Failed predictions can sometimes be more illuminating than facts. In February 2016, former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell explained why he thought Hillary Clinton would carry the Keystone State, even though Donald Trump seemed to be winning over the blue-collar white voters who, as part of the Obama coalition, had sent a black Democratic candidate to the White House in 2008 and 2012. “For every one of those blue-collar Democrats [Trump] picks up,” Rendell told The New York Times, “he will lose to Hillary two socially moderate Republicans and independents in suburban Cleveland, suburban Columbus, suburban Cincinnati, suburban Philadelphia, suburban Pittsburgh, places like that.”
There, in a neat single sentence, was the philosophy of the Clinton campaign: We can make up our losses among the white working class by appealing to disgruntled Republicans in the suburbs. Much of Clinton’s campaign was geared toward those former supporters of Mitt Romney, Obama’s challenger in 2012. Hence her praise of Henry Kissinger, the emphasis on her hawkish foreign policy, and on Trump’s personal vulgarity.
Clinton’s strategy almost worked—and not just because she got more votes than Trump. She actually made significant gains among suburban voters, compared with Barack Obama. The problem was that these gains were offset not just by a loss of support among white working-class voters but also among working-class African Americans, the very mainstay of the Democratic Party. As Matt Karp noted in Jacobin, “In Center City’s wealthiest neighborhoods, Clinton rode a wave of enthusiasm, adding 25 percent to Obama’s vote totals in genteel Society Hill and tony Rittenhouse Square. But in the working-class and mainly black wards of West and North Philadelphia, Democratic turnout fell across the board—in some areas by more than 10 percent.”
Arguably, both the success and the failure of Clinton’s strategy went together. By making a play for suburban Republicans, Clinton had to downplay traditional populist themes. While Obama attacked Romney in 2012 for his vulture capitalism, Clinton made fun of Trump for not being a real billionaire—a point underscored by giving a genuine plutocrat, former New York City mayor (and former Republican) Michael Bloomberg pride of place at the Democratic National Convention.
Clinton’s failure in Pennsylvania continues to haunt the party. Because regaining the lost Rust Belt states is central to any hope of a Democrat winning the White House, Pennsylvania remains a crucial swing state. And the problems Clinton ran into there echo similar failures in the Midwest, notably in Wisconsin and Michigan.
The good news for the Democrats is that this time, Pennsylvania is home to a vigorous activist movement focused on bringing this Trump-supporting state back into the Democratic fold. These activists are often mobilizing in the very areas that proved most fatal to the Clinton campaign: conservative western Pennsylvania, with its many Obama-to-Trump voters, and West Philadelphia, where fewer working-class people of color turned out than in 2012.
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One such group is Lancaster Stands Up, which was formed in the wake of Trump’s victory and has worked to energize progressives not just in the city of Lancaster, a Democratic hub, but also in the surrounding suburbs and rural areas. Animating the group is an inclusive populism that its members believe can bring back disaffected working-class Democrats across ethnic lines. Other groups, like Reclaim Philadelphia, are hoping to galvanize working-class voters in the state’s big cities.
These progressive activists will be crucial to Pennsylvania’s politics, both now and in the general election this fall. But the role they’ll play is uncertain as they navigate the challenges of the coronavirus outbreak, a deferred primary, and the prospect of former vice president Joe Biden as the party’s nominee. The dilemma they face is one that goes beyond Pennsylvania: How do progressives plan for an election under the cloud of a pandemic, an economic meltdown, and a Democratic front-runner who is allergic to left-wing politics?
The Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, like American politics at large, is in a strange limbo. Originally scheduled for April 28, the vote has been tentatively rescheduled for June 2 because of the coronavirus emergency.
Biden, a Pennsylvania native with deep family and political roots in the state, remains the strong favorite, polling at above 50 percent. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders polls at just over half that, around 29 percent. Still, Sanders is immensely popular among the activists trying to rebuild progressive politics in Pennsylvania, who argue that he can reach voters who might be turned off by Biden, particularly the disaffected Democrats who in 2016 went for Trump, voted third party, or stayed home. Jonathan Smucker, one of the founders of Lancaster Stands Up, notes that when the group held town hall meetings “out in the boonies” where progressive groups had been scarce, they attracted people who said “the only thing they liked about the Democratic Party was Bernie Sanders.”
Sanders, along with the progressive candidates hoping to make inroads in the down-ballot races, has to figure out how to organize in the middle of a pandemic. It’s a fluid and chaotic moment, one in which activists are still getting their sea legs. I listened in on a Zoom meeting of Pennsylvania organizers, and much of the conversation was devoted to sharing personal anxieties about the crisis and discussing ways to combine political activism with local mutual aid efforts.
Activism is often about reaching out to people in person, whether through door-to-door canvassing or marching. How do you do that in the age of social distancing?
The Sanders campaign has gone fully digital, eschewing door-knocking and having its staff work remotely. It has also leaned into digital messaging, with Sanders giving regular briefings in the form of virtual conferences, and by roping in key surrogates like New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The Biden campaign has also shifted to digital but has had greater difficulty adapting. A virtual town hall on March 13 was bedeviled by technical glitches. As The Verge reported, “First, it began over three hours late. Once Biden did start speaking, his staff had to restart his entire speech because there was no audio, fading his campaign logo in and back out again to signify that they were redoing the address. As he started reading off his prepared remarks again, Biden’s audio was suddenly painful to hear and impossible to understand, at least until they replaced whatever mic he was using with a smartphone.” During the question and answer period, Biden walked off camera and had to be guided back into view.
Despite this mishap, Biden, perhaps goaded by the competition from the Sanders campaign, has become more adept at digital campaigning and is now holding regular talks and conference calls with supporters. And when his campaign does ramp up its real-world operations, having its headquarters in Philadelphia will be an advantage for both the primary and the general election.
Rick Krajewski, an activist who has worked with Reclaim Philadelphia, is running to become a state representative for the 188th District in West Philadelphia. Like many in the new progressive movement, he’s critical of the Democratic Party’s establishment. “I want the Democratic Party to actually construct an agenda that includes things that will support people,” he tells me—such things as Medicare for All, raising the minimum wage, investing in public infrastructure, and reinforcing the social safety net. “All of these are things that were the foundation of this party and have eroded over the last generation,” he adds. “Until we bring that back, any effort the party tries will fail.”
In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Krajewski has retooled his campaign to include a significant mutual aid component. His canvassers don’t just talk to potential voters about their candidate; they also ask about specific needs created by the crisis and, when necessary, help organize efforts to pick up food donations or medicine. “The reality is that the system is going to overlook countless vulnerable people,” he says. “There’s going to be lots of people who might die because no one has figured out what they need.”
Ocasio-Cortez has also talked about the need for mutual aid and even quoted the 19th century anarchist philosopher Pyotr Kropotkin, a theorist of communal self-organization. Beyond the anarchist tradition, Krajewski and Ocasio-Cortez are harking back to the early 20th century tradition of municipal socialism, which flourished in cities like Milwaukee and Reading, Pennsylvania. Although this program was sometimes mocked as sewer socialism, it won the loyalty of many people with its pragmatic approach and its focus on the immediate needs of local citizens.
As Kelly Morton of Reclaim Philadelphia argues, what Krajewski is doing also has parallels on a national level with the Sanders campaign, which is currently forgoing fundraising and asking its supporters to send their money to select charities.
The coronavirus crisis is changing the very way people talk about politics, Morton observes. “We are seeing more people answer the phone, more people staying on the phone longer, more people tie policy to their personal life. There is a moment here to help people understand how politics impacts their personal life,” she says. She notes that voters are more willing to talk about their economic anxieties—about paying the rent, losing their jobs, and being without health care. “The idea that we are only as insured as the least insured among us is something that is starting to become a reality for people.”
If ordinary people are opening up to radical politics, that still leaves a political problem for progressives: Joe Biden is the party’s presumptive nominee. Will the activists who are working so hard to rebuild the left in Pennsylvania really motivate themselves to support a candidate who is himself so hostile to progressive politics?
Biden is an unusual front-runner. He doesn’t draw the biggest crowds or have the largest base of donors. At a time when the Democratic Party is shifting to the left, he often seems annoyed by progressive demands, taking swipes at protesters calling for action on climate change or immigration. He reassured rich donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he’s elected. This seems the opposite not just of Sanders’s political revolution but also Obama’s promise of “hope and change.”
In Pennsylvania, Biden has the clear support of the state Democratic Party, winning endorsements even from politicians who had initially supported other candidates. Former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter backed Bloomberg but has now joined the crowded Biden camp, which also includes Rendell, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, state Treasurer Joe Torsella, and most of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation. Representative Conor Lamb and Senator Bob Casey have been notable endorsements because they illustrate Biden’s popularity among centrists. This long list speaks to his strength in positioning himself as the candidate who unites tried-and-true Democrats.
Sanders has a much less impressive array of supporters here. But whoever becomes the party’s nominee will have to win over not just committed Democrats but also more marginal voters. This remains Biden’s weak spot.
John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, sounds a cautionary note. “If Biden is our presumptive nominee, we are going to need to conduct an unprecedented outreach to bring progressives into the fold and make them understand they are critical to toppling Donald Trump. This outreach must be significant, sincere, and sustained,” he says. “Anyone who underestimates how formidable Donald Trump will be in Pennsylvania,” he adds, “does so at their peril. He is popular.”
If Fetterman is right, then Biden has his work cut out for him, because many progressive activists in the state are very skeptical of the former vice president. They all assured me they would vote for him personally and campaign on his behalf. But they often added that the people they were trying to mobilize might be resistant.
“My biggest fear is, I don’t think Biden can beat Trump,” Smucker tells me, although he adds that Biden “might be able to [win] in Pennsylvania because of his history here.” But he would face an enthusiasm gap. “The foremost problem is going to be to get volunteers to knock doors for Biden. When you are knocking doors for a candidate you’re not excited by, it’s fucking hard.”
Smucker’s colleague Eliza Booth, another founder of Lancaster Stands Up, agrees. She points out that there are people in the suburbs who “vote blue no matter who” and others who are genuinely excited by Biden. But “low-income people that live here in the city, working families, people who are working several jobs—those people are going to be much harder to convince to vote for Joe Biden.”
Booth also feels that the haste to wrap up the primaries and the calls for Sanders to leave the race are only likely to discourage voters. Right now, she says, people are “huddled into their corners” as a result of the primaries. “It’s hard to see how we all come together or how we can reach out. A lot of people are feeling hurt.”
Morton shares her pessimism. “I don’t think Biden has the message of hope and the message of change that brought Obama voters out,” she says. “His idea of returning to normal is not going to ride with people who have been struggling for way longer than this pandemic. The way he talks about politics and the way he talks about policies is very dismissive of people who are struggling and need more. I think that just deflates voter engagement.”
If Biden is the nominee and wants to win the activist left in Pennsylvania, he has to make some major shifts. His choice of a running mate will be important. In recent elections, Democratic presidential candidates have tended to pick conservative or centrist running mates: Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, Tim Kaine, and Biden himself. But as the 2020 presidential nominee and given his weakness among the left, Biden might need to break with this tradition.
“If he chooses Liz Warren over someone like Amy Klobuchar, he would get more progressives,” Booth acknowledges. But she adds that policy is also crucial, and Biden will have to reverse his positions on key issues like Medicare for All.
This is a problem that goes beyond Biden. “I want to see the Democratic Party really stick its neck out for the working class,” Krajewski says. “Trump and the GOP are using a false narrative, but they are using a narrative that is working. The Democratic Party has not created a counternarrative. It’s often because many of them don’t want to.”