As we approach the first anniversary of Donald Trump's stunning election win in Pennsylvania, we continue to distill the lessons of that campaign and what it means for future elections. It still puzzles many that Trump could win not only the White House but Pennsylvania, a state that had voted Democratic in six straight presidential elections back to 1988.
Newly published research finds that Trump's victory was created by profound changes in voter registration combined with near-historic alterations in voter turnout. Changes in registration and turnout were driven largely by less formally educated voters, many dissatisfied with the direction of the country and the performance of the Obama administration. A large number of angry voters who might not have registered and often do not turn out to vote registered and turned out. And they made the difference.
Trump's working-class supporters dramatically shifted traditional voting patterns in the state. To a remarkable degree, educational attainment predicted vote choice: Those with a high school degree or less and those who attended some college were more likely to vote for Trump than were college graduates.
Even more fundamentally, the desire for change imposed itself on the election results: those who believed the United States was on the wrong track were more likely to vote for Trump, as were those who believed Barack Obama was doing a poor job as president. Taken together, these factors produced more pronounced regional differences in preferences than existed in past elections.
To put it simply, counties with more working-class voters turned out in greater numbers and gave less support to the Democratic candidate than in previous elections, while areas normally supportive of Democrats had lower turnout and offered little change in their support for the Democratic candidate. This is evidence of Hilary Clinton's main obstacle: she was the de-facto incumbent for opponents of the Obama presidency at the same time that she struggled to transfer Obama supporters' enthusiasm to her candidacy.
Those who follow politics thought the 2016 presidential race would be closely contested, because that is what the election fundamentals predicted. Trump's candidacy caused some to wonder if the usual ways of thinking about elections would work because of his nontraditional candidacy — nontraditional both in the way he campaigned and in the issues he emphasized. But it was also clear that economic conditions and voter fatigue with Democrats were liabilities that could help his candidacy.
The economic concerns and concerns about Democratic leadership were documented by a great many newspaper accounts leading up to the 2016 election. These stories told of a motivating disaffection among rural, white, non-college educated voters that had the potential to carry Trump to victory despite his personal liabilities.
This disaffection was thought to be rooted in place; the specific circumstances of communities that made residents feel left behind economically, culturally, and politically. Some termed this the politics of resentment, and this resentment was largely rooted in how people felt about where they lived and how their communities' needs have been ignored.
Trump's victory in Pennsylvania scrambled what had been the state's traditional electoral patterns and raised significant and important political questions about future state elections. The main questions include the durability of Trump's electoral coalition, his ability to transfer his voters' energy to other Republican candidates in future elections, and the extent to which other elected and aspiring Republicans embrace his nontraditional positions. But perhaps the most important question is how well served disaffected voters will feel about the benefits their presidential choice has produced for their communities.
Recent polls show beliefs about place are predictive and persistent. A Franklin and Marshall College Poll last month found that registered voters' descriptions about the vitality of the places they live were better predictors of county-level election outcomes than were partisanship or political ideology. The poll also found that pronounced regional differences in these assessments still exist in the state.
The answers to these questions, particularly about how disaffected voters judge their circumstances, will demarcate the battle lines for future state races beginning with Pennsylvania's 2018 gubernatorial race.