Cumberland County’s voting patterns appear to be changing in step with some national trends, even if it isn’t as obvious in Central Pennsylvania as it is elsewhere in the country.
Precinct-level returns for the county from the Nov. 6 election indicate the rapid acceleration of a movement that started in 2016, in which the county’s suburban zones have turned sharply toward Democratic candidates at the top of the ticket, but less so for down-ballot candidates.
“The bottom line is that Republicans have a lot of work to do on the West Shore (the eastern end of Cumberland County),” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist and member of the party’s state committee. “In some ways, [the election result] was a reflection of the type of campaign that was waged, but in other ways, we’re looking at larger trends.”
Cumberland County, as a whole, split its ticket this year — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf carried the county, something a Democrat has not done in some time. GOP candidate Lou Barletta took 52 percent of the county’s votes in the U.S. Senate race — still a majority, but much less than the 59 percent of the county that voted for Sen. Pat Toomey in 2016.
Republican Congressional candidates John Joyce and Scott Perry received a combined 55 percent of the vote in Cumberland County. In 2016, Perry and Barletta took home a combined 65 percent of the county’s vote in the Congressional races.
The driving factor behind closer margins for Republicans — and a flip in the case of the governor’s race — lies in the county’s suburban districts along the West Shore.
Camp Hill Borough, with a census population of about 8,000 people, has been the region’s bellwether in that respect, flipping from voting for Mitt Romney in 2012 to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The borough, with one of the county’s highest rates of college education according to Census data, moved even more sharply to the left this year, voting overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates all the way down the ballot.
Whereas Camp Hill supported GOP incumbent Sen. Toomey over Democratic challenger Katie McGinty in 2016 by about 4.5 points, Barletta lost the borough to Casey this year by a whopping 14 points.
Camp Hill also voted for Perry in 2016 over his then-challenger, Democrat Joshua Burkholder, by 15 points. But two years later, those numbers flipped with Perry’s 2018 challenger, George Scott, who carried Camp Hill by more than 11 points.
Even statehouse candidates felt the pinch. GOP Rep. Greg Rothman won re-election this year despite losing the Camp Hill section of his state House district by 7 points to Democrat Sean Quinlan. Rothman carried the borough by about 10 points in 2016.
“[Camp Hill] used to be a rock-ribbed Republican stronghold, and it no longer is,” Gerow said.
Precinct results also indicate that the suburban shift to the left that started in Camp Hill two years ago is also spreading geographically.
New Cumberland Borough, with about 7,300 people, is a much more conservative West Shore enclave, voting for Donald Trump in 2016 by 8 points.
But in 2018, the borough favored Wolf by 16 points, Casey by 6 points and Scott by two points. The only GOP candidate with a strong showing in that borough was state Rep. Sheryl Delozier who bested her Democratic opponent by 14 points. Lemoyne Borough, with 4,600 people, featured roughly the same results, with Delozier gaining the upper hand while Perry, Barletta and Wagner did not.
That trend, in which conservative voters stick by the Republican state House candidates they know but then abandon candidates farther up the ticket has been on pollsters’ radar for some time.
“That’s exactly what our polls have showed, that Republicans are more likely to split their ticket and create that crossover,” said Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster with Franklin & Marshall College.
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While much of the national conversation has focused on that shift around large urban areas there’s no reason that it wouldn’t happen in Central Pennsylvania’s suburbs as well, Madonna said.
“It’s not just the suburbs around Philadelphia, it’s the suburbs around many cities, anywhere that has a high percentage of college-educated voters, particularly female college-educated voters,” Madonna said.
The cause for Republican top-ticket candidates’ massive underperformance in these West Shore areas and statewide could either spotlight a national mood shifting away from the GOP or this year’s Republican headliners not being strong candidates.
“I don’t know that it’s a reflection of national mood or national trends as much as it is a weaker top of the ticket than Republicans have ordinarily been able to field,” Gerow said.
Madonna submitted that it was a combination of both. With Trump’s position on the national stage being a major motivator for voters — both in support and opposition — Wagner and Barletta could not break out of the box created by their close allegiance to the president.
“Neither found a signature issue that resonated with the voters ... and you had two reasonably popular incumbents [Wolf and Casey] who didn’t have any big negatives, or at least not any that their opponents could make stick,” Madonna said.
Perry still pulled out a victory, but his margin was razor-thin with Scott losing by about 2.5 points for the district as a whole, which includes Dauphin and parts of York and Cumberland counties, including York city and Carlisle.
Carlisle continued to be strongly left-leaning, voting for Scott by about 25 points. But Carlisle’s turnout was relatively low at just under 50 percent compared to the county’s more reliably right-leaning areas where Republicans held their performance.
Middlesex and Monroe townships — two jurisdictions that have seen some growth, but remain predominantly rural — featured Perry getting roughly 65 and 63 percent of the vote, respectively, nearly matching the 30-point advantage Trump saw in those counties 2016.
In Hampden Township, Cumberland County’s most populous municipality at around 29,000 people, Perry finished 6 points ahead, which was a smaller share of the vote than Republican candidates have enjoyed in the past. But even that smaller advantage pays big dividends given Hampden’s sheer size and voter turnout. Almost 66 percent of Hampden Township voters cast ballots this year, and Perry’s six-point lead in the district amounted to 933 votes — more than enough to negate Scott’s margins in Camp Hill and New Cumberland combined.
Upper Allen Township also presents another test case—a rapidly suburbanizing and relatively wealthy municipality of around 20,000 people, where Republicans lost ground rapidly at the top of the ticket, but retained enough down-ballot to carry their candidates. After siding with Trump in 2016, Upper Allen voted for Wolf over Wagner by 5 points, but backed Perry over Scott by 10 points.
The shift still isn’t in Republicans’ favor, especially if voter turnout increases in left-leaning areas in 2020 with a presidential contest on the ballot. Perry’s campaign initially struggled to find it’s footing in a much less conservative district, a result of re-mapping via the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s anti-gerrymandering decision earlier this year.
“He was thrown from a red-meat Republican district into a much more purple one, and it took him a while to get on track,” Gerow said, a hiccup that Republicans may not be able to afford in 2020.
This could also include state House candidates, Gerow said.
Rothman, for instance, won his re-election this year by about 12 points overall, less than half the 25-point lead he carried in 2016. Camp Hill flipped to his Democratic challenger, and Rothman’s lead narrowed in suburbs further afield, such as Hampden and East Pennsboro townships.
National Democrats and liberal groups have yet to put significant amounts of money into such state House races, but if they do in 2020, Gerow said, local Republican candidates will need to step up their campaigns in a significant way.