The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion John Fetterman made big gains in Trump country. New data reveals how.

John Fetterman, senator-elect from Pennsylvania, on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg News)

For years, John Fetterman has wagered that steadily showing up in areas hostile to Democrats would ultimately pay off. After getting elected as Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor in 2018, Fetterman conducted a listening tour of the state’s 67 counties. As a Senate candidate, he campaigned in 57 of them, interrupted only by his stroke.

New data provided to me by the American Communities Project (ACP) offers a detailed picture of how well this worked. With Fetterman winning his Senate race by nearly 5 points, the nature of his victory shows how Democrats can continue rebuilding in the “blue wall” states after Donald Trump’s two campaigns substantially weakened them in the region.

Other Democrats succeeded in the blue-wall states, of course. Josh Shapiro was decisively elected governor of Pennsylvania, and Tony Evers and Gretchen Whitmer were both reelected as governors in Wisconsin and Michigan, where Democrats captured the state legislature, too.

But Fetterman’s victory might be uniquely instructive. He defeated a candidate, Mehmet Oz, who was conventionally stronger than those other Democrats’ opponents. He combined an unorthodox issue profile (marijuana legalization, prison clemency) with an unorthodox campaign style (lumbering giant in hoodie and cargo shorts), helping make very tough political territory more competitive again. Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by only one point in 2020.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

How this happened is illustrated by the ACP data. Fetterman significantly reduced his opponent’s margins of victory — relative to Biden’s 2020 performance against Trump — in three types of counties where Trump has done extraordinarily well.

In the ACP’s taxonomy, those three county types are known as the Middle Suburbs, Working Class Country, and Rural Middle America.

The Middle Suburbs. These types of suburban counties are Whiter and more working class than your typical inner-ring suburb, which tends to be more diverse, cosmopolitan and professional.

We often think of the suburbs as anti-Trump, but his large margins in Middle Suburbs across the country were key to his 2016 victory. Four years later, when Trump made veiled racial appeals to the “Suburban Housewives of America,” these are the places he probably meant to target.

In Pennsylvania’s Middle Suburbs, Fetterman limited Oz’s margin of victory to 11 points, significantly down from the 15-point margin Trump racked up in 2020, according to ACP data provided to me.

This mattered, because Middle Suburbs tend to be more populated than most other red-leaning county types, says Dante Chinni, the director and founder of ACP.

“There’s a lot of votes in those places,” Chinni told me. “They’re really important to Republicans, especially Trump Republicans.”

There are more than a dozen such counties in the state, Chinni said, including suburban counties outside Pittsburgh that still have a “blue-collar vibe.”

Working Class Country. These counties are even Whiter than Middle Suburbs and tend to be rural and sparsely populated. They often have low college education rates.

In Pennsylvania’s Working Class Country counties, Fetterman shaved Oz’s margin of victory to 27 points, down from Trump’s 2020 margin of 36 points. Such counties include ones along the state’s northern border or in the southwest corner of the state, abutting West Virginia.

Rural Middle America. These counties are also rural, but also tend to include a lot of small towns and smaller metro areas. They are somewhat less agriculture-dependent than Working Class Country.

In Pennsylvania’s Rural Middle America counties, Fetterman limited Oz’s gains to 31 points, down from Trump’s 37-point margin in 2020. As Chinni noted, nearly three dozen of these counties are spread throughout Pennsylvania’s vast heartland.

These three county types capture different elements of the Trump vote. The Middle Suburbs are right-leaning parts of the suburbs that shifted toward Trump even as other suburbs turned against him. Working Class Country and Rural Middle America are the sort of regions where reporters used to go on “Trump safaris” to seek out Republican voters in diners. “The fact that Fetterman narrowed the margins in all of them is a big deal,” Chinni said.

Fetterman outperformed Biden in many other types of counties throughout the state, too. He whittled away at the GOP’s enormous advantage in Greying America counties filled with older and more conservative voters. And relative to Biden, he ran up larger margins of victory over Oz in the dense and diverse Urban Suburbs and the Big Cities.

An interesting exception to this trend: Fetterman did not improve on Biden’s performance in the Exurbs. These relatively wealthy counties still tend to be very swingy areas, the kind of place that political strategists sometimes caricature as home to your typical White, male, hard-right salesman in the local car dealership.

If Trump wins the Republican nomination for a third time, a big question will be whether he can recapture his gains in these kinds of Trump-leaning counties throughout the Rust Belt. In 2020, he lost ground in many of them relative to 2016.

In 2024, stopping Trump one final time — and completing the task of rebuilding the blue wall — would run through these very same counties.

Loading...