Donald Trump's claims haven't panned out in Pennsylvania

Steven "Kops" Kopchinski of Bensalem found Donald Trump inspiring, so he changed parties and plans to vote for the billionaire this fall.

Repairman Steven "Kops" Kopchinski is the kind of voter Donald Trump says he has drawn by the millions to the Republican Party.

For three decades, the 54-year-old Bucks County man was a registered Democrat who never voted. A guy who grew up hearing his factory-worker father preach: "The Democrats are for the poor people."

But this year, Kopchinski found the GOP's bombastic nominee inspiring, so he changed parties and plans to vote for the billionaire instead this fall.

"I just like Donald Trump," said the self-employed contractor from Bensalem, a largely working-class suburb that borders Philadelphia.

Trump has boasted that "millions and millions" of voters across the country have flocked to the GOP because of his shoot-from-the-hip candidacy. But in battleground Pennsylvania, the claim cannot be supported, according to an Inquirer analysis of voter data.

Kopchinski aside, such voters have not flooded the GOP rolls in the state, nor has there been an outsized surge of new Republicans to the system, the analysis shows. Thousands have joined the GOP or reawakened their interest in the party, but Democrats can claim the same thing.

Among those currently eligible to cast a ballot, some 129,000 new Pennsylvania voters have joined the GOP since November. But Democrats, aided by a heated primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have added 172,000.

In a state of 8.4 million voters, the data show, the so-called Trump Effect appears to be a wash.

"I believe you'll find it's not happening," voting demographer Ruy Teixeira of the left-leaning Center for American Progress said of any big surge sparked by Trump.

In April, the state's Republican primary broke turnout records. Pennsylvania was in the unusual position of voting while the race was still up for grabs. But nearly nine out of 10 GOP primary voters were not new - they also had cast ballots in the 2012 general election, the Inquirer found.

The GOP race has helped stir thousands, which leaders credit to Trump. In a separate tally, a sizable 39,000 more voters converted to Republican than switched to Democrat this year, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, part of a trend of party defections that began in 1988.

"The conversions, they're plainly the Trump Effect. Absolutely," said Rob Gleason, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party. "He's had a tremendous effect on the electorate."

But with Clinton and Trump now battling to win Pennsylvania in the general election, the state remains overwhelmingly Blue. Democrats hold a 919,000-voter registration edge over Republicans in a race that polls show tightening.

On the margins

The internal memo from January laid out a most atypical voter strategy for the Trump campaign.

"I advise that we put 100 percent of our organizational effort into enfranchising the conventionally low-propensity voters that support our candidate," former Trump campaign staffer Matt Braynard wrote Jan. 14 in a dispatch obtained and published last month by FiveThirtyEight.com.

The idea was to heavily market the Manhattan real estate scion to people on the electoral margins instead of tried-and-true party regulars.

Trump's business braggadocio and blunt language about ethnic minorities were resonating with such voters - white, male, middle-aged, and largely lacking college degrees. Many felt left behind by the economy and ignored by the political establishment.

"In the media and in certain circles, our low-P supporters have been called 'stupid,' 'racists,' and 'bigots,' " the memo continued. "The 'elites' look down on them, and there is evidence they deny their support for our candidate because they fear being ostracized."

How many people in this group are among the newly registered or long-dormant voters who became Republicans this year in Pennsylvania?

Registration data cannot show.

 

What’s clear, however, is that the GOP has done very well in adding new voters in 52 of the state’s 67 counties since last fall — counties that are largely rural and, collectively, 90 percent white. In each of those counties, Republicans logged more new registrants than Democrats did this year. The party attracted 22,000 more new voters, the Inquirer found.

In rally after rally across Pennsylvania this year, thousands of people have poured into giant venues to hear Trump speak. A week ago in Johnstown, Cambria County, a giveaway of 1,500 Trump lawn signs created such a crush of people that police were called, Gleason said.

"The response that we've gotten has been unprecedented for events in every area that we go to," said Bob Bozzuto, who as executive director of the Pennsylvania Republican Party believes Trump has made a big mark this year.

Bozzuto proudly noted that there are far more Republicans on the state voter rolls than in 2015 - higher, even, than the party's previous record in 2004. He cited this as evidence of enthusiasm for Trump and the party.

But Bozzuto's count may include people who have died or left the state since last year. The Inquirer instead zeroed in on currently eligible voters who registered since November.

Of that group, Democrats outpaced Republicans.

Bozzuto's count also shows this year's Republican gains are only a third the size of what Democrats managed in 2008 when Barack Obama became the first black president.

And while the GOP's 52-county edge in new voters may seem impressive, the remaining 15 counties - including the most populous statewide - are pivotal to presidential victory.

There, Democrats have welcomed 64,000 more new voters than Republicans. In places like Philadelphia and its suburbs, and in Pittsburgh, Reading, Scranton, and Allentown.

One such bellwether: Bucks County. Whoever wins Bucks, conventional wisdom says, wins Pennsylvania in a general election, said Christopher Borick, a pollster and director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College.

Just north of Philadelphia, Bucks is viewed as a microcosm of the state: It contains farmland, small towns, and densely populated inner-ring communities that border Northeast Philadelphia.

And because its 447,000 voters are almost evenly split between the two major parties, it yields sometimes hair-raising outcomes on Election Day.

In 2012, Obama eked out a 3,942-vote win in Bucks over Republican Mitt Romney after breezing past John McCain four years earlier.

This year, Trump's candidacy has the potential to shift the electoral dynamic in Bucks towns with larger numbers of his lower-income, predominantly male voter base. But there is little in the voter data to suggest this has happened on a large scale.

Among residents who switched parties this year, Republicans have outpaced Democrats by only 1,610 in Bucks. And Democrats have more than matched that total with an advantage in new registrations.

On the ground in Bucks, however, the view is less cut-and-dry than the data suggest.

"I know a lot of people that never voted, and they're going to vote this year," said Gary Strucke, 52, a Republican who cleans flood- and fire-damaged properties for a living, and who wants a Trump presidency.

Strucke lives in heavily developed Bristol Township, where 80 percent of residents are white, median household income is $57,000, and Democrats account for nearly two-thirds of all registered voters.

But since November, data show, Republicans landed only 326 new registrations in Bristol, while Democrats logged 787.

This does not track with Strucke's sense of his community. Trump signs abound, he said, and many people he knows say they will vote for the Republican.

"I haven't voted in 10 years," Strucke said, "and I'm definitely going to go out."

State party officials say enthusiasm for Trump is not fully captured by voter-registration data; he enjoys backing among Democrats and independents and may surprise people in November, they say.

Indeed, after months of Clinton leading Trump in Pennsylvania by a lot - 10 points in August - a Quinnipiac poll released Thursday found her lead cut in half.

Strucke believes many people intend to vote for the GOP nominee "but just won't come out and say it," to avoid fights with outraged Democrats.

But if Trump's candidacy has reactivated many dormant Bucks voters like Strucke, it's not apparent in the data.

Of the Republican voters there who skipped at least the last three presidential elections, only 3 percent showed up for this year's primary, the Inquirer found.

'A heavy push'

At a campaign appearance in Philadelphia this month, Trump was asked about the lack of a giant voter-registration surge in Pennsylvania.

"Well, the Republican National Committee is working on that," Trump told the Inquirer, without elaborating or disputing the finding. "I can tell you we've gone to so many different places, we've been all over - mine country - and now we're really starting a heavy push into the Philadelphia area."

Targeting non-college-educated white men, as Trump's campaign has, goes against historical trends that show fewer of them vote with each new election, according to William H. Frey, senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

Nationally and since at least 2000, Frey said, that bloc voted at markedly lower rates than white male college graduates.

The same is true in Pennsylvania, where only 56 percent of non-college-educated white men voted in 2012, compared with 80 percent for the college-educated group, he said.

And yet, in poll after poll in Pennsylvania, Trump outperforms Clinton among this group, while Clinton does far better than him with college-educated whites.

Trump also polls better than Clinton among people 35 to 54 years old. But voter data show both parties have roughly equal numbers of newly eligible voters in that age group since November.

One place showing strong GOP gains is Luzerne, a county long viewed as impenetrably Democratic and where half of all people older than 25 have no more than a high school degree.

Since January, more than 5,900 voters in the onetime coal-country nexus switched to Republican - about four times as many as switched to Democrat.

"That's remarkable," said Bozzuto, the state party official. "Because these are places where for years you didn't see significant numbers of voter registrations move."

A certain appeal

Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, Steve Kopchinski earned the nickname that would stick with him through life: Kops.

Today, it's the name on his bank account and on the repair business that helped him build a house and be semiretired in his 50s.

Living with him in that detached home he moved into 28 years ago are his wife, a childhood sweetheart; his 87-year-old mother; and his 35-year-old daughter and her husband, who are both having trouble with the job market.

"They're both graphic designers, and I guess it's like they say, 'the starving artist,' " Kopchinski said.

In this tough economy, Kopchinski has found something alluring about Trump. He thinks he and the magnate have a few things in common. Both are businessmen. Both call it as they see it.

Perhaps, he said, Trump can help the country.

"Hillary has been in politics all of her life. Trump hasn't," Kopchinski said. "Maybe she'll do better? I don't know. But I just think he will be good."

mpanaritis@phillynews.com

610-313-8117

@Panaritism

Staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.

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