What plays better in the Rust Belt - hope or despair?
Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump bet on the latter during a stop at a suburban high school here Monday, painting a picture of a Pennsylvania economy decimated by the collapse of its manufacturing sector and the death of coal mining.
In an apocalyptic speech that conjured up the post-industrial Pennsylvania of years past, the Manhattan real estate mogul told a capacity crowd at Cumberland Valley High School that “the Harrisburg area is not doing too good.”
“We’re going to get it back. The destruction of manufacturing in Pennsylvania was caused by Hillary Clinton’s policies,” he said, pointing to President Bill Clinton’s support for the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s.
Over the last 20 years, manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania dropped from about 950,000 to about 565,000 statewide, David Taylor, the president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, said.
The culprits? China and its cheap steel and devalued currency, Mexico with its cheap labor, American employers (including Trump himself) who offshore their goods to take advantage of lower prices.
It was a message custom-tailored for a blue-collar crowd of about 4,600 people. And it worked.
“He’s gonna create jobs and get our infrastructure going. He’s going to build a wall and screen out all the illegals who are bringing our country down,” Ralph Zorn Sr., 67, a retired coal miner said.
Trump’s campaign swing through one central Pennsylvania’s fastest-growing counties came just three days after Hillary Clinton, barnstormed the state in the wake of last week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
The tone of those appearances could not have been more different.
In stops in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, Clinton painted a more optimistic picture of a state that, while still lagging the rest of the nation in job-growth and other economic indicators, is nonetheless rebounding.
“I’ve seen what Pittsburgh has done,” Clinton told a crowd at Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center. “I’ve had a first-hand look at how this great American city has reinvented itself.”
“It didn’t happen by people insulting each other, or people pointing fingers and demeaning each other,” Clinton said.
Like Scranton, which Trump barnstormed last week, Pittsburgh was similarly hard hit by the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s. The city has since regained its footing and has a burgeoning reputation as a center for the life sciences.
The back-to-back appearances in a must-win battleground state makes plain the importance of Pennsylvania to their respective electoral chances.
Republicans have not carried the Keystone State since the election of President George H.W. Bush in 1988.
In conversations and speeches at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland two weeks ago, GOP leaders said they were looking to break that 28-year losing streak this fall.
Trump came into Monday’s rally with ground to make up both in Pennsylvania and nationally.
Trump was trailing Clinton by 7 points, 46-39 percent in a CBS News poll released Monday, in a standard post-convention bounce. The CBS poll did not include either Green Party candidate Jill Stein or Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson
Clinton had a narrower, 45-42 percent lead in a Public Policy Poll released Monday, which included both Stein and Johnson. In a direct, head-to-head contest, excluding the other two candidates, Clinton held a 4 percent lead, at 49-45 percent.
At a campaign stop in Ohio earlier in the day Monday, Trump told a town hall in Columbus that he feared the general election might be rigged, though he gave no evidence to support it, The Chicago Tribune and other outlets reported.
Trump repeated that claim - if briefly - here Monday. But he started his speech much as he began it: With a focus on the pocketbook issues that he hopes will elevate him over Clinton.
“We are going to make great, magnificent trade deals and bring jobs back to our country, to Pennsylvania and Michigan and Ohio, and everywhere we’ve lost them,” Trump said, without offering any specifics on how he might do so.
The crowd ate it up.
And moments later, Trump left the stage as the strains of The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” filled the room and the audience filed out of the gym.
Optimism might sound better but no one has ever lost money betting on America’s darker angels.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org