Northampton County, a bellwether in Pennsylvania, will be place to watch on Election Night

Walnutport, Pennsylvania
CNN
 — 

It is dusk on a crisp, perfect fall evening, and at the end of the long gravel driveway, Cindy Deppe is waiting with a smile and a choice: Screen One or Screen Two.

She’s running the ticket booth at Becky’s Drive-In, a Lehigh Valley treasure. The family-owned business for 76 years now, is a throwback and a survivor in a slice of America that is a very different place than it was when William Beck first fired up the projector on this site in 1946.

Bethlehem Steel anchored the Lehigh Valley economy then, along with the Atlas Cement Company. Democrats dominated local politics.

But nowadays in Northampton County, the home of Walnutport, times – and politics – have changed.

“This area,” Cindy’s son, Christopher Deppe, put it, is the battleground within the battleground.

Walnutport is a borough in Northampton County. It is a mostly rural county dotted with farms and small towns – 377 square miles in all – but also home to the small and smaller cities Bethlehem and Easton.

Barack Obama carried Northampton County twice. Donald Trump won it in 2016, and Joe Biden narrowly flipped Northampton County back to blue in 2020. Only 25 counties in America share that voting pattern.

This year, Northampton County will be a place to watch on Election Night, first because of its history as a Pennsylvania bellwether, but also because the 8 p.m. ET poll closing time means it will be among the first swing counties to report results.

As Deppe runs the digital projectors on this Friday night, he breaks an unwritten family rule, half grimacing, half grinning.

“I have made my choices: I’m rooting for Shapiro and John Fetterman,” he says, referring to Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania governor, and Fetterman the Democratic Senate nominee. “If you drive around this area you are likely to see more Mastriano and Dr. Oz signs, but I really do think those people are in the vocal minority.”

Only three times in the last century has the Northampton County winner in a presidential race not also carried the commonwealth and won the White House.

Competitive of late is an understatement: Trump carried the county by 3.4 percent in 2016. Four years later, Biden eked out a 1,233 vote county win —a margin of less than one percentage point.

That explains that unwritten family rule of not talking politics at Becky’s Drive In.

“People are pretty heated,” Dean Deppe, Christopher’s father and Cindy’s husband, says as he fills orders at the refreshment stand. “We try to minimize it because, you know, we don’t want to disengage half our customer base.”

Casual conversations with movie goers Friday night ranged from liberal college students to a Trump-voting grandfather who ended talk of politics politely but quickly “because it just riles me up.”

The leaves are beginning to change colors, which means the screens will soon go dark until spring.

And it means Northampton County will soon help answer several pressing midterm questions.

The Pennsylvania governor appoints the Secretary of State, and Republican Doug Mastriano is an election denier who tried to help Trump overturn the state’s 2020 count here.

Plus, the Fetterman-Oz race could settle which party controls the Senate come January.

And all of Northampton County is in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, an early, Eastern time zone test of whether vulnerable Democrats are able to hang on in a midterm climate that historically is unkind to members of the incumbent President’s party.

Rep. Susan Wild is the Democratic incumbent here. She won with 52% in 2020 and faces the same Republican opponent in 2022.

The district lines were redrawn a bit after the last census, and the new territory leans heavily red.

“I know what history says,” Wild, who was first elected in the last midterm cycle in 2018, tells CNN. “This is a different kind of year.. … I don’t think the old rules apply anymore.”

One old rule is that turnout drops in midterm years, and the party out of power usually benefits from higher enthusiasm.

Wild’s Saturday visit to the Easton Farmers’ Market was part of an effort to make sure that dropoff doesn’t happen this year.

“Don’t forget to vote. November 8” is her refrain as she wanders from vendor to vendor to say hello and make her case.

One stand is selling indigenous Latin American bags and art.

“Nice to see you. You live here in Easton?’” Wild asks.

“I do,” is the response.

“It’s such a great place,” Wild says.

And it’s critical to Democratic math.

Easton is one of just two reliably Democratic pieces of this complicated county. Bethlehem is the other.

In a county that is 86% White, according to the Census Bureau – and with race and education among the most telling divides in American politics – Easton is 67% White and by far the most diverse slice of the county. Biden won every Easton voting ward handily; his smallest margin of victory was 24 points.

Bethlehem, too, is a deep blue piece of Northampton County. It has more than 75,000 residents – nearly 25% of the county total population – and it is 79% White. Further, 42% of Bethlehem residents have a least a bachelor’s degree; the county average is 32%.

Much of Bethlehem has a suburban feel, and at a rally on Saturday, Wild turned to the issue Democrats believe just might help them defy midterm history.

“My opponent has said that she is open to national ban on abortion,” Wild told the crowd at Northampton Community College.

In the gym, the line was well received.

Across the street from campus, Chad Horton held a sign making clear inflation is more important to him. Covid-19 restrictions backed by Democrats also shape his midterm mood.

“Susan Wild has definitely not earned the privilege of being reelected,” Horton said. “They put people out of work. I’m going to put them out of work.”

Businesswoman Lisa Scheller is Wild’s opponent – and very much hopes the old midterm rules do apply.

One Scheller TV ad opens with grainy images of Wild, President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“The Biden Democrats are hurting Pennsylvania families with their radical agenda,” the narrator says.

A second ad strikes a similar theme: “Biden and Pelosi’s economic polices are hurting us. Susan Wild is with them.”

Wild’s counter, in a TV ad and every time she can when talking to voters, is to call herself a bipartisan moderate.

“I grew up in a household with a dad who was a conservative Republican and a mom who was a liberal Democrat,” she tells a man who recalled seeing the TV ad. “So I guess I was born to be bipartisan.”

Wild knows the stakes here come Election Night.

Republicans are sending in late money, and in the neighboring 8th Congressional District, where Democrat Matt Cartwright is also in a 2020 rematch and also in a race rated as a tossup.

“If you see on election night that Matt Cartwright and I have held our seats, then you are going to see that the Democrats hold on to their majority in the House,” she said in an interview. “These are truly two of the most pivotal races in the entire country.”

Mount Bethel is an 18-mile drive from Easton, following PA 611 up the banks of the Delaware River. It gets more rural by the mile, and by the time the highway bends away from the river, it is clear where Trump got many of the votes to almost overcome the big Biden edges in Easton and Bethlehem.

Trump ran it up in tiny Mount Bethel, which is 92% White, winning one of its voting districts by 45 points.

Like Becky’s Drive-In, the Mt. Bethel Diner is a throwback.

A counter with vinyl stools, the walls lined with vintage booths. A menu of hearty breakfast staples, and a waitress quick to bring coffee and a warm welcome. But there is a modern-day exception to the throwback theme: When we ask if we can talk to patrons about their midterm votes, the owner says no – that CNN isn’t welcome here. She says Trump won, and we don’t tell the truth.

Pen Argyl is just shy of 10 miles away, PA 611 to PA 512.

Biden lost big here, too. And you are far more likely to see Republican lawn signs.

“We’re just a little hick town,” local barber John Cuono says. “There’s about 3,000 people here.”

Cuono has cut hair in this same spot since his discharge from the Navy 59 years ago, first working with his father, then taking over the small shop on West Main Street.

“They are not into it like the used to be,” he said of talking politics with customers. “All they are is a downer.”

Cuono is a registered Democrat but voted for Trump twice. “Well, he did as heck of a job,” the 86-year-old says. “I liked what he was doing.”

Cuono reads the newspapers and watches the news. He knows about all the Trump investigations and does not dispute that Trump tried to stay in power after the election was certified for Biden. “I look at it this way: he got caught,” Cuono said. “But how many other presidents did the same thing and didn’t get caught. You know. We don’t know.”

Would he vote Trump again?

“I’m really not sure. I’d have to hear what he has to say and who is running against him.”

Local newspapers are sprinkled around the barber shop, and Cuono says he is debating his 2022 choices. He is still undecided in the governor’s race and says likely to decide in the voting booth.

“I think I am going to go with Dr. Oz,” is his take on the Senate race. “He knows a little bit about life. …I don’t know about Fetterman. I don’t know much about the man.”

Of Wild, his Democratic congresswoman, Cuono says: “She is a whirlwind. … Sometime she is alright. Sometimes she’s bad. …I’m not sure on her.”

The drive in this part of the county is telling.

There are still some Trump-Pence 2020 signs hanging, plus flags and placards deriding Biden, some by full name, some by the initials “FJB” and some by his favorite MAGA nickname.

One homemade sign along the roadside in Bangor suggested, in red spray paint, this antidote to inflation:

“Make Everything 1/2 Price Again Trump 2024.”

First, complicated but critical Northampton County gets to deliver its 2022 verdict.