Decisions DecisionsPennsylvania's Monroe County chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by just 532 votes in 2016. 2020 is up for grabs.

“It has an interesting and competitive political climate.” Muhlenberg College political science professor Chris Borick

President Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by 44,292 votes out of more than 6,000,000 votes cast, a margin of a mere .72% over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. This was the narrowest margin the state had seen in a presidential election in 176 years.

But if you think that was close, you need to pay attention to a county located in eastern Pennsylvania. It had an even smaller margin of pivotal votes between the two candidates. Clinton won Monroe County, in the heart of the Poconos, by a paltry 532 votes, or .3 % over Trump.

It was the smallest margin of votes in any of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

Monroe County has been one of the most indecisive counties in Pennsylvania since the 1980s. In some presidential elections, the margin of votes that decide the winner can be as little as a few hundred and at times even single digits.

“It has,” said Muhlenberg College political science professor Chris Borick, “an interesting and competitive political climate.”

Chris Borick

This county is essentially a microcosm of Pennsylvania right now, in terms of demographics. It shares the same swing state-like manner, making it, depending on your viewpoint, either a mystery or a possible predictor for how the state as a whole could vote.

Speaking of this year’s race between Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, Borick said, “Both parties in this county will claim that it is promising for them. Where Democrats will see it as an area for growth, the traditional white working class in the rural areas of the county still holds a large percentage of the population.”

But this wasn’t always so. For much of its history, Monroe County, just north of the Lehigh Valley, was reliably Republican. It was a solid red county. Home to 16 townships and four boroughs, the county is made up of a mix of communities. There are stretches of rural farmland in places such as Saylorsburg, and there are also more suburban/city-like areas such as East Stroudsburg. It’s home to the Poconos, a very popular tourist destination for those in the northeastern United States.

In 2008, Barack Obama easily won the county with a 17-point victory over Republican John McCain. That was the first time the county voted Democratic for president in 44 years.

Gratz Washenik, the Monroe County Democratic Committee chairman, recalled the excitement of that election.

“For Obama’s election in 2008, it was visible,” he said. “On election day there was a seismic difference, the lines looked different than they ever did before.”

The county wasn’t just caught up in the excitement of voting for the country’s first Black president, however. The change was hardly abrupt. Monroe County had been slowly turning blue for decades.

In the 1980s, Republicans were winning with by handy margins between 7,000 and 8,000 votes. And the percentages reflected the GOP dominance: Ronald Reagan won in 1984 by 32.34% and George H. W. Bush won by 26.77% in 1988.

With a population growth of over 100,000 in the past 30 years, Monroe County has seen a transformation in its identity.

But very quickly that margin shrunk in the 1990s. In 1992 Monroe County voted to re-elect Bush but only by 2.9%. And in the next presidential election year, in 1996, Bob Dole beat Democrat Bill Clinton in the county by 1.99%.

In 2004, the Republican edge dwindled even further: President George W. Bush won the county by just four votes.

One big reason for this dramatic shift is a massive change in demographics in the county, a shift that is playing out in many parts of Pennsylvania and even in key swing states in the country.

The demographics and diversity of this county more or less reflect the distribution of the country as a whole where the average person is a white, blue-collar worker. As of 2019, the population of 170,000 is 77% white, 50.6% male, with an average income of around $60,000. This is far from what Monroe County looked like 40 years ago. In 1980, the county looked rural and Republican, with a population of 69,000 – Borick, the Muhlenberg College election expert, saying it was looking “more like 95% white.”

With a population growth of over 100,000 in the past 30 years, Monroe County has seen a transformation in its identity.

In the early 1980s, there was a deep recession in the U.S and unemployment rates peaked 10.8%. When people lose jobs they tend to migrate. People from higher-income areas within and surrounding New York City began moving to Monroe County, attracted by cheaper housing and a slower pace of life.

Population growth continued to accelerate in the 1990s through the 2000s. These relocators were much more ethnically and racially diverse, transforming the political landscape from Republican dominance to a much more competitive position.

Many of the new residents chose this county because of easy accessibility to New York. The communities located close to route 80 and route 209, such as Stroudsburg, saw the highest influx of migration. These towns surrounding the commute-accessible routes are the ones that saw shifts to Democratic majorities.

Monroe County continues to be an escape haven. The pandemic this year has pushed some New Yorkers to leave the city.

“The census won’t show it, but we’ve seen an influx of people moving here from New York because of COVID,” said Judi Coover, a former township commissioner and now a volunteer for the Trump campaign. “When the grocery stores were the only place you could go to, you would see parking lots filled with New York license plates.”

The people of Monroe County, like people everywhere, are hurting because of the pandemic, and it is playing a big role in voting decisions this year.

While one part of the population is made up of newcomers, many longtime residents are those who work in the hospitality industry, which is what the area is known for. The Poconos have always been a huge driver of the Monroe County economy. Along with a man-made lake, the Poconos hosts three large water parks (billing itself as the “Indoor Water Park Capital of the World”), one main ski lodge, and multiple hotels for each of these attractions.

“In Monroe County, there aren’t really any corporate jobs, unless you work in the city,” Coover said. “If you live in the Poconos, you’re either working in… one of the big waterparks, hotels, ski lodges, or you own a business.”

With people traveling a lot less, resorts are feeling the crunch and residents’ jobs have been hit hard by COVID-19. Monroe County voters are divided in their feelings on how the government has handled the pandemic.

Coover said those who work in the tourism industry are frustrated with Democratic Governor Tom Wolf for keeping businesses closed. Democrats blame Trump for not handling the pandemic better from the start.

Judi Coover

Either way, the people of Monroe County, like people everywhere, are hurting because of the pandemic, and it is playing a big role in voting decisions this year.

As in past years, it’s hard to say how Monroe County will ultimately vote in 2020.

Gratz Washenik, the Democratic Committee chairman, said he saw double the number of mail-in ballot applications among Democrats.

“Enthusiasm among Democrats now is because we hate Donald Trump,” said Washenik.

Coover, his GOP counterpart, said Trump’s support comes from this: “People in the Poconos just want to be able to work.”

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