Throughout this election cycle, pundits and Electoral College–watchers trained their gaze on Pennsylvania, singling it out as the state that would likely determine the winner of the presidency. And as the year wound on, it became just as clear that the path to winning the Keystone state ran through Philadelphia and its suburban counties. That all turned out to be true, and those who aimed for President Donald Trump’s ouster can thank the City of Brotherly Love for buying four years of breathing room.
On its face, the outcome might seem to confirm the efficacy of the strategy pursued by the Democratic Party for the past decade or more: Run up the score in the cities and win over an increasing number of suburban residents to assemble an insurmountable metropolitan voting bloc. Republicans can dominate the areas where few people live so long as Democrats control the population centers. From a purely mathematical perspective, this outlook makes enough sense. But real politics are rather more complicated than numbers on a spreadsheet, and aggregates can obscure at least as much as they reveal. In this case, they conceal the disturbing fact that, relative to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance, Joe Biden lost ground everywhere except among white professionals. And a closer look at those professional-class voters’ preferences suggests that they may not be here to stay.
Let’s start with the suburbs. In the four Philadelphia “collar counties,” the Democratic presidential swing—Biden’s gain over Clinton, less Trump’s gain from 2016—was some 100,000 votes. Given that Clinton lost the state by 44,000 and that Biden won it by about 60,000, this boost was as decisive as Democratic strategists could have hoped. But there is good reason to believe that this will not be replicated in the future. While these suburban voters were turning out for Biden, they were simultaneously voting for Republicans down ballot in large numbers. Taken together, the Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives in these four counties underperformed Biden by roughly 65,000 votes. Take those votes away four years from now, and the Democrats lose the state.
Statewide Democratic candidates fared similarly poorly—incumbent Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Montgomery County native, performed the best of the lot at about 33,000 votes behind Biden. The pattern will likely hold in state legislative races once comprehensive data for those districts is analyzed. Counterfactuals can only get us so far, but it seems safe to conclude that had the Republican ticket been headed by someone less cretinous, we would be having a different conversation about the suburban showing.
None of this should come as a surprise. Historically, the suburbs have been Republican strongholds—after all, as scholars have long shown, they owe their existence to the real estate industry’s success in harnessing white middle-class reaction against urban liberalism. Today, the median household income in those collar counties is more than $87,000, and their population is almost 80 percent white. Contrast that with Philadelphia proper, which has a median household income of $46,000 and where people of color account for two-thirds of the population. These two groups may share a deep hatred of Donald Trump, but that is where their similarities end.
But what should be even more alarming for Democrats is Biden’s performance within the city limits of Philadelphia. Here, Biden did win by a 63-point margin, but that is down from Clinton’s 67-point victory in 2016. What’s more, turnout in the city hardly budged from 2016, yet Trump increased his absolute vote total by 18 percent. Meanwhile, Biden received fewer votes than Clinton. As a result, the swing citywide was 27,000 votes in Trump’s favor.
Even more troubling is where that swing happened. Looking only at the areas where African Americans and Latinos account for at least 40 percent of the population, the swing toward Trump was 33,000—that is, in these neighborhoods, Biden’s margin of victory was 33,000 smaller than Clinton’s. And in the areas with a median household income of below $50,000, which overlap heavily with the ones just mentioned, the Trump swing was 38,000. Almost all of this was the result of low-income communities of color showing up for Biden in even lower numbers than they did for Clinton. Only by gaining ground in wealthier and whiter parts of the city did Biden bring that Trump swing down a bit. Younger urban professionals seem to share their suburban parents’ distaste for the sitting president.
This is not a story of voters of color flocking to Trump. Rather, it is simply empirical evidence that corroborates what anyone who has spent time in these areas already knows: Liberal elites’ refusal to offer an economic vision that connects to the real suffering that working-class people of all races have long experienced produces mass frustration and political apathy. For decades, the Democratic Party has drifted further and further from the working people that once constituted its base, a shift that is part of a historical process at bottom driven by neoliberal economic restructuring and the resultant disempowerment of the labor movement. Imploring Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to change their tune will not accomplish much unless such demands are accompanied by expanded organization of working-class people, above all, in the place where most of them spend most of their waking hours: at work.
Thankfully, this election did offer a glimpse into that possible future. In recent months, unions like Unite Here worked tirelessly in these very communities to claw every last vote they could into the Biden camp. Without their efforts, these worrying numbers would certainly have looked even more grave. But organizers were forced to push against very strong headwinds of disregard for the working-class communities that Democrats will have to win by massive margins in order to compete in states like Pennsylvania in the years to come. Because of that disregard, in Philadelphia, some 40 percent of eligible—as opposed to registered—voters did not even cast a ballot. In the poorest and most diverse parts of the city, the figure is considerably higher.
The bright side of all this is that the Republican Party has nothing to offer this population and shows no inclination toward changing that any time soon, making it unlikely that it will sufficiently broaden its appeal within these communities to close the gap by more than Trump managed. Moreover, there is clearly enormous room for progressives to grow by reaching out to these large reservoirs of untapped voters. But Democrats won’t capitalize on this opportunity unless they extract the right lessons from the numbers in this election. Moderation and decency are compelling alternatives to Trumpism, but these concepts do not put food on the table or pay the bills. In order to hold the territory that Biden claimed and build upon it, Democrats need to offer working people something that does.
Update: The original version of this article stated that without Biden’s 65,000 margin over Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives in the four Philadelphia suburban counties, a future Democrat could lose a statewide election. As of November 16, Biden’s statewide lead is 68,000 and is likely to grow further. It would therefore be more accurate to say that without that top of ticket margin over down-ballot Democrats in the suburbs a future statewide election would be very close. Also, as a result of provisional ballots that have been counted since the date of publication, the Trump swing in Philadelphia areas with a population of at least 40 percent Black and Latino and a median household income of below $50,000 is, as of Nov. 16, 24,000 and 29,000, respectively. These figures may continue to change somewhat as all provisional ballots are counted.
This article has been updated to account for the latest developments.