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In Pennsylvania and nationally, Trump's problems with suburban voters blunt his ascent

In Pennsylvania and nationally, Trump's problems with suburban voters blunt his ascent
Hillary Clinton campaigned with Vice President Joe Biden last month in Scranton, Pa. (AFP/Getty Images)

Marie Jeffries has a very firm view of Donald Trump, and she says it won't change in the nine weeks before election day.

"He's a wild man. I think he might put us into a war," said Jeffries, who was among hundreds sauntering down Main Street in this southeastern Pennsylvania town on the balmy evening that opened Labor Day weekend.

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She once was intrigued by Trump, she said, but "then he started the shenanigans, and opened his trap."

"He's a bully," she said. "We're trying to get away from it in schools. Why have a bully as president?"

Her views matter. Jeffries is a 66-year-old woman who lives in the suburbs, in her case Philadelphia's. Right now, voters like her stand to cost Trump the presidential contests in key battleground states, starting with Pennsylvania.

Trump is caught in a powerful vise of his own making, between those who find him offensive, like Jeffries, and those who find him entrancing. The things he does and says that appeal to that latter group, which is dominated by white men, often alienate the suburban voters, particularly women, he needs if he is to broaden his base enough to win.

Mark Shimp is one of those Trump voters. He owns a plumbing company in Newtown, Pa., and calls Hillary Clinton "terrible"—the only printable description he can offer, he says.

"If there is a definition in the dictionary of what is wrong in politics, Hillary Clinton is it," he said, standing on his front porch, a Trump campaign sign on the lawn and American and Marine Corps flags flying from a pole nearby.

"How does she feel the pain of the middle class?"

In broad strokes, Trump and Clinton supporters are seldom near each other in much of the country. The Republican dominates rural, white America; the Democrat overwhelmingly wins the cities with their higher minority populations. But in this slice of Pennsylvania north and west of Philadelphia, where the suburbs meet the exurbs, the two sides collide.

Already, the campaign has left many voters wary.

At a farmer's market in Bucks County, north of Philadelphia, Christine Passarelli lamented that both candidates are "divisive" in different ways.

Nearby, at a Polish American festival in Doylestown, a woman who was asked about the presidential campaign raised her hands to her face and opened her mouth in a silent scream. A friend standing nearby laughed, shook her head in agreement and refused to talk about November's election.

Trump has consistently lagged in general election polls here, in a state where he is battling not only distaste with his style, but also demographics that have aligned voters with Democrats in every presidential election since George H. W. Bush's win in 1988.

In the last few decades, the population has dropped in the western part of the state and expanded in the east. The manufacturing communities that might be enticed by Trump's trade and cultural arguments have declined in political potency; heightened is the importance of urban areas, particularly Philadelphia, and the diversified economy that has taken hold in the suburban counties that ring it.

Between 2000 and 2010, census figures show, Pennsylvania grew by 3.4%. Montgomery County, where Lansdale is located, grew by 6.6%. Next-door Bucks County, home to Doylestown and Newtown, rose 4.6%. Counties in the west, meantime, lost residents.

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The west-to-east population shift has pushed the state toward moderation even as the Republican Party has become more conservative, setting up the disconnect that has bedeviled the party's nominees in six straight contests.

The latest statewide poll, by Franklin & Marshall College, showed Clinton with a 7 point lead among likely voters. That was a smaller gap than in August, but remains larger than President Obama's margin over Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election here.

Among Pennsylvania women, Clinton held a 10-point lead, whereas men were split between the candidates. Even among white women, a category usually secured by Republicans, Clinton led by 7. She had a striking 21-point margin among college-educated whites, a group that has never sided with a Democratic candidate in modern campaigns.

Many of those supporters are planted in the suburbs; in the more densely populated southeastern part of the state outside of Philadelphia, Clinton led by 14 points, offsetting Trump's more substantial margins in less-inhabited areas.

"Trump has to cut away the Democratic margins in suburban counties where Democrats have had a field day in past elections, which is why they win the state," said G. Terry Madonna, who directed the Franklin & Marshall College poll.

"The reason it's tricky is that he's got to appeal to men on trade." he said, "These are not the same interests as in the southeastern part of the state, in suburban Pennsylvania."

Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, who has surveyed extensively in Pennsylvania this year, said the changing economy of the state has helped Clinton. Voters working in healthcare or education—two of the big and, relatively, newer employers in southeastern Pennsylvania--"don't have the same economic woes" that have led manufacturing workers to "feel embattled and left behind," she said.

"They think he's a dolt," she said of the way many suburban voters, particularly the college-educated, see Trump. "Not a stupid person, but a caricature, a reality-TV caricature."

Trump's campaign dismisses the notion that with his hefty appeals to blue-collar men, Trump is blunting his ascent in the suburbs.

"I think Mr. Trump's message on increased national security, better schooling for kids, increased economic security, cuts across a wide swath" of Pennsylvania voters, said David Urban, a veteran of state political campaigns who is running the Republican's effort here. "Mr. Trump is not a traditional politician, as has been evident. I think that inures to our benefit."

Urban pointed to large crowds that Trump has drawn at recent events as indicative of an "enthusiasm gap" over Clinton. That argument was brushed aside by T.J. Rooney, a former Democratic state party chairman and state legislator backing Clinton.

"When he speaks in Pennsylvania, when his surrogates speak in Pennsylvania, they are speaking to people that should have been locked down three months ago," Rooney said. "There is no indication that he has expanded, added to his vote share. There's nothing to suggest he's making great inroads."

What Trump does have is intensity among voters like Shimp, who is a nearly perfect exemplar of Trump's base. Before the 2008 economic crash, he employed eight plumbers driving eight trucks. As business collapsed, he had to lay off his workers and sell his trucks, picking up on his own what jobs he could find.

He has started to rebuild his business, and now employs three plumbers. But he has been left with a visible distaste for politics as usual. He dislikes everything about Clinton—"I don't even like listening to her voice," he said.

"I'm just tired of the same old political nonsense in Washington. He can't do any worse than anyone else in D.C.," he said of Trump.

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And what of his candidate's more incendiary comments?

"I love it," he said of Trump's style. "What's wrong with people hearing the truth? What's wrong with calling a spade a spade?"

What's wrong, politically speaking, is the danger posed when that approach turns off the voters Trump needs. Sitting on a rock ledge near a Doylestown farmer's market on a sunny Saturday, Passarelli and her daughter Joanna Gianforcaro struggled with the choice ahead in November.

Both shrugged at a campaign they found less illuminating than contentious and ruled out either candidate as a slam dunk solution. Gianforcaro said neither Clinton nor Trump had demonstrated the "genuineness" she was seeking.

"Bottom line: I'm all for a woman president, but I don't think Hillary is that woman," said Gianforcaro. "But I don't know if I like the way he has put things either."

"It's just what comes out of his mouth—Blech," her mother replied.

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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