Bethlehem steels itself for tight election finish | US presidential elections 2016: What do I need to know? | DW | 03.11.2016
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US elections 2016

Bethlehem steels itself for tight election finish

Thousands of jobs left Bethlehem when the steelworks shut down, but the Rust Belt town has put its post-industrial woes behind it. It's one of the places Donald Trump needs to win and Hillary Clinton needs to keep blue.

You might not know it, but chances are you have sat in, walked over or climbed across a little piece of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The town's sprawling steelworks supplied beams for many of America's most iconic structures: the Golden Gate Bridge, the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, even the world's first Ferris wheel - designed for the 1893 Chicago World's fair - were all built with Bethlehem steel.

Bethlehem's steel mills lie silent now. The gigantic blowing engines are coated in rust and weeds. After decades of decline, the towering pistons finally stopped pumping in the late 1990s. Thousands of jobs were lost.

This story - a familiar one across the American "Rust Belt" - should make Bethlehem fertile ground for Donald Trump's protectionist message. And it is the exactly the kind of place the Republican challenger needs to win to have any chance of taking the White House: Pennsylvania is a key swing state, and Bethlehem has backed the statewide winner in every presidential election since 1952.

But Bethlehem is not quite the typical tale of blue-collar woe. The old steel mill's 1,800 acre (6.5 square kilometers) site has been transformed into a landscaped urban park lined with wild flowers and interpretive panels. There's an arts center and a casino resort with 2,400 employees. Further out of town, new industrial parks are filled with e-commerce companies attracted by the proximity to New York and New Jersey. 

"Bethlehem is going through something of a renaissance," says Stephan Ohl, who moved to Pennsylvania a decade ago with his young family. "There used to be a lot of vacancies on the streets. Now a lot of those stores are filled up.

Battle underway

Established by Moravians in the 17th century, and christened by a visiting German count, downtown Bethlehem has a dedicatedly middle class, New England feel. Trees coated in auburn and russet stand picturesquely outside antiques shops and delicatessens. 

The rusting steelworks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Bethlehem has managed to pull itself up from its bootstraps since the steelworks closed

Obama won here twice, handsomely in 2008 and somewhat less emphatically in 2012. But this time around, Trump has some reasons to be cheerful. In 2014, the local county legislature, Northampton, went red for the first time in decades. This year, Republican voter registration has easily outstripped Democratic.

"Vote Hillary" placards pepper the lawns of the winsome colonial-era houses in the center of Bethlehem, but in the flat farming country that surrounds the town the only signs are for Trump. 

Businessman Dave Petrozzo blames Democrats for increasing taxes on his e-cigarette outlet. "We are totally over-regulated," says Petrozzo as he watches college football in Joe's Tavern in downtown Bethlehem. "I'm voting for Trump because I am fed up with the status quo and all these career politicians."

Across the road, Clinton campaign HQ is plastered in colorful banners: Puerto Ricans for Hillary, African-Americans for Hillary, Students for Hillary. Bethlehem's Latino population has grown markedly in recent years. The town is also to home to four universities. All of this should be good news for the Democratic candidate - but her supporters are concerned about the impact of the recently announced FBI probe into the emails of Clinton aide Huma Abedin.

"Even though it's a battleground state we felt good, not overly confident but good. Then the emails came," says Vicky Orth surrounded by clipboards and Clinton leaflets. "They will do anything they can to prevent Hillary becoming president."

Fifty-year-old Beth Fisher left her San Diego home a month ago to come to Bethlehem and campaign for Clinton. "This one of the top 10 swing counties in the whole of the United States," she explains. "In the nicer, upper class areas it's Clinton. You go to the working class areas, it's Trump."

A hand-drawn sign on a sidewalk reads 'I'm with her'

Clinton's campaign has two offices in Bethlehem, population 75,000

In a tight race, mobilizing voters could be key. Clinton's two offices in Bethlehem have a disciplined, highly organized feel. The official campaign spokesperson says she cannot talk to DW without authorization from head office. 

Trump's campaign is far more ad hoc. On the last Saturday before the vote, the Republican has no obvious street presence save a few supporters sporting stickers.

Trump, however, is hoping to tap into wider disquiet over decades of stagnant wages. Stephan Ohl is no fan of the reality TV star but says that his family has seen little improvement in living standards since the 2008 financial crash.

"My wife is a nurse and she has gone a couple of years without a raise. You go to the grocery store and a gallon of milk has gone up a dollar in five years but your wages haven't," he says.

'Nothing to be proud of'

Back in Joe's Tavern, Al Sinift has little love for either candidate. "The national election of America has turned into Jerry Springer," he says, referring to the popular TV show famed for its over-the-top stories.

Sinift is planning to vote for the Libertarian Party's Gary Johnson. "Everyone says that's a throwaway vote, but the other two are throwaway votes too, so I might as well vote for someone I agree with more if I'm going to throw my vote away anyway," he says. "Polls have Johnson on around 6 percent in Pennsylvania, potentially enough to swing the state in one direction or another. 

Prasad Tholasi, originally from southern India, has lived in Bethlehem for a decade. The convenience store worker is scathing about the current election.

"The American elections have become like the Indian elections - dirty. After Trump came in. It was not like that before. Now it has become very bad. It is not an example to the whole world," he says over a beer between shifts.

There have been plenty of heated bar room debates in the run-up to the vote, says owner Shelley Selleck. But regardless of who wins on November 8 she is confident that all her clients will be able to share a drink afterwards.

"Whatever happens we will be okay," says Selleck. "Everyone will still be friends." Millions will be hoping that the same can be said for the rest of the United States by end of Tuesday evening.

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