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Trump's path to a Pa. win relies on GOP 'firewall' in Lancaster County and surrounding region

President Donald Trump Visits Lancaster

The crowd reacts as President Donald Trump, makes a campaign stop in the hangar of flyAdvanced Aviation Group at Lancaster Airport Monday Oct. 26, 2020.

Rallies at the Lancaster Airport with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. A debate watch party with Pence at a farm in Lititz. A speech by Second Lady Karen Pence at a farm in Mount Joy.

First Lady Melania Trump’s stop in the Lancaster County GOP headquarters Tuesday marked the 6th time the president or a top surrogate for his campaign has stumped in the county in recent months.

Pennsylvania is seen as a pivotal prize in next week’s presidential election, prompting both campaigns to spend more time in the state than anywhere else.

But for Republicans, the south-central region is critical to a Keystone State victory.

Lancaster County and the surrounding area is home to the largest and most concentrated pot of Republican voters in the entire state.

In 2016, Trump got more votes in the region stretching from Berks to Franklin counties than any other region of the state — more than 630,000 of his nearly 3 million votes. And Lancaster County, with 180,000 registered Republican voters and a long legacy of well-organized and loyal Grand Old Party politics, is the area’s largest prize.

“Lancaster County in particular has always been the firewall for the GOP and also the base of its strength,” said Charlie Gerow, a longtime Republican political consultant and CEO of Quantum Communications in Harrisburg.

The state’s 6th most populous county, Lancaster has been the fourth-largest source of votes for Republican nominees in the last five presidential elections. With quickening trends toward Democrats in the populous Philadelphia suburbs, Lancaster is now the only remaining GOP bastion among the state’s most-populated counties.

Combined with York, Berks, Dauphin, Cumberland and four other south-central counties, Trump secured more votes in this region than in even more deeply Republican, but less densely populated and shrinking regions in the central or western parts of the state.

Population and voter registration trends also point toward the region becoming an increasingly important target for the GOP.

Over the past four years, Republicans have increased their total party registration in the south-central counties by about 45,000 voters, far more than the 12,000-plus voters Democrats gained there, most recent state data shows.

The opposite is happening nearby in the four suburban counties surrounding Philadelphia -- which have collectively gained more than 74,000 Democrats while losing 11,000 Republicans in four years.

“The mid-state is, as always, pivotal,” Gerow said. “What happens in south-central Pennsylvania, which is where the bulk of the Republicans in the mid-state live, is probably going to decide who the next president is going to be.”

Turnout will determine margins

Almost every one of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties is reliably Democrat or Republican every year. Philadelphia, where 76% of registered voters are Democrats, will be blue. Rural Jefferson County, with 62% Republicans, will be red.

The real battle is for the margins — the amount by which Trump and Biden win counties, big and small, across the state. That’s the message that Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has been touting since he saw Hillary Clinton make a “fatal mistake” four years ago.

“Secretary Clinton made a major miscalculation," Fetterman said. “She only went to Philly and Pittsburgh and she ignored the rest of these (counties) that Trump won from the margins.”

In that sense, Fetterman said, every county is just as important as the next — from Erie to Lancaster to Biden's hometown in Lackawanna County.

“Trump’s margins in NEPA (Northeast Pennsylvania) were instrumental in putting him over the top,” Fetterman said. “I don’t see the VP (Biden) carrying those critical NEPA counties, but he doesn’t need to. He just doesn’t need to get destroyed the way Clinton did.”

Compared to Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, Trump’s larger share of the vote in the northeast and central regions, combined with higher turnout, were the keys to his victory in 2016, said Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College.

Turnout in the Republican-rich central region was 71 percent in 2016, compared to about 68 percent there four years earlier, Yost said.

“He’s relying on that again,” Yost said. “He’s got to excite his voters to get a higher turnout in those regions that support him and get an overwhelming share of the votes.”

F&M’s latest statewide poll, out today, indicates it’s not clear Trump is succeeding in doing that right now, Yost said. According to the poll, Biden is getting a larger share of the vote in counties Clinton won in 2016 while Trump’s margins are similar in the areas he won.

Heightened energy and activity among Democrats is a reason for that. In Lancaster, they’re not only trying to narrow the gaps but also win in historically Republican strongholds with aggressive voter turnout campaigns, said Ismail Smith-Wade-El, vice-chair of the Lancaster County Democratic Committee.

“I think the statewide strategy is absolutely to turn out Democratic voters in every part of Pennsylvania, but now there is much more of a focus on Pennsylvania’s smaller cities and a growing number of suburbs,” Smith-Wade-El said.

Republicans in Lancaster County maintain a 51% to 32% voter registration edge over Democrats, though the GOP’s share shrunk by about 11 percentage points over the past two decades.

Repeated visits

Like Trump, Biden has been in the state consistently in the home stretch. He’s visited Lancaster twice -- after Hillary Clinton bypassed the county in 2016 — and held events in the surrounding region while courting suburban voters in the southeast, like a surprise visit to Delaware County earlier this week.

Getting Democrats to turn out to vote in this year’s election won’t be difficult, said Diane Topakian, chair of the Lancaster County Democratic Committee.

“I think we have a very exciting ticket, it’s very different from what we had in 2016,” Topakian said. “People can see a record for Trump now and how dangerous he is and Democrats, independents and even some Republicans see Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as an acceptable alternative to Trump.”

Still, Topakian acknowledged Trump’s repeated visits have been an attempt to energize his significant base in the county and state.

Kirk Radanovic, chair of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County, did not return repeated requests for comment.

Republican Lancaster County Commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino pointed to the longtime GOP-led county government and relationships with constituents as reasons for the local party’s continued strength.

Since the June primary, new Republican voter registrations outpaced Democrats 2 to 1, they said.

"The enthusiasm to vote for the President and register Republican is the highest I've seen," Parsons said, adding that he’s not concerned with Democrats’ gains in neighboring counties.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, introducing Karen Pence at Acorn Farms in Mount Joy last week, referenced the significance of the repeat visits to the county by the Trump campaign. “They understand that victory runs right through Pennsylvania,” Smucker said. “It runs right through our district.”