Pennsylvania has long been a stalwartly Democratic state at the Presidential level. Indeed, since 1988 the state has voted for the Democratic Presidential nominee by no less than 3 percent every time. But, if the polls are accurate, the winds of change might be blowing in the rapidly aging and diversifying blue state.
First, let’s start with what makes Pennsylvania what it is politically. Today, the state can be said to be made up of three regions, the formerly blue West, the deeply red mid central and the purple to light blue Southeastern Philly suburbs (including deeply blue Philly city). The Western region of the state used to be the strongest Democratic region of the state but as many counties populations have aged they have become more Republican culturally and fiscally. The center of the state has been referred to the “Alabama of the North” and has always been solidly red. Since 1988 the real battle in the state has been for the Philly suburbs.
In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by the hundred of thousands it would seem that Republicans would not be competitive at any level. But, just as in the South, registration numbers are deceiving. Many registered Democrats are based in the West and have abandoned the party at increasing rates. From 1988 to 2012 Republican have gradually turned the West into a solid shade of red. Republicans have actually made registration inroads in the highly competitive suburbs as well.
Republicans historically dominated the state from 1972-1988. The party only lost the state once in 1976 and by a mere few percentage points. Republicans did this by dominating the Philly suburbs and winning most of the rest of the state. The Presidential election of 1988 can be considered a watershed moment in the state’s political bent. It’s true HW carried the state but he did it by a mere 3 percent margin. Bush’s margins were severely cut in the Philly suburbs and he survived off the votes of rural Pennsylvania. In 1992, Clinton won Delaware and Montgomery Counties on the way to a nine percent victory in the state. He was the first Democratic nominee to carry a suburban Philly county in the state since 1964.
That precipitated a political realignment in the state that continues to this day. Today, the parties have essentially swapped coalitions. The Democrats strength is not just in urban Philly and Pittsburgh but also in the Philly suburbs (fueled by out of state migration). The GOP’s strength has only grown in the center of the state but also the formerly Democratic West.
Arguably, Democrats have gotten the better of the deal. The majority of the state’s population and voters continue to reside in the Philly suburbs and Democrats have made greater and faster gains in the region than the GOP has elsewhere. That is until 2010. Though not a Presidential election the election cycle featured a US Senate and gubernatorial election. Pat Toomey, the Republican Senate nominee, split the difference in the suburbs, winning Chester, Bucks, and Berk Counties. His opponent won much more dense Delaware and Montgomery Counties. Most notably, the realignment in the West was extremely pronounced with Joe Sestak, the Democratic nominee, carrying on metro Pittsburgh (Allegheny County) and losing all other counties.
In a higher turnout election a mere two years later the President dominated the suburbs. Romney carried Berks and Chester counties but by small margins. Obama’s victories in the suburbs were much larger. The President also extended his victories into North Hampton and LeHigh Counties, formerly red at the state and Senate level a mere two years earlier.
The 2014 midterms were telling. Not because the party lost scandal plagued Governor Tom Corbett. Rather the party held all its suburban Philly based Congressional districts and maintained its dominance in the legislature. It’s hard not to overstate just how powerful the GOP is at the state level today. Almost a third of the Democrat’s Caucus in the House hails from Romney districts while in the Senate even if Democrats flipped all five Obama/Republican districts they would still be in the minority.
Since the state switched allegiances at the Presidential election (and federal level until 2010) the party could always count on increased Presidential turnout benefiting their party. But 2016 is not shaping up to be historically normal for the state. Early Senate polling has shown Republican Pat Toomey with the lead by varying margins. Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio has a narrow but substantial polling lead over Clinton in the state.
I should add their are two types of Blue Wall States. First, states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota thatt have backed the Democratic nominee since the 80s. The second includes places like Iowa and Ohio that have traditionally backed the winner of the Presidency (red or blue). So what separates Pennsylvania from the rest of the Blue Wall states beyond recent electoral results?
Its not just the polls mentioned above. Republicans have made registration gains to close the gap to just over a 1 million vote Democratic advantage. Add in the fact that many Democrats now vote Republican in the West (where Democrats still outnumber Republicans) and the GOP is close to its 2006 registration deficit of several hundred thousand voters.
This is not occurring in any other state. Neither are the polls. In Wisconsin, Republican Senator Ron Johnson trails his Democratic opponent. In Ohio, there is no clear leader for the Presidential or Senate contest. Short of local, single polls in Minnesota and Michigan, both states look blue.
Democrats can continue to comfort themselves with the fact that they still vastly outnumber Republicans on the registration front. But they did in 2010 and 2014 and lost/failed to make ground in many aspects of state governance. Meanwhile, Republicans have made clear they plan to invest heavily in the state. The party held its Northeastern Leadership Conference in Philly in June. Recognizing the power of the party might reside in red counties the GOP along with Third Party Groups plans to invest heavily in voter registration and turnout efforts.
Democrats enjoy a significant registration edge in the state and are likely to continue to do so until 2016. But Republican persistence, weak Clinton poll numbers among men/Independents and a drop-off in Democratic turnout could turn the state red in 2016. Stranger things have certainly happened in politics.