By Tom Ferrick Jr.
Take with a grain of salt the belief that 2010 will be a big Republican year in Pennsylvania. The Republicans have reason to be optimistic because they are likely to have two strong candidates at the top of the statewide ballot: Tom Corbett for governor and Pat Toomey for the U.S. Senate.
There are still millions to be spent, attack ads to be aired, debates to be had and campaigns to be run between May and November. Beneath the surface, though, are long-term trends that point to this being a difficult year for Republicans.
The fundamentals of Pennsylvania politics are changing. The old formulas for winning statewide no longer apply. The Republican party is going to have an increasingly hard time winning statewide elections.
Those are three conclusions I reached after analyzing voting patterns in the state going back nearly 30 years. The results confirm a pro-Democratic shift that has become evident in voter registration numbers in recent years, but there are surprises.
Voter habits rarely change quickly. They are like tectonic plate movements - with slow drift in one direction or another over time. For example, when Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Bill of 1964 he correctly predicted that it would cost the Democratic party the South. It did, but it took years for that transformation to happen.
In the same way, in the last 30 years, Pennsylvania has moved from a swing state to a decidedly Democratic one. You can't see it by looking at any single election, but a clear pattern emerges if you look back over time.
For this analysis, I examined the results of the eight presidential elections since 1980, dividing the state into its six media markets, which are home to 98% of the state's voters. (The other 2% are in counties served by out-of-state TV stations.)
Most of the races, beginning with Carter vs. Reagan in 1980 and ending with McCain vs. Obama in 2008, were competitive.
I didn't focus on U.S. Senate or gubernatorial elections, partly because there were too many blowouts by incumbents that would have skewed the results. For example, in 1990, Democrat Bob Casey Sr. defeated Barbara Hafer by more than one millions votes.
Comparing the 1980's to this decade, the analysis shows four sections of the state that are trending Democratic, one strongly. One remains unchanged. One is trending Republican. Can you guess which is which?
Let me lay them out one by one:
Philadelphia Media Market.
Number of counties: 8.
Share of statewide vote in 2008: 42%
Average performance of Democratic candidates in the 1980's: 47%
Average performance of Democratic candidates in the 2000's: 61%
Trend: Strong Democratic.
The shift in this market is the game-changer in statewide elections. Because it is so populous, a Democrat who rolls up strong margins in the southeast can lose the rest of the state and still win an election by a comfortable margin. Just ask Gov. Rendell.
For that matter, ask Barack Obama. In 2008, John McCain won 52% of the vote in Pennsylvania - minus the Philadelphia market. But, Obama won the Philadelphia market by 740,000 votes - a monster margin that was simply too much for McCain to overcome. He would have needed 62% of the vote in the rest of the state to win.
Two trends are at work here: The city of Philadelphia has gone from reliably Democratic to hyper-Democratic while the surrounding suburbs, once safely Republican, have moved toward the D's - a trend accelerated by Democrat Ed Rendell in his two races for governor. The market also includes Berks County and the three counties of the Lehigh Valley.
For decades, a key element in the Republican playbook consisted of rolling up the GOP vote in the four suburban counties to offset the Democratic margin in Philadelphia.
Reagan followed that strategy and won the Philadelphia market in 1980 and 1984.. Since 1992, though, Democratic candidates for president have won the Philadelphia market by ever increasing margins.
In national elections, Philadelphia has been a Democratic city since FDR, but the tilt has become much more pronounced in this decade. In the 1980's, the three Democratic candidates for president - Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis - averaged 63% of the vote in the city. In the 2000s, Al Gore, John Kerry and Obama averaged 81%.
Several factors are at work here: one is the maturation of the African-American vote. Blacks make up a higher percentage of the city electorate and turn out at higher rates than 30 years ago -- and they are overwhelmingly Democratic. Barack Obama got 98% of the black vote in Philadelphia in 2008. If you think it was because he was an African-American candidate think again. Clinton, Gore and Kerry averaged 97% of the black vote in the city, according to my analysis of key black wards.
Another factor is the collapse of the Republican party as a viable entity in the city. In 1980, there were 252,000 registered Republicans in Philadelphia. Today, there are 136,000. As the city has become more diverse racially and ethnically, it has become more and more Democratic.
Pittsburgh Media Market
Avg. of Dem. candidates 1980s: 54%
Avg. of Dem. candidates 2000s: 51%
Allegheny County, which includes the city of Pittsburgh, is still reliably Democratic, but there has been a trend towards Republican candidates in surrounding counties that were once safely in the Democratic column. There are also rural counties in this market that have been and remain Republican.
Democrats are still winning here -- but by smaller margins. Obama got just a shade over 50% of the vote last year. Why the shift? It probably has to do with the preponderance of so-called Reagan Democrats - though, ironically, Reagan himself never won the market. Another factor could be the influence of the Dick Scaife's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a crusading conservative voice in the market.
Whatever the reason, the shift is slight but real.
Keep in mind, though, that only one Republican candidate for governor has won this market in the last 45 years - Tom Ridge in 1988, when he won re-election in a blow-out over Ivan Itkin. Of course, Corbett is from the Pittsburgh area, but so was Dick Thornburgh, Michael Fisher and Lynn Swann -- and they lost the market.
Here is a rundown of how gubernatorial candidates have faired in the state's two largest markets since 1966.
Harrisburg-Lancaster-York Media Market
Avg. of Dem. candidates 1980s: 32%
Avg .of Dem. candidates 2000s: 39%
This is the populous base of the Republican "T" with some of the most reliably GOP counties in the state. Yet, there has been a clear trend towards increased Democratic support, culminating last year when Obama got 44% of the vote in this market. He even won Dauphin County.
One possible factor: this is an area where the population is growing and we may be seeing the influence of newcomers, who are younger and more inclined to support the right Democratic candidate..
To keep this in perspective: this is still a strong Republican area, it's just that the GOP has gone from winning in the high 60's to the low 60's. Recent Democratic gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidates have been doing better in this area as well - Ed Rendell got 43% of the vote against Lynn Swann in 2006, while Bob Casey Jr. got 41% against Rick Santorum in the same year.
Wilkes-Barre Scranton Media Market
Avg. of Dem. candidates 1980s: 41%
Avg . of Dem. candidates 2000s: 48%
This market consists of a (usually) Democratic core in Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties surrounded by rural, small-town Republican counties. Surprisingly, it is in these smaller counties where the Democratic share has risen, along with Monroe County in the heart of the Poconos, an area that has attracted retirees and exurban New Yorkers..
Last year, Obama won this market with 52% of the vote, becoming became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win here since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Johnstown-Altoona Media Market
Avg. of Dem. candidates 1980s: 42%
Avg .of Dem. candidates 2000s: 42%
This area of the state is nothing if not consistent: Obama's 45% share here last year was the highest since (of all people) Michael Dukakis in 1988, but Democratic share has remained generally static.
Erie Media Market
Avg. of Dem. candidates 1980s: 44%
Avg. of Dem. Candidates 2000s: 50%
Last year, Obama got 55% of the vote in this small market, becoming the first Democrat to win here in more than 30 years. But, it was a natural extension of a pro-Democratic trend line dating back to the 1980s.
How will these trends play out in 2010? Every election is different, but unless the two Republican candidates find a way to crack the Philadelphia media market and lower the Democratic margins there, they are going to find it difficult to win statewide.
Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis.
Photo 1: Tom Corbett
Photo 2: Pat Toomey