Why the Women of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Are Key to Clinton's Hopes

The state's fourth-most-populated county is a battleground within a battleground.

As Hillary Clinton delivers her nomination acceptance speech Thursday in Philadelphia, there's an audience even more important than those inside the arena: suburban women like Carole Labacz.

Clinton is almost certain to dominate in the urban Democratic stronghold where she'll speak, but her fight against Republican nominee Donald Trump is likely to be much more competitive in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where Labacz lives.

Pennsylvania's fourth-most-populated county is a battleground within a battleground, a place where the 2012 presidential candidates were separated by only about 4,000 votes out of roughly 321,000 cast.

The county is a microcosm of Pennsylvania, with a mix of suburban strip malls, quiet leafy neighborhoods, rural expanses, and gritty industry. Its southern section, known as Lower Bucks by the locals, has a large proportion of the sort of white, working-class voters often drawn to Trump.

With the Republican showing polling strength among white working-class men, Clinton is seeking to drive up her numbers with suburban women who often play a decisive role in presidential elections. In campaign speeches and television advertising, she's presenting Trump as a bad role model for children as she also stresses her own long history of advocating for women.

Labacz, a 70-year-old retired retail worker, remains undecided and deeply torn. Like millions of Americans, she doesn't like her options.

"One week I'm one way, the next I'm the other way," she said. "I joke with my husband that I'm going to walk into the voting booth and pin the tail on the donkey."

That doesn't necessarily mean the Democratic donkey. Labacz said she voted for Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney in the last two presidential elections, even though she's registered as a Democrat and generally likes Clinton.

To win her vote, Labacz said she'd need to see Clinton show greater distance from President Barack Obama, who she thinks has made the U.S. weaker during his nearly eight years in office.

"I would like to see a woman get in, but I don't want to see her continue Obama's policies," she said. "I like what the Republicans are saying, but I also have a lot of misgivings about Trump. I don't think he's acting presidential and I'm worried about his mouth."

A Firewall

As the Democratic National Convention plays out about 20 miles to the southwest, Bucks County voters are watching. Their decisions will carry greater weight than those of most others because Pennsylvania is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested presidential battleground states.

Neither party has paid much attention to Pennsylvania in recent national elections. Despite its size and 20 Electoral College votes, the state didn't even make it into the top 10 for advertising spending in the 2012 White House campaign.

That's all changed in 2016. Although a Republican presidential candidate hasn't won Pennsylvania since 1988, Democrats are worried about the state and they picked Philadelphia, in part, to help shore up their standing there.

Trump has singled out Pennsylvania as a Rust Belt state where he thinks he can alter recent electoral history. That's partly out of necessity because he faces stronger headwinds in other swing states that have larger proportions of Hispanics, many of whom he's alienated with inflammatory language and immigration-tightening proposals.

If the real-estate developer and TV personality carries Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin—and all other states follow their 2012 vote—he would win the presidency with exactly the 270 electoral votes needed.

For Clinton, in contrast, Pennsylvania is a firewall. With Clinton expected to dominate in Democratic strongholds like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and Trump likely to do well in rural areas, Pennsylvania's heavily populated suburban areas like Bucks County could very well decide the state's outcome.

Highlighting the importance Clinton's campaign is placing on Pennsylvania, she and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia are expected to ride a bus tour together across the state on Friday and Saturday as newly minted presidential and vice-presidential nominees, before venturing into the battleground state of Ohio.

Pennsylvania has repeatedly proven to be fool's gold for Republicans. Romney campaigned in Bucks County the weekend before he lost to Obama. The results were much closer in the county than they were nationally, with Romney getting 48.8 percent and Obama winning 50 percent.

'Somewhat Disaffected'

Returns from Bucks County this November will be telling for the state as a whole because it has a mixture of working-class people, highly educated upscale suburbanites, and rural voters.

"There are areas where Donald Trump might do a little bit better than the Republicans normally do," predicted Marcel Groen, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party's chairman and a lawyer who worked in the county for about three decades. "There will be more areas where he will do much worse than Republicans normally do."

Many of those in the southeastern part of the county came there to work in the steel industry, Groen said, and have struggled economically following the industry's downturn.

"They're very similar to other people throughout the country who feel somewhat disaffected," he said. "They tend to be registered as Democrat. We'll still win them, but we may not win them by the numbers that we normally would."

The rest of the county is "fundamentally suburban," moderate, and turned off by Trump's heated rhetoric, Groen said.

Still, it's not hard to find Trump supporters such as Alex Dovgy in the southern third of the county.

"I think he's more pro-American," said Dovgy, 44, a Republican man who works as a barber and lives in the Bucks County town of Holland. "I like how he likes to be his own man."

Tracey Dripps, 56, a Republican operations director for a non-profit, said she'll reluctantly vote for Trump.

"He wasn't my first choice, but I will stand behind him," she said. "More of the same is not what I want and I think Clinton would be more of the same."

Presidential politics is competitive in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The county party offices are even next door to each other.
Presidential politics is competitive in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The county party offices are even next door to each other.
Photographer: John McCormick/Bloomberg Politics

In what could be a metaphor for the county's closeness in recent presidential elections, the Republican Party and Democratic Party have their county headquarters literally next door to each other in the county seat of Doylestown.

The Democratic office buzzed with activity related to the convention one afternoon earlier this week, while workers inside the Republican office explained that they had yet to receive any Trump signs, stickers, or buttons just yet.

John Cordisco, the Democratic chairman in Bucks County and a member of Clinton's national finance team, said he was told by a Clinton campaign staffer at the Brooklyn headquarters in June that his county is the campaign's top target in Pennsylvania.

So far, Cordisco said the coordinated campaign effort that includes Clinton has 12 employees in the county and that number is likely to grow.

"I thought the Obama operation was impressive, but this is taking it to a whole other level," he said. "I have seen very little effort from the other side."

Cordisco, who grew up in Lower Bucks, said Democrats in the southern part of the county who might be tempted to vote for Trump will be receiving extra attention.

"We're going to be touching that base and reinforcing that he does not represent the ideals of the people who live there," he said. "We know we need to stimulate that base and bring it back home for November."

-- With assistance from Mark Niquette in Philadelphia.

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