The View From The Northeast Corridor: Deep Divisions Ahead Of 2016 Election
This story is part of" The View From," an election-year project focused on how voters' needs of government are shaped by where they live. The series started in Illinois, visited Appalachia, and this week, NPR took a road trip across two Northeastern states.
The Northeast Corridor is technically a rail network, running from Washington, D.C., through Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, ending in Boston.
Every state in the corridor voted Democratic in the 2012 election, along with the rest of the Northeast region, helping Barack Obama win a second term. In fact, the last time a state in the Northeast went red in a presidential election was in 2000, when New Hampshire went for George W. Bush.
But despite that electoral solidarity, a trip through the Northeast Corridor takes you to communities that are anything but uniform, and to places where Republicans are hoping to make inroads in November.
We visited two spots just outside some of America's biggest cities to find out more about what voters in the region are thinking ahead of the election.
Bucks County, Pa.
The first stop on our itinerary is the planned suburb of Levittown, Pa. It's about half an hour northeast of Philadelphia, just across the Delaware River from Trenton, the capital of New Jersey.
It's not far from where George Washington crossed the icy Delaware River on Christmas Day of 1776, to launch a surprise attack on Hessian mercenaries during the Revolutionary War.
Levittown was built in the 1950s. The houses were uniform then, and the people are still overwhelmingly white. But despite the homogeneity on Levittown's surface, it's in the heart of a hotly contested congressional district in a swing state.
The divisions between people are visible to the trained eye, according to Levittown resident Colleen Bateman.
"Those that are doing well, you can see it in their homes, they're adding on second floors, and their houses look very good," she says. "Other people seem to be having a problem finding jobs, and you can see in those homes, they look sort of rundown and not well-kept."
Bateman, a Democrat, says she is voting for Hillary Clinton, despite being a supporter of Bernie Sanders in the primaries.
Levittown itself leans Democratic, but Bucks County at large, which makes up most of Pennsylvania's 8th Congressional District, is very much up for grabs.
With Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick leaving office, Democrats see it as a place where they can pick up a seat, and the money from outside groups is sure to pour in. But most of the chatter we heard was about the presidential race.
Traditionally, places farther north in the county lean Republican, but that geographic distribution could change.
At a bar in town, we meet Republicans Pat Deon, a Pennsylvania Turnpike commissioner, and attorney Albert Mezzaroba. Deon owns the building, and the two sit in a sun-filled back room, smoking cigars and taking in a Phillies game on several big-screen TVs.
Deon tells us a lot of the working-class, union voters in Levittown could go for Donald Trump.
He says people are fed up with the status quo. But when we ask why, Mezzaroba says he is not sure. Times have certainly been worse.
"I don't know," Mezzaroba says. "Things aren't that bad. I don't know why everybody thinks they're so terrible. I mean, I don't get it. I truly don't get it. But they do."
But one thing is clear: Mezzaroba says he couldn't vote for Clinton.
Farther north, we meet some people who could be key to Republicans' fortunes in this county.
Jim Worthington, a GOP delegate, says he put up $35,000 of his own money to campaign for the honor during Pennsylvania's primary election.
His day job is overseeing the massive gym he owns in Newtown.
"It's called a lifestyle center. We coined the phrase like four years ago," he tells us, as we stroll by indoor basketball courts, down a flight of stairs through an open cardio room, and finally outside to a sprawling pool complex, complete with slides, fountains, a bar and a raised deck.
Worthington is trim, sharply dressed. You can tell he spends a lot of time in his gym, and not just behind his desk.
Tonight, he is hosting a gathering of Trump supporters who belong to the grass-roots organization People 4 Trump.
About 80 people are waiting on the deck as Worthington makes his way up the stairs to the microphone. He works the eager crowd like a seasoned politician — something, he insists, that he is not.
"I go to Cleveland, I say 'Donald Trump' — probably once — and I'm done. My career is ended."
The purpose of the outdoor meeting is to organize local Trump supporters.
Worthington tells the crowd the Republican Party doesn't plan to ramp up its efforts until after the convention. In Worthington's mind, that would be far too late, if it happens at all.
"Is the GOP going to get behind Trump?" he asks the group. "The way I look at it is, I'm assuming they're doing nothing, and we're doing everything, and anything we get out of them is a plus."
Supporters take turns voicing their concerns and reasons for backing Trump: immigration, economic concerns and outrage at a broken political system.
Wearing a Trump T-shirt, Terry Rubin takes the mic to tell a story about meeting a veteran.
"When you serve two tours in Afghanistan, you meet those people," Rubin says. She's angry.
"The people that are in Afghanistan wearing those same kind of burkas and those same type of dresses are the same people that are being sent over here," she says. "The same kind of people that we're going to be filled with!"
Most of the people here are fed up with the system.
Volunteers sign up to canvass door-to-door, and they suggest ways the group can organize online. But for a place that Republicans are hoping to keep red, there's some uncertainty.
At the end of the meeting, host Worthington asks supporters if they'll back the GOP candidate should Trump be denied the nomination at the Republican convention.
On that issue, this group of passionate Trump believers is divided, and the meeting ends with no clear consensus.
Jersey City, N.J.
Just across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan, you find Jersey City, where, from Liberty State Park, you can take in spectacular views of the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty. The view of Ellis Island is fitting: By some counts, 40 percent of Jersey City's residents are foreign-born.
People come from all walks of life and all corners of the world, but the city is solidly Democratic.
The new, gleaming high rises here are a sign of new wealth, Jersey City's development and gentrification.
But there's another side of the story.
At 31 years old, Raj Mukherji, a Democrat, has already served as a deputy mayor of Jersey City. He also spent time in the Marine Reserves. When he was a teenager, his parents had to go back to their native India for economic reasons. Mukherji stayed in the U.S. as an emancipated minor, building websites for political campaigns.
"I think the ethnic stereotype might have actually helped me out," he says, chuckling. "When I walked into these offices, adults would first wonder where my father or chaperone was, and then think, like, 'OK, you know, we can have this kid do our website! He must know IT!' "
Mukherji has a new job now, one for which he certainly doesn't fit any stereotype. He's a state legislator representing his district in New Jersey's General Assembly.
He represents a town that is roughly evenly divided four ways: between white, black, Asian and Latino. And within those communities, there's a range of economic fortunes as well.
Mukherji is clearly proud of his city — he calls New York his favorite suburb of Jersey City — but he rattles off problems, like health care costs and education inequality.
He is also concerned that immigrants in his town aren't voting.
"I hope that in this presidential election, people understand the importance of turning out to vote. Because there are states in play that otherwise wouldn't have perhaps been in play," he tells us, without mentioning New Jersey explicitly.
In Jersey City's Journal Square, Jessica Abdelnabbi Berrocal also wants to make sure immigrants turn out to vote in November.
Abdelnabbi Berrocal is the daughter of Colombian mother and Peruvian father. She was raised Roman Catholic, but a few years ago, she converted to Islam.
Now, in her hijab, she has made it her mission to register voters.
Donald Trump famously claimed that Muslim residents in Jersey City were celebrating on rooftops, watching as the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001.
"When I read that, I was like, what?" Abdelnabbi Berrocal is clearly annoyed. "How dare you? How dare you say that? God knows where he was at."
She remembers where she was. "When that happened, I saw it with my own eyes. We looked out of the window from the gym class, and we saw them fall."
She had Muslim friends, and she didn't associate them with the terrorists. "For me, I couldn't fathom the fact that they were putting it on a religion."
That moment set Abdelnabbi Berrocal in search of answers about Islam, and eventually, she converted. Now she spends most time trying to register voters at a Sept. 11 memorial in the city's Journal Square.
It's a central location where commuters from all different backgrounds catch a train and where homeless people congregate. But she realizes it's also a symbolic place.
Abdelnabbi Berrocal says Trump is spreading xenophobia and a false narrative about Muslims and immigrants, and that is motivating immigrants and their children to vote against him. She herself married an Egyptian man.
"My kids are Egyptian-Colombian-Peruvian, born in America," she says, laughing. "I am what you see in America right now."
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.