One after another, the gamblers totter along the twisting walkway, bathed in artificial purple light — burdened, at least occasionally, by the instinct that they should have known better.
Usually, this pathway outside Parx Casino is reserved for self-flagellation, a private lament at the last hundred lost. But lately, as with most any gathering place around here since late January — the checkout line, the liquor store, the park nearby where losing lottery numbers are pressed into the mulch — patrons have found occasion to project their angst outward, second-guessing a November wager.
“Just like any other damn president,” sighed Theresa Remington, 44, a home-care worker and the mother of two active-duty Marines, scraping at an unlit cigarette. She had voted for Donald Trump because she expected him to improve conditions for veterans and overhaul the health care system. Now?
“Political bluster,” Remington said, before making another run at the quarter slots. She wondered aloud how Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont might have fared in the job.
Such is a view from this swing county of a swing region of a swing state that powered Trump’s improbable victory, an electoral thermometer for a president slogging toward the end of his first 100 days. Across the country, Republican officials have grown anxious at their standing on even ruby-red turf, sweating out a closer-than-expected victory last week in a House race in a Kansas congressional district that Trump had carried by 27 points. Another stress test arrives Tuesday, with a special election for a House seat in Georgia.
But it is here, among voters in one of the nation’s few true tossup districts, where any lasting strain may be felt most acutely.
In consecutive presidential elections, Pennsylvania’s 8th District, which includes Bucks County and pockets of Montgomery County, has delivered Republican nominees their narrowest margins of victory in a congressional district. Mitt Romney won it by one-tenth of a point in 2012. Trump prevailed by two-tenths, attracting many of the relatively affluent and educated white suburban voters who were expected to lift Hillary Clinton, last year’s Democratic candidate.
The result is a patch of purple political terrain — specked with tree-lined blocks, sprawling estates and multiplying recovery houses — that looks much like the rest of a bitterly divided country, sorting itself generally into three camps: those with regrets about supporting Trump, those without them and those who cannot believe anyone supported him in the first place.
“No one wants to be wrong,” said Brian Mock, 33, a tattoo artist in Levittown, Pennsylvania, and a Trump skeptic. “It’s seeing a house on fire and saying, ‘That house isn’t on fire.’ It is very clearly on fire.”
Yet interviews with voters across the district suggest a nuanced view of a president getting his sea legs. Many still trust him, but wonder why his deal-making instincts do not seem to be translating. They admire his zeal, but are occasionally baffled by his tweets. They insist he will be fine, but suggest gently that maybe Vice President Mike Pence should assume a more expansive role.
Perhaps most forcefully, they question when they will begin to see more of that word they were promised, the outcome that voters were supposed to be “sick and tired of” by now, in Trump’s campaign estimation.
“It’s not what he’s done, it’s what he’s trying to do,” said Bill Yokobosky IV, 33, a train engineer from Langhorne, Pennsylvania, who was waiting for a haircut at a strip mall. “He hasn’t succeeded, really.”
Like many colleagues from his rail union, Yokobosky defied leadership wishes in voting for Trump. He does not regret it, and he is eager to defend the president against the “nitpicking” of opponents, particularly over any links to Russia. But he has come to consider the perils of a commander in chief plainly “trying to learn on the fly.”
“He’s fighting himself, and he’s fighting Washington,” Yokobosky said. “They’re just trying to get settled in there.”
Trump is not the only newcomer getting acclimated. The district’s congressman is Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent whose brother Mike won, lost and reclaimed the seat over the past dozen years before stepping aside in January.
At times, Fitzpatrick, a Republican, has created conspicuous distance from Trump, criticizing his attempts to ban travel from several predominantly Muslim countries and opposing the Trump-backed health care bill that failed in the House.
But Fitzpatrick has gained little traction, at least so far, on a pet issue: redistricting reform. “We need more districts like this,” he said. “It’s a bellwether.”
Some critics of the president seem to hope so, describing a change in at least a handful of Trump-supporting neighbors recently: a humbling in the face of his stumbles, among voters who used to gloat.
“They’ve quieted down,” said Doug Meginley, the manager at Positively Records in Levittown, perched beside an Elvis mask, a Vanilla Fudge drumhead and a Monkees-themed tambourine. “The Trump supporters know.”
At the same time, many in the area have made a point of reinforcing their loyalty, letting bumper stickers linger and Facebook posts bloom.
In December, some traveled west to Hershey, Pennsylvania, for a stop on Trump’s “thank you” tour.
Patricia Poprik, chairwoman of the Bucks County Republican Committee, brought her two granddaughters, one of whom had requested a meeting with Trump as a Christmas gift.
“He goes, ‘Girls, you gotta do better than that,'” Poprik recalled of the presidential greeting backstage.
Holding forth last week at the committee’s stately headquarters in Doylestown, Poprik said many residents who initially feared publicly identifying as Trump voters had unmasked themselves since the election.
She acknowledged some “glitches” early on, including Trump’s halting progress on key campaign promises. But she remained broadly supportive.
“He thought he could go faster. I knew he couldn’t,” Poprik said from her office, which includes a talking George W. Bush doll; two Trump-branded water bottles; and several hundred elephant-themed trinkets. “You’ve got to get your rhythm.”
Many seem inclined to give him the space. Last month, hundreds gathered in frigid temperatures at a park in Bensalem for an event without the president, or any marquee speakers, simply to say they had his back.
“It’s really disheartening what they’re putting him through,” said Jeanne Maher, 66, from Langhorne, whose husband, a bonsai artist, affixed a “Hillary for Prison” sticker to his motorcycle during the campaign.
That message is gone now, but they have not removed a campaign lawn sign. “We’re proud of it,” she said. “We don’t want to take it down.”
Other local displays have been maintained less happily.
A winning symbol
Mike Mallon, 42, who owns a custom printing company in Bensalem, has kept a sign in front of his home since shortly before the election, positioning it now beside two small American flags and beneath a porch that includes two headless mannequins.
“WORRY,” the poster reads simply. He had hoped to take it down in November.
Then there is the rendering Mallon created himself, a canvas depicting the outlines of Trump’s face, barbed wire, a border wall and a pile of ironic trophies. The piece’s title is familiar, he said.