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Is Pennsylvania In Play for November? Maybe.

Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images
Traditionally, Pennsylvania is not a swing state. But this year, the Keystone State’s white and working-class voters may make the presidential contest competitive there. These voters often identify with the Democratic Party but don’t have a lot in common with President Barack Obama or the party’s positions on cultural issues, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

Pennsylvania is also well-known as a state with a large number of working-class whites, particularly in northeastern (Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton, for example) and western Pennsylvania (Erie, Johnstown and Pittsburgh) — the kind of people one GOP strategist says “have their names on their shirts when they are at work.”

Candidate Obama had problems with those kinds of voters in 2008 — county-level data shows he did worse than Kerry in 2004 in a swath of counties running from southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia through extreme southwestern Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, and into Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma. If anything, he seems weaker in those areas this year.

These voters don’t have an automatic cultural connection to Obama (or to presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney), and the president’s recent announcement supporting same-sex marriage isn’t likely to be a plus with them. Jobs, of course, remain a big issue with these voters, and whatever hope they had that Obama would turn the economy around has almost certainly evaporated.

Potentially, Romney could outperform most national Republicans in the southeastern corner of the state, as he is a better “cultural fit” there, particularly in Philadelphia’s upscale suburbs (Montgomery, Bucks and Delaware counties).

There isn’t much polling in the state. The only recent survey, conducted by Quinnipiac University, shows the president siting at 47 percent of the vote and leading Romney by 8 points.

Given these considerations, is there enough reason to include Pennsylvania in a short list of swing states? Not yet, for me. But there certainly is enough reason to treat Pennsylvania as a potential battleground and to continue to monitor the presidential numbers in the state.  

After all, strange things can happen in elections. Indiana isn’t a swing state, but Obama won it in 2008. Sometimes, states that aren’t the most competitive do swing from one party to the other, and there is a plausible case that Pennsylvania could be that kind of state in 2012.

Of course, Pennsylvania is not the only state where demographics come into play. Older working-class, white voters are also key to winning Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin. West Virginia isn’t in play, but the other two are.

These kinds of voters are likely to be conflicted in November. They often identify more with the Democratic Party’s working-class positioning and rhetoric, and Romney’s background and style isn’t appealing to them. But they have little in common with the president, have some differences with Democrats’ positions on cultural issues and are disappointed with the performance of the economy.

These voters were once loyal members of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition. But will they back Obama? Will they support Democratic Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, or even Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts?

The answers are unclear, which is exactly why Obama’s campaign is running a TV spot in Pennsylvania about Romney’s jobs record at private equity firm Bain Capital. Pennsylvania remains an intriguing state.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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