live in a ward where Biden added votes over 2016. Center City, University City, Chestnut Hill, Manayunk, and the area around Temple University got more Democratic than four years ago, though not by enough to offset Trump’s gains in the working-class neighborhoods.
On election night, Josh Kraushaar of National Journal looked at similar results from Florida and announced, “The path forward for the GOP: Multiracial working class party.” Philadelphia’s vote is more evidence that this is not just a viable option for the GOP, but the only viable option.
Trump’s personality may have been toxic to suburban voters, but his policy shifts toward jobs and protectionism — and the Democrats’ shift towards more elite, academic interests — brought new voters into the Republican Party. There are people in big cities who are alienated by the Democratic Party’s lurch to the extreme left and will support a Republican with the right message. What the GOP does with this knowledge in future elections could make the difference between winning and losing.