They are known as “reach” states. Every Presidential cycle Republicans and Democrats talk big about their chances in these states than back off or end up losing the states by campaign’s end. For the GOP of late, no state personifies this better than Pennsylvania. John McCain invested heavily in the state in 2008 and in 2012 Romney made a last week push to carry the red team over the finish line. McCain lost by 10% and Romney by 5%.
Recent 2016 Presidential analysis has focused on how narrow the playing field is for the GOP. In a May 7th column Larry Sabato of the Crystal ball wrote that “including leaning states Democrats start with an electoral base of 247 votes and the GOP a mere 206.” Only Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada were true toss-ups. But their analysis found Pennsylvania only leaning Democrat as opposed to being solidly blue. The GOP optimist will point to this as a sign they can compete in Pennsylvania. Democratic strategists largely shrug it off. And why not? Democrats can afford to.
Since the 2004 election, when Bush was the strongest Republican Presidential nominee to run in the state since his dad carried it in 88, Democrats have locked down the state in terms of voter registration. Between 2000 and 2014 the Democratic registration grew by over 650,000 voters. Worse, the GOP was decimated all over the state in 2006 and 2008. None of this paints a rosy picture for GOP chances in 2016. But there is reason to believe the GOP has a shot in the state. To understand why we must look at the state’s recent electoral history.
As mentioned above, H.W. was the last GOP Presidential nominee to carry the state (see map here). When Bush ran in 2004 he largely mimicked the same map but lost by 3% instead of winning by 4%. Why? Because of a couple of factors. First, when HW won he garnered 31% of the vote in Philly county. His son, despite doing well among minorities, only managed a meager 17%. Second, the suburbs have shifted blue. Starting in the 1992 election the urban Collar Counties started to shift light blue and the trend has only accelerated. These dense counties used to give the GOP a buffer when it came to covering their losses in Philly. Now, they merely add to the Democratic vote column.
Such a shift highlights the fact the parties have switched coalitions since 1988. The GOP historically won the state by winning rural, middle PA and the suburbs. Democrats dominated Philly and Western PA. But since 88 the GOP position in the suburbs and Philly has eroded but improved in urban and rural SE PA. Democrats have gotten the better of the shift though. Even though SW PA’s urban vote went GOP for the first time since 1972 the state was called early in the night. Again, because of Democratic strength in SE PA.
The shift in SE PA cannot be understated in its impact on the state’s leaning. In 1988, HW received 925,220 votes from SE PA while Dukakis received 862,891 (quote that to your friends). Fast forward to 2012 and Romney received 878,491 to Obama’s 1,450,278 votes. From the 88 election Democrats have picked up 587,387 votes and the GOP has lost over 46,000 votes.
Still, Republicans have proven they can win the state in midterms and Presidential years even amidst this shift. For example, in 2000 Rick Santorum won the state by 7% even as Gore won the state by 4%. In 2004, Arlen Specter won the state by 11% even as Kerry carried it by 2.5%. Most recently, in the 2010 midterm, the GOP dominated statewide executive offices and captured party switcher Specter’s Senate seat. They did it by running strongly in SE PA. Santorum and Specter did not lose a single Collar County and Toomey only lost Delaware and Montgomery Counties.
So the tempting answer for the GOP to be competitive in the state is appeal to the suburbs. But SE PA’s suburbs are dense and diverse so the GOP would also need to fix their issues with minority voters and women generally. Such an occurrence is not likely in one election. So there has to be another answer. Fortunately for the GOP there is. It will be time intensive and cost-heavy but it could work for 2016. It relates to George Carville’s famous statement “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle. Specifically, Alabama and Pittsburgh and it relates to voter registration.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, and the Census estimate of current voting-age population, there are more than 1.6 million such untapped voters residing in the state. Only 14% of them reside in Philly or Pittsburgh, a testament to Democratic success in the state. A solid majority, 62%-38%, reside in counties Romney won and a clear majority reside in the “Alabama” of the state.
Now, no deep analysis has been done on where these voters lean or their age, etc. It would not be a stretch to argue though these predominately rural, white and older voters would lean Republican though. So shouldn’t resources be out into the effort? And somebody is. The 2015 Pennsylvania registration numbers show something not seen for almost a decade,;among new voter registrations, Republicans outnumber Democrats.
This might explain why GOP leaning groups have promised to invest in the state heavily in 2016. There is also something else to consider. Since 2000, no Republican nominee has put serious money into the state. Bush in 04 spent most of his resources on Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and Florida. In 08 McCain abandoned the state. In 2012, Romney invested far more in Wisconsin and Iowa than he did Pennsylvania. He still managed to finish closer in the state than either of the latter.
All this points to how competitive Pennsylvania could be in 2016. The GOP would be served by improving in the suburbs but they likely will struggle with that in the immediate future. Better for the party to beat the Democrats at their own game; voter registration (as they have done in IA, OH and FL since 2012). Winning Pennsylvania would be a huge financial effort for the GOP nominee but aid by third-party groups could make it happen. If it does, the GOP map to the White House would get a lot wider.