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Backgrounder: Can Obama Win Pennsylvania on November 6th?

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UPDATED NOV. 1, 2012

By Tom Ferrick Jr.

With the election just days away, the polls are showing a tightening of the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney in Pennsylvania.  Can Obama hold on to the lead he has enjoyed through the summer and early fall or will he lose this important state to his Republican rival?

The odds are still in Obama's favor, especially if he mobilizes his base of supporters.  His chances of winning are also being boosted by broad demographic trends that benefit his party's candidates, particularly in statewide races.

To cut to the chase, Pennsylvania is becoming more reliably Democratic and less of a swing state.

The epicenter of this change is southeastern Pennsylvania, in the eight counties that make up the Philadelphia media market. The city of Philadelphia has always been reliably Democratic, but there has been a blue tide rising in the four suburban counties and the Lehigh Valley. Four out of 10 Pennsylvania voters live in this area.

With such a heavy concentration of voters in this end of the state, and with so many of them opting for Democratic candidates, it is becoming more difficult for Republican candidates to win statewide. Mitt Romney's campaign is an example. The Republican candidate and the independent PACs that support him pulled their TV ads a month ago and have concentrated their efforts elsewhere. [As these were signs of the race tightening in the final week, the Romney campaign and the Super PACS that support him directed money to Pennsylvania media markets to air ads supporting Romney and opposing Obama.]

"Pennsylvania has fallen off the radar of swing states in 2012," said Chris Borick, a political scientist and pollster from Muhlenberg College. "It looks too daunting to pour lots of money, time and effort into the state."

Recent polls have shown the Obama-Romney race tightening in Pennsylvania. [The latest poll, conducted for the Philadelphia Inquirer and released October 27, showed Obama with a six-point lead and a 55 percent approval rating among state voters. A later Franklin & Marshall, released Oct. 30, showed Obama with a four point lead.]

If Romney does win Pennsylvania, it would be the first time in 24 years. In the 1980's Republican presidential candidates did well in the state -- Ronald Reagan won Pennsylvania twice and the elder George Bush won in 1988. He was the last Republican to win.

Voter behavior rarely changes overnight, but if you examine it over a longer time period trends become evident. 

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 with this decade, the analysis shows four sections of the state that are trending Democratic, one strongly.  One remains unchanged.  One is trending Republican. 

Let's take them one by one:


The shift in this market is the game-changer in statewide elections.  A candidate who rolls up strong margins in the southeast can lose the rest of the state and still win an election by a comfortable margin.

An example: 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 Republican McCain to overcome.


Two trends are at work here: The city of Philadelphia has gone from reliably Democratic to hyper-Democratic and the surrounding suburbs, once safely Republican, have moved strongly toward the D's.

"The problem the Republicans have is the loss of the Philadelphia suburbs, particularly among suburban women," said Madonna.

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 -- Jimmy 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 wards in the city.

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 129,000. As the city has become more diverse racially and ethnically, it has become more and more Democratic.

In the 1980's the Lehigh Valley -- Berks, Lehigh and Northampton Counties -- were textbook examples of swing counties. No more.

Borick explains why: "What you saw, especially in the mid-part of the last decade, was moderate Republicans deserting the party. That was true elsewhere, but certainly in the Lehigh Valley.  It made it bluer. It doesn't mean folks won't vote for Republicans, but on the national level they trended Democratic."

A final factor: These eight counties are growing.  They added 265,000 residents in the last decade, many of them suburbanites or minorities.  Both groups are more sympathetic to Democrats.


Allegheny County, which includes the city of Pittsburgh, is still reliably Democratic, but there has been a trend toward 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 in 2008. Why the shift?  Bill Green, a longtime Republican political analyst in Pittsburgh, said it had to do with the preponderance of so-called Reagan Democrats -- though, ironically, Reagan himself never won the market.

"This is a place where you have to be pro-gun and pro-life," Green said. "The strong [pro-Democratic] steelworker no longer exists, he is gone or in retirement."

Unlike the Philadelphia region, this market is losing people.  The population declined by 85,000 between 2000 and 2010.



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 four years ago when Obama got 44% of the vote in this market.  He even won 


Dauphin County, which includes Harrisburg. Why the shift?

For one thing, the area is growing -- it added 176,000 new residents between 2000 and 2010 -- and many of them are more Democratically inclined suburbanites and minorities.

"Central Pennsylvania is still heavily Republican, but less so," said Madonna. "We've had some suburbanization.  We also have the cities becoming more Democratic."

York, Lancaster and Harrisburg are now majority minority, due mostly to an influx of Hispanics. Statewide, the Hispanic population has increased significantly, rising from 394,000 in 2000 to 730,000 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

As Madonna noted, it's 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.


This market consists of a Democratic core in Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties surrounded by rural, small-town Republican counties.  Surprisingly, it is in these smaller counties where thewilkes-media-mkt_400.jpg

Democratic share has risen.

In 2008, Obama won this market with 52% of the vote, becoming became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win here since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Monroe, Pike and Wayne Counties are among the fastest growing counties in the state, attracting new residents from New York and New Jersey who, again, are more inclined to vote Democratic.




This area of western Pennsylvania is nothing if not consistent: Obama's 45% share in 2008 was the highest since (of all people) Michael Dukakis in 1988, but Democratic share has remained generally static, with Democratic candidates flat lining at 40 percent of the vote. This is another area that was once had a strong labor vote that has faded and has the same conservatism on social issues as the Pittsburgh market.  



In 2008, 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.

This can be considered a swing area, though, with voters with an independent streak, who have parceled out their support among Democratic and Republican candidates both statewide and locally.

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