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The Eagles Controversy Could Cost Trump Pennsylvania In 2020


The sports world continues to respond to President Trump’s decision late Monday to disinvite the Philadelphia Eagles from a trip to the White House to celebrate their first Super Bowl championship. Politico reports the Trump Administration thinks the ongoing controversies surrounding NFL players and the National Anthem is a political winner, but the facts suggest otherwise.

First, some disclosures: I’ve been an Eagles fan all my life, and considered myself lucky to watch their Super Bowl LII victory in person in February. I scored an invitation to the Eagles’ scheduled White House visit last week, and while I still went to the event on Tuesday, I wish that both sides had been able to resolve their differences, so that Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles and others that wanted to visit the White House had an opportunity to do so.

That said, my thoughts upon hearing the news Monday evening immediately turned to the political implications of the sudden cancellation:

A review of Pennsylvania election results confirms my gut reaction on Monday night: The Eagles controversy affects key areas in a swing state where Trump has little margin for error in his re-election bid.

Keystone State Strategy

In general, Republicans attempting to win statewide office in Pennsylvania follow the same basic strategy: They will lose big in the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (Allegheny County), but must keep the margins close in the four “collar counties” surrounding Philadelphia (Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery), and then rack up big margins in the “T” — essentially the rest of the state outside suburban Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Ironically, in 2016 Trump received 19,541 fewer votes than Barack Obama did during his 2012 re-election bid. But because Hillary Clinton slightly under-performed Obama, and because Trump dramatically over-performed Mitt Romney’s 2012 vote count, Trump won the state.

A comparison of county-by-county election results for the two major-party candidates in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections demonstrates how effectively Trump capitalized on the latter part of the strategy — running up votes in the “T.” Excluding Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and the four counties surrounding Philadelphia, Romney received 396,474 more votes than Obama. By comparison, in those same 61 counties, Trump outpolled Clinton by 816,059 votes — more than doubling Romney’s margin in the “T.”

Problems With Suburban Voters

But a comparison between the performance of Trump and fellow Republican Pat Toomey, who defeated Democratic candidate Katie McGinty to win a second Senate term on the same day Trump won the White House, reveals the downside of the Trump strategy. (Full disclosure: I got my start on Capitol Hill working for then-Congressman Toomey during his first term in the House.)

Trump narrowly polled more votes than Toomey, in part due to the “under-vote” — about 60,000 voters who cast a ballot for president did not vote in the Senate race. That said, Toomey won his election over McGinty by nearly twice as many votes (86,690) as Trump did over Clinton (44,292). And he did so despite having only one third-party candidate who took away votes on his right. That Libertarian candidate pulled more votes than the three third-party candidates in the presidential race combined, whereas Trump had Green Party candidate Jill Stein to siphon votes away from Clinton on her left.

What propelled Toomey’s larger margin of victory? The county-by-county results show that, while Trump did better in rural areas, Toomey performed much better with suburban voters. Although Trump won 56 of the Commonwealth’s 67 counties, Toomey won four more that Trump did not, including Dauphin County, home of the state capital of Harrisburg, and Centre County, home of State College and Penn State University. Toomey also won two of the four “collar counties” surrounding Philadelphia — Bucks and Chester — while Trump lost to Clinton in all four of them.

The “collar counties” demonstrate Trump’s problem with suburban voters. Whereas Toomey kept the margins close against McGinty, losing by 60,557 votes in the four counties combined, Trump lost to Clinton by more than three times as many votes (188,353). Even as he outperformed Romney across the rest of the state, Trump got 12,780 fewer votes in those suburban counties than did the 2012 nominee, and lost by a much bigger margin.

A Bad Situation Made Worse?

Trump is in a potentially precarious position in Pennsylvania heading into 2020. He achieved historically high vote totals in the “T,” yet won by only the narrowest of margins. Trump has little chance of squeezing an even greater margin from the “T” to overcome any improvements in Democratic fortunes, either through a return to Obama’s 2012 totals, or the lack of a third-party candidate like Stein to siphon off votes to the Democrat’s left, or both. The only path to victory may lie through voters in suburban Philadelphia, who Trump did not do well with in 2016, and who he may have further alienated this week.

The White House spent a good part of Tuesday pushing back on the controversy, stating that the Eagles initially promised to send a large contingent, only to withdraw at the last minute. Doubtless the response comes in part because the White House’s Political Affairs office recognizes the implications of the Keystone State. With the Pennsylvania Supreme Court creating brand new, and in several cases more competitive, congressional districts for this year’s mid-term elections, Republicans have reason to pay attention to the Commonwealth’s role in the battle for the House this year, and the battle for the White House in 2020.

To put it in stark relief: Had only 22,147 Pennsylvanians who voted for Trump pulled the lever for Clinton instead, the Democrat would have won the state’s 20 electoral votes. The Eagles’ home stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, seats 69,176 — more than three times that number. If, to borrow Tip O’Neill’s phrase, “all politics is local,” the math suggests this parochial issue could end up having national implications.