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,
The epicenter of this change is southeastern
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.]
Recent polls have shown the Obama-Romney race tightening in
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
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
Two trends are at work here: The city of
"The problem the Republicans have is the loss of the
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
Reagan followed that strategy and won the
In national elections,
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
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
In the 1980's the
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
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
"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."
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
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.
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.
WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON MEDIA MARKET
This market consists of a Democratic core in
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.
JOHNSTOWN-ALTOONA MEDIA MARKET
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.