The Little County in a Swing State
JIM THORPE, Pa.—Most citizens of Carbon County are not your shout-from-the-rooftop types. And it’s a brave soul who openly reveals their pick for president this year. Asking someone is a bit dicey. It can elicit a similar reaction to inquiring about their most embarrassing moment: a quick glance around at who might be listening, hushed tones, a bit of circling around and deflection.
For many in the state where the Constitution was written, this election feels more like a splinter getting pulled than a glorious moment of democracy.
In true battleground style, the winner of Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes will likely go down to the wire. And Carbon County, population 64,000, is the microcosm in which the state’s angst is being reflected.
One middle-aged woman is voting for the first time ever. “Fear has motivated me,” she said. She was very careful to say that she’s not voting for Hillary Clinton—rather, she’s voting against Donald Trump.
Another middle-aged woman practically glowed with pride when recalling her first time voting at 18 and every election year since. Not this cycle. She is abstaining. “Not voting is my vote,” she said.
A couple of hardy looking men said they were definitely voting, but, a little sheepishly, refused to say for whom. “I’ve got nothing good to say,” one said.
Then there are the all-important undecideds, the reason the Clinton and Trump campaigns have visited Pennsylvania 15 and 17 times respectively since the end of July. No other state is being wooed so attentively by both candidates.
Carbon County is worth keeping an eye on. In uncanny fashion, the citizens of the 387-square-mile chunk in eastern Pennsylvania have chosen the eventual winner of the state in all but three elections in the last 100 years (they missed 1960, 2000, and 2004). And Pennsylvania itself is one of the winningest states, behind Illinois and Ohio. It has correctly chosen the eventual president in 34 of the last 43 elections (back to 1844).
So, the 42,246 registered voters of Carbon County are considered a bellwether for the state’s nearly 8.6 million voters. County voters have registered in larger numbers this year: 18,400 Democrats, 17,690 Republicans, and 6,156 third-party or unknown.
Since 1996, the state, and more so the county, has shifted to the right.
In the 2012 presidential election, Carbon County voted for Mitt Romney by a full 7.5 points—a significant departure from the state and nation, which voted for Barack Obama.
As expected in a swing state, opinions run the gamut. The majority of people aren’t happy with either choice—the most common phrase uttered was: “The lesser of two evils.” Slightly more people are voting against a candidate rather than for one. And many are still not sure.
Sarah Zurawa, a 21-year-old Penn State graduate, is excited about voting for the first time, but doesn’t yet know for whom. Her parents are also undecided after initially supporting Trump—she said they changed their minds after the first presidential debate on Sept. 26.
Zurawa, who works in marketing for an adventure company based in Jim Thorpe, a hub for outdoor activities, is one of Bernie Sanders’s millennial supporters.
“Some people just went straight to Hillary, but I didn’t want to give in that easy,” she said.
Sanders squeaked past Clinton in the Democratic primary by 76 votes in Carbon County: 3,460 votes to 3,384.
Where Sanders’s 3,460 votes go is critical for Clinton, considering the 6,038 votes that won Trump the Republican primary. If Clinton doesn’t win over Sanders supporters, she’ll likely lose Carbon County.
And, true to her word, Zurawa is doing her homework—including looking at third-party candidates Jill Stein for the Green Party and Libertarian Gary Johnson. Environmental issues concern her the most, but immigration is also a factor, so she is delving into the candidates’ policy positions on those issues.
She says she’ll also judge based on character, and she doesn’t like the way Trump talks about people. “I consider myself a kind person, an accepting person, and I like to see that in other people, especially someone who is leading my country.”
But, Zurawa says she doesn’t like Clinton either.
‘Speak Your Mind’
Anne Marie Fitzpatrick is having an easier time heading toward election day. She is very clear on her choice for Trump.
Initially reticent to talk politics in the gift shop she has owned for 27 years, Fitzpatrick said, “There’s times when you have to stand up and speak your mind.”
Fitzpatrick won’t place a campaign sign at her shop, but she is one of two people on the main street in Jim Thorpe township who has a Trump sign outside her house. (The lone Clinton sign on the same street is directly across the road.)
“The important thing now is getting our country back on track,” she said. “We’re a disgrace.”
Fitzpatrick considers Trump a “seasoned businessman” who can more likely help the economy. “We need somebody that has the expertise behind them to get us out of the hole we’ve been dug into by the Democratic Party.”
Like many other Trump supporters, Fitzpatrick appreciates the way he talks. “We are so politically correct that we’re destroying our country,” she said.
She is undeterred by the firestorm that erupted against Trump after a video surfaced of him degrading women, as well as allegations of sexual assault. While top Republicans such as Paul Ryan and John McCain rushed to distance the GOP from Trump, his die-hard supporters remain unapologetic.
“Come on, grow up, I’ve heard worse in a bar. I don’t like what he said, but … And how many years ago? And he was in show business more so,” she said.
“I’m probably going to get in really big-time trouble for everything I’ve got to say.”
‘Dog and Pony Show’
When asked about the election, Randall Sellers, 47, uttered a common refrain: “I can’t wait until it’s over.”
Sellers is president of the Jim Thorpe Tourism Agency, the town’s chamber of commerce. He also owns a bookshop, and his tiny pencil drawings have been exhibited in New York, Santa Monica, Philadelphia, and Boston.
He said elections are becoming “more and more of a quadrennial dog and pony show” that has to take place so people feel like they have a say.
But, he said, “whether Hillary or Trump gets in, we’ll still have the national security state acting on behalf of globalist corporate interests.”
Sellers said the country’s national security is at the behest of the banking industry, big oil, military, pharmaceutical companies, and media corporations.
“They offshore everything … and are responsible to no one.”
He said he backed Sanders in the primary and will now vote for Clinton—although he had to think about it.
“I support the candidate who best finds the middle way between the power structure and the needs of everyone, of all classes of people,” he said.
His role with the tourism agency has given him a greater appreciation of how to balance competing interests, while knowing you can’t please everyone.
The Rest of Carbon County
To the southwest of Jim Thorpe is Palmerton, which suffered the same boom and bust fate as most of Carbon County, but with zinc rather than coal. After more than 80 years of industrial mining by the New Jersey Zinc Company, Palmerton was left with a toxic superfund site—an enormous smelting residue pile called the “Cinder Bank,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Heavy metals, including cadmium, lead, and zinc, were released into the air and water during the smelting process. The Environmental Protection Agency has been cleaning up the site since 1987.
The area has recovered somewhat and tourism is a big drawcard. Rafting runs and skiing areas, as well as the Appalachian Trail, are all close by.
To the northeast is Lake Harmony, a magnet for outdoors lovers and many wealthier people seeking a vacation home.
Nesquehoning to the west is the manufacturing hub of the county. The KME Group produces emergency vehicles sold nationally and globally—10,000 of its vehicles are currently in service, according to its website.
The more rural areas of Carbon County are very poor. Locals describe problems of high unemployment and prevalent use of heroin and meth.
Carbon County Demographics
Median age: 44.8 years
Race: 96.1 percent white, 1.3 percent black, 2.6 percent other
Median income: $49,913
Unemployment rate: 5.8 percent
Voters of Carbon County and Pennsylvania
- Carbon County: 42,246
- Pennsylvania: 8.57 million
Voters who changed affiliation this year
- In Pennsylvania:
109,000 changed to Democrat
151,000 changed to Republican
Voters who changed affiliation from 2008 to 2015
- In Pennsylvania:
133,440 changed to Democrat
172,269 changed to Republican
Voting Tendencies in Presidential Elections
What Other Carbon County Voters Are Saying
Ryan Kunkle, 31, undecided
Kunkle grew up in Lehighton. He works at Muggles’ Mug coffee shop in Jim Thorpe.
Kunkle was a big Bernie Sanders fan and is unhappy with the choice he now faces.
“I’m still undecided,” he said. “I don’t like either candidate. That’s where it becomes hard to decide. It might take up until the day, I might be standing at the ballot box.”
He is considering casting a write-in vote so he can still choose Sanders.
“People say that’s giving away my vote,” he said. “But it’s my right and my vote.”
Kunkle has voted since he turned 18 and has chosen both Democratic and Republican candidates in the past.
“It’s really sad that it’s come to this.”
Paul Fayocavitz, 42, will vote Trump
Fayocavitz has lived in Carbon County for 13 years. He commutes to New York City and has worked as a mason foreman on some of Trump’s buildings.
“This is Trump country,” he said, standing by his truck with an NRA bumper sticker at the post office in Albrightsville. “If you’re an NRA supporter, a Constitution supporter, we have two [Supreme Court] judges to be put in office. That’s huge.”
Fayocavitz said his parents are divided this year, as his mother “thinks Hillary is the best thing since sliced bread.”
As with many people, Fayocavitz had mostly negative things to say about the media coverage of the election. Interviewees from both sides of the aisle said it is different from past years—and not in a good way.
Leslie Santos (will vote Trump) and Todd Tobias (undecided)
Santos and Tobias both work at Terra Cottage Cafe at Lake Harmony. Santos, 43, has voted Democrat all her life. But this year she is adamant Trump is the best choice for the economy. She said she has heard of people unfriending each other on Facebook because of differing views.
Chef Tobias, 31, said he was initially for Trump, but now says that because he has a young daughter, he can’t vote for Trump.
“After the next debate, I’ll have to decide,” he said. “This election is crazy.”