The Swing from Obama to Trump – What Happened?

 In 2016, Judy Czachor, 72, a retired resident of Scranton, Pennsylvania, decided to change her voter’s registration from Democrat to Republican, despite having voted for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election.

The reason, said Czachor, was that she felt neglected by her own party and felt it was time for a change. “I’m tired of the Democrat’s way, and Trump seems to be the better candidate” she said. “Sure he’s a bit mouthy, but who isn’t?”

Donald Trump became the first Republican candidate since 1988 to win Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has been staunchly Democratic; in the 2012 elections, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by a 5.2 percentage-point advantage, and in 2008, Obama beat John McCain by a 10.4 percentage-point advantage.

In Lackawanna County, which has historically voted Democratic, Clinton narrowly defeated Trump with 49.8 percent of the vote over Trump’s 46.4 percent, according to Election Return Pennsylvania.

“There were a lot of voters who were just sick of politics as usual,” said Gregg Murray, professor of political science at Augusta University in Georgia, about the 2016 presidential election. “They didn’t like the way professional politicians act and behave and things they do.” Thus, voters with little attachment to either party chose Trump, who was completely disruptive to conventional politics, rather than Clinton, who was perceived as a professional politician, said Murray.  

Voters also turned to Trump because he was a Washington outsider who promised to “drain the swamp,” unlike Clinton who has spent 45 years in politics and was regarded as a Beltway insider. G. Terry Madonna, professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA,  said that conservative values espoused by Trump, such as opposing abortion and homosexuality, were attractive to swing voters, and that some people were “sick of the Clintons and did not want to see them back in power.” He added that some people strongly disliked Clinton, so much so that suddenly a man with no political experience appeared to be promising.

Political scientists attributed the swing of votes in such cities as Scranton, the seat of Lackawanna County, to white working-class voters. According to the Pew Research Center, Trump gained more support from non-college white voters than any other candidates in exit polls since 1980. Two-thirds (67 percent) of non-college whites voted for Trump, while just 28 percent of them backed Clinton in 2016, giving him a 39 percentage-point advantage among this group. While in 2008 and 2012, non-college whites also preferred Republican candidates to Democrats in the presidential race, the margin was smaller (58 percent and 40 percent, and 61 percent and 36 percent, respectively).

Robert Speel, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University Behrend, said that working class voters were attracted to Trump’s celebrity status, and his portrayal of himself as a successful businessman. Some also believed in his promise to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States.

“Many people mourned the loss of those [types of] jobs in cities like Scranton,” said Speel. With a total of 281,000 people in the Scranton labor force, the number of manufacturing employees dropped from 34,300 in 2006 to 27,400 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There has, however, been a slight increase in manufacturing workers, reaching 28,200 in September.

Franklin & Marshall professor Madonna said that many blue-collar, white Americans voted for Trump because they were afraid that immigrants would take their jobs. “They didn’t want to lose out to an illegal immigrant—or any immigrant for that matter—and Trump promised to put them first.”

Augusta University’s Murray concurs, but said that blue collar concerns extended  beyond illegal immigration. “Trump spoke to the issues that were of concern to these types of voters, such as a fear of police brutality, infrastructure, and  trade policies,” he said.

Today, Czachor is still confident about  her decision to switch from a Democrat to a Republican. In light of the scandal surrounding Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Czachor felt that Democrats’ treatment of the then-Supreme Court nominee was a transgression she couldn’t ignore. “After I saw what they tried to do to Judge Kavanaugh, I definitely know I did the right thing.”



Email the authors, Lavanya Nair and Frances Yunfan Yue at ln1066@nyu.edu and yy2730@nyu.edu.