Pennsylvania's changing position in presidential politics

Posted: June 13, 2012

Republicans have lost Pennsylvania in the last five presidential elections. Mitt Romney's pollster did not include it on a list of seven crucial battleground states in a PowerPoint presentation for donors last week. And President Obama has solid leads in recent polls here.

Some analysts have gone so far as to argue that Pennsylvania should be labeled "light blue" - leaning Democratic - instead of a true swing state.

Yet in the early going, both sides are making major moves to contest Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes.

Figures compiled by Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group found a healthy $4.1 million was spent on Pennsylvania television ads from April 10 through May 31. TV spending is an important measure of competitiveness.

On Tuesday, Obama is scheduled to visit Philadelphia for fund-raising events. Romney is including a Saturday stop in the state on his planned bus tour of battleground states; the campaign has not announced details.

According to the website RealClearPolitics, Obama's average lead in recent Pennsylvania surveys is 8.5 percentage points, about eight times his average margin nationally. A Franklin and Marshall College poll of registered Pennsylvania voters, released last week, gave Obama a 48-percent-to-36 percent lead over Romney, with the rest undecided or unsure.

"Is Pennsylvania going to be a top-tier swing state?" said G. Terry Madonna, director of the F&M poll. "It's too early to know for sure. The question is whether Romney is going to devote real resources to the state. He's going to have to make a strong pitch here, particularly in the Philly suburbs and the Lehigh Valley."

The Romney campaign says it will be working the state hard, though Obama forces have opened two dozen Pennsylvania field offices thus far to Romney's one.

"It's definitely winnable," said David James, a senior adviser to Romney's campaign. "The electorate in Pennsylvania leans center-right, and 2012 is a completely different political environment from 2008."

That was the year Obama won the state by just over 10 points, compared with his national popular-vote margin of 7 percentage points. The state has been going that way: in three presidential votes since 2000, it has performed 3 to 4 percentage points more Democratic than the nation at large.

Indeed, state GOP chairman Rob Gleason sounded a pessimistic note in a May 5 interview with the Allentown Morning Call: "I don't think anyone thinks we can carry Pennsylvania. I don't think even Romney thinks we can win Pennsylvania."

Still, Gleason said his troops are toiling fiercely, and not without cause for hope. The GOP has been on an upswing for the last three years, despite Democrats' edge in voter registration. Republicans now control both chambers of the legislature, the governorship, and a firm majority of the congressional delegation.

Plus, analysts say, for all Romney's efforts to run as a conservative in the primaries, his image as a moderate focused on economic issues is a good fit for the pivotal southeastern region of the state, where suburban voters in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties have drifted away from the party in recent presidential contests.

Demographically, Pennsylvania is older and whiter than most battleground states, nonpartisan analyst Stuart Rothenberg noted recently. Only Florida, West Virginia, and Maine have a higher percentage of residents 65 or older, and of the nation's dozen largest states, it ranks behind only Ohio for lowest percentage of minority residents, he said.

John McCain won older voters and whites in 2008, according to national exit polls; Obama has lagged with those groups in recent polls. And even as Philadelphia suburbs have trended Democratic, southwestern Pennsylvania has grown more conservative over the last generation - Obama lost 11 of 12 counties there, carrying only Allegheny.

The latest jobless figures here (7.4 percent) are slightly better than the nation's (8.2 percent). And Obama strategists are counting on Democrats' advantage among women voters to do well in the suburbs. Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, told the Associated Press that women will be turned off by prominent Republicans' opposition to contraception and abortion rights, as well as federal law mandating equal pay.

"Insulting" is how James, Romney's adviser, describes that approach. "The biggest issue for suburban voters is their family's economic security," he said. "The economy will trump any social-issues scare tactics brought out by the Obama campaign."

But for all the money spent on TV so far here, it's less than half what the Kantar study said was spent in Ohio.

And when the researchers broke down the spending by electoral vote, Nevada emerged as the most competitive state, followed by Iowa, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina - and finally, Pennsylvania and Florida. National Journal analyst Charlie Cook said the figures made him wonder how long the GOP would be willing to play in Pennsylvania and Democrats would be willing to fight for Florida.

It won't be clear how competitive Pennsylvania is until September, analysts said, when campaigns must decide where to shift their money and time.

If history is any guide, it will be a difficult decision. A survey by the Smart Politics blog at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs found that over the last 100 years, the presidential race in the three most competitive states has been decided by single digits.

Those states were Missouri, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.


 


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/bigtent.

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