Democratic Voters In Struggling Pa. County Cross Over To Support Trump
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We've been listening to voters this year, and this week we were in the area surrounding Pittsburgh. It's cold in steel country but many of those jobs have gone away. Jim Davis is an attorney and the Democratic Party chairman in Fayette County, a once thriving coal region just south of Pittsburgh.
JIM DAVIS: When the coal mines closed down, we've been left with a lot of poverty. Population has declined dramatically because there weren't jobs here. There wasn't anything to step in and take over for the coal mines and later the steel mills. So that's why we see a - this landscape of little towns that are in different levels of decay.
GREENE: Now, four decades ago, many Democrats in this county voted for Ronald Reagan. And Davis says he is seeing some crossover now to Donald Trump. It's just some, and it doesn't necessarily mean Trump could win this state in a general election. But Jim Davis says the number of Democrats turning has been unusual, and it does look like that Reagan appeal.
DAVIS: Reagan spoke to what appealed to the people here. He had that ability to make them feel good about themselves and about what he was doing in Washington. So to that extent, they would flee the party to vote for him. Now, they didn't flee the party to vote for anybody else, and as far as other candidates and other offices, they supported the Democratic Party. But they would cross over for Ronald Reagan.
He had the unique ability. And I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that he spoke to what they believe their needs were. And he made them feel good about what he was about to do and the direction he was going to take the country.
GREENE: So that was a time when - I mean, it was tough economic times in this part of the country in Western Pennsylvania.
DAVIS: It was and it, you know - it was then, it was prior to his presidency. And it's been difficult here.
GREENE: So take me now to the current situation in Fayette County. I mean, is - are people still struggling?
DAVIS: Yes. It's definitely struggling. Statistically, we're struggling. I think we're one of the poorest counties in Pennsylvania. We have one of the highest rates of unemployment. We have one of the lowest average wage, so yeah, we're - we continue to struggle. And it's been that way as long as I can recall.
GREENE: Now, I asked Jim Davis' Democratic Party chair if I could play some tape for him. It's a voice you heard elsewhere in the show. It's a voter from a different Pittsburgh suburb named Frank Sinatra. I'm not kidding. He is a Democrat who would vote for Trump if he's the GOP nominee.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
FRANK SINATRA JR: He has something good, something different to offer us. I'm willing to take the risk with Trump. He uses the same words as the middle class.
GREENE: So what do you make of that?
DAVIS: Well, I think Donald Trump tells people what they want to hear. I think he's very good at that. And I think he's appealed to this gentleman in that sense that he said things that this gentleman wants to hear. We want to hear how we're going to stop immigration. Although, I suspect that immigration's not an issue in Fayette County where I live or even in Western Pennsylvania. It really isn't. But yet, we want to hear that.
We like that tough talk, and he has that ability to connect in that way. Does that mean he can deliver on these comments or promises? I suspect he cannot deliver on them, but yet people like to hear it.
GREENE: Is Trump having this kind of appeal in Fayette County?
DAVIS: Absolutely. There's no question that a lot of Fayette Countians like what Donald Trump says.
GREENE: Including Democrats.
DAVIS: Definitely including Democrats. Many Democrats like what he says. There's no question about that. And as I said earlier, he has that ability. He has that - he's a communicator that's appealing. And he does speak to the people here. He speaks to some of their values.
There are many people here who worry about guns. That's an important issue to many people here. And he's - I'm sure he's made comments about protecting people's rights to own firearms. I mean, not that anyone's ever come and taken anybody's guns, but, you know, I do think that he appeals to a lot of Fayette Countians.
GREENE: What you do if you're Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders to try and win over the voters in struggling places like this that Donald Trump is appealing to?
DAVIS: Well, I think you first have to challenge Trump's comments and try to get to what are his plans specifically, not what he says he's going to do, but how he's going to do it. So I think it's the first thing they've got to do, and I think Hillary Clinton needs to explain - or Bernie Sanders - how their policies and programs or - and initiatives are going to benefit the people.
GREENE: Have they not been doing that yet?
DAVIS: I don't think so. I don't think completely. I think right now it's just a lot of I'm going to do this and I'm going to do that which is typical for politics today with the soundbites that we go by.
GREENE: If you were to be asked by, say, a family who's struggling in Fayette County, they're Democrats but they're listening to Donald Trump, they're hearing someone who they feel connects with them, what do you tell them?
DAVIS: First, I say, Donald Trump has nothing in common with you, nothing. He has no idea what life would be like living here in Western Pennsylvania and in Fayette County, none. He grew up - he was born into wealth and has lived a life of privilege. I don't know how he can identify with them or offer them anything.
Hillary Clinton, obviously she grew up in a more humble circumstance than Donald Trump. Not to say she isn't wealthy today, but I do think that her experience in government would be more in line with the experiences of Fayette County and the same with Bernie Sanders. And I would think in the long run, the policies that she would support would be policies that would be to your benefit and your interest.
GREENE: Jim, thanks a lot.
DAVIS: Thank You.
GREENE: Jim Davis is Democratic Party chairman in Fayette County, Penn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.