The 2020 Election: The View from Rural Pennsylvania

The 2020 Election: The View from Rural Pennsylvania

By Tom Wymard '21

Thousands line up at the Lancaster County Airport to await President Trump’s arrival for his rally on Monday, October 26th

My home, Pennsylvania’s 11th congressional district, has the most farms in Pennsylvania; over 90% of them are locally owned. In 2016, adjusting for its changed parameters after State Supreme Court redistricting in 2018, it broke for Trump by 25.8%. In short, it is a very rural, very conservative district that seems as politically distant from Haverford and the Main Line as central Nebraska. It is also about an hour away by car, and less than that by train.

Pennsylvania is such a unique state; it has been said that it is Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east, and Alabama in the middle. Derisive names like Pennsyltucky, with all due respect to the Bluegrass State, are often thrown around. Trump frequently rallies in places like Johnstown or Altoona, areas totally different from Haverford.

We at Haverford may feel insulated from “those parts” of America, but the reality is that we are not. While we here may identify more with New York City and the urban elite of America, the truth is that Lancaster and the Amish are far closer. I think that this is important to keep in mind, not just for Haverford students, but for Americans writ large. In our hyper-partisan environment, it increasingly feels that America is divided along the lines of party, race, and income. Of course, this has largely been the case in American history, and saying otherwise would be revisionist, but it feels especially bad now.

This split has become significantly pronounced, though, in terms of urban versus rural. States like West Virginia used to be solidly blue, and Democrats controlled Senate seats in places like South Dakota and Wyoming through the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s and held seats in other states like Nebraska and North Dakota until 2013 and 2019. In the latest predictions from FiveThirtyEight, Donald Trump is expected to win 63% of the vote in West Virginia, 68.1% of the vote in Wyoming, 60.4% of the vote in North Dakota, and two of Nebraska’s three electoral college votes. This is not to say that the rural Democrat is dead—Theresa Greenfield may win in the great plains state of Iowa, and Steve Bullock may yet still pull an upset of Steve Daines in Montana. If one of them does win, they will join Jon Tester of Montana as Democrats from rural states (though Iowa is significantly less so than Montana and Biden could potentially win there as well).

Why is it that Democrats no longer win these rural areas? My own personal observations are that there are concerns from these areas that Republicans better address. The first one of these is the economy, particularly the minimum wage. While a great deal of agricultural work is exempt from the minimum wage, it is not insulted from its impacts. By this, I mean that if the minimum wage were raised to say $15, most farmers would not have to pay their employees this figure, but they would then have to recruit from the labor market at a heavy disadvantage. For example, tending livestock is labor-intensive, year-round, outdoors work, and to find employees willing to take that job, the pay must be higher than what they could receive if they worked at a grocery store, gas station, or superstore. From firsthand experience, I know that the thought of a 106% increase in minimum wage (from $7.25 to $15) is enough to scare some farmers into voting for Donald Trump regardless of anything else on his platform.

What else is it about Republican Party that is so alluring to rural America? I think it essential to highlight the role of guns. Where I come from the opening day of hunting season is practically a local holiday; kids miss school, people call off work, and you can hear it all day. While there are very few, if any, politicians who call for the complete restriction of firearms, there is still incredible pushback from these rural communities. I think that this, in part, comes from a lack of understanding about what new gun law regulation would look like, but also a general distrust of government intrusion in this area. Furthermore, living in rural areas where police response is unlikely to be immediate, there are many people who genuinely own their weapons for self-defense. While one can defend themselves with a handgun and almost certainly does not need an AR-15 to fight off hordes of attackers, their cause’s underlying logic is rooted in their reality.

I also think that there is a perception that the rural way of life is under attack. These are heavily religious, socially conservative areas, that accurately or not, feel that the Republican Party protects them against the dangerous societal upheaval. There is a perception that “coastal elites” and the swamp want to do away with God and family values. While this may seem silly or a caricature of these people, I have seen this sentiment firsthand. The Democratic Party and progressive ideas are deeply unsettling to people who would rather things “go back to the way they were,” an idealized racially homogenous, God-loving America. These are generalizations, and there are certainly people who differ on many and all of these observations. However, I do think this sentiment, particularly regarding religion, is broadly accurate.

Pennsylvania is an excellent example of the split of rural and urban voters. Despite being a Northeastern state with the sixth-largest GDP and fifth-largest population, it is heavily divided. This division that may well factor heavily into deciding this election is playing out thirty minutes to either side of us! While Haverford is lucky to be able to exist in its own sort of bubble, thirty minutes outside of a major city, and an hour and a half away from the largest one in the country, we also exist close to the other side of the spectrum as well. We are not that far from farms, Amish, and coal. As we watch this next election play out and as the post-mortems begin, it is important to think about that. How here, at our seclude liberal arts college, we are situated between two entirely different Americas.

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