Winning Support from Suburban Republicans is Key for Biden

A lot of Obama-Trump voters have soured on the GOP, but just couldn’t vote for someone named Clinton.

If you look at the list of statewide officials in Pennsylvania, you’ll notice that they’re all Democrats. This obviously includes the governor and lieutenant governor, but also the attorney general, the secretary of state, the auditor general, and the treasurer. So, how did Hillary Clinton manage to lose the state?

Every vote is equal, so it’s possible to come up with a variety of explanations. The two most popular, which are often combined, are that blacks didn’t turn out for her and her support in small towns and rural areas absolutely collapsed. The first of these explanations is somewhat true, but its impact is also exaggerated because Clinton made up for a drop in black turnout by doing better than Obama among urban whites. She wound up netting about the same number of votes out of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as Obama. The second explanation is definitely true. Clinton was slaughtered in low-population counties, and it wiped out her advantage everywhere else. But there’s a third explanation that is almost always overlooked.

Clinton lost Pennsylvania because she didn’t do better in the suburbs. The reason people don’t seize on this explanation is because she did better in the suburbs than any Democrat before her. For this reason, people will say that her suburban strategy actually worked but was swamped by Trump’s rural strategy, and that’s accurate. But I contend that any Democrat not named Clinton would have done significantly better in 2016 in the Pennsylvania suburbs and carried the state as a result.

The reason I say this is because the Philadelphia suburbs are historically one of the strongest Republican areas in the country. Since Trump became president, the Democrats have taken political control in the ring of counties around the city for the first time since the Civil War. Bill Clinton actually made good progress in the suburbs and really began the process of flipping them, but there are a lot of people there who voted against him twice and who spent the 1990s thinking of the Clintons as their political enemies. By 2008, a lot of these folks had had enough of the southification of the GOP and the ineptitude of the Bush administration, and Obama won their support. It didn’t hurt that he’d defeated Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Yet, in 2016, there were still enough folks who simply could not cast a ballot for a Clinton that it dragged down her numbers. Some didn’t vote and some cast a ballot for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. Many simply held their nose and voted for Trump, including some who never for a moment thought he’d actually win. They weren’t supporting him as much as registering their disgust with their choices. A healthy chunk of these folks became Obama/Trump voters.

This effect doesn’t pop out of the numbers when you examine them, but it was real, and it won’t apply in 2020. In fact, the reverse will be the case, because Joe Biden is almost an honorary senator in the Philly suburbs. The Delaware border is about 13 miles south of my Chester County home and Wilmington and Philadelphia are really a shared media market. People here know and like Biden, and they know he’s a Pennsylvania native. He set up his campaign headquarters in Philly prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

This is why it makes a lot of sense for the organization Republican Voters Against Trump to focus on the suburbs.

Now, a new effort called Republican Voters Against Trump is hoping to chip away at Mr. Trump’s support from white, college-educated Republican voters in the suburbs, hoping a more surgical approach will help to elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., his expected Democratic opponent.

The new group is set to begin a $10 million digital and television advertising campaign that will use personal stories of conservative voters giving voice to their deep — and sometimes brand-new — dissatisfaction with the president.

The effort is aimed at suburban voters in general, particularly men, but it should work at least as well around Philadelphia as it works anyplace else.

After almost three years of conducting focus groups and intensive research on messages that would work with persuadable voters, the founders have created a cache of 100 testimonial videos, most shot on smartphones, with voters explaining why they are making the sometimes painful choice to break with their political party.

Some of the videos are hardly rousing endorsements for Mr. Biden. In one testimonial, Wayne from Dallas says to the camera, “I could not bring myself to vote for Hillary, so I voted for President Trump.” But he said he believed the president had “gotten worse” and that “everything he’s done has been to enrich himself.” With a note of resignation, he says: “I will not be voting for him here in 2020. I suppose I’ll be voting for Biden.”

The idea is to give permission to folks who want to vote against Trump but still have values that align more with the historic Republican Party. The easiest targets are the Obama/Trump voters. They already voted for Biden at least once, if not twice. The harder targets are the ones that stuck with the GOP through the last three cycles but have now begun to waver.

The effort is led by Sarah Longwell, along with Bill Kristol and some other prominent lifelong Republicans. Ms. Longwell understands my thesis:

“People who have been Republicans their entire lives aren’t super excited about voting for a Democrat,” she said. “The way they talk about it is more in sorrow than enthusiasm.”

But she said a Biden candidacy, and the lack of a well-known third-party candidate where voters can park their ballots, had created a bigger opportunity to persuade Republican voters to switch parties than there was in 2016.

“You can’t overstate what the Clintons represent for Republicans,” Ms. Longwell said. “Donald Trump’s corruption was offset by what they saw as her corruption.”

The Trump campaign will do what they can to raise doubts about Biden’s character, and they’ll have plenty of ammunition left over from Biden’s Democratic opponents in the primaries. They may chip away at his support from the far left, which makes flipping some more suburban Republicans a potentially key factor.

The safest bet for Biden to carry a state like Pennsylvania is to make some inroads in rural counties so he doesn’t lose them by thirty or forty or fifty points, like Hillary did. He’ll also want to do what he can to boost urban turnout so he can bank the maximum advantage there. But just as important is winning the suburbs by margins never seen before, and that’s why the Republican Voters Against Trump strategy makes so much sense.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com