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Few states resisted Barack Obama more than Pennsylvania during the Democratic primary season. Partly as a result, few states may be more critical to his hopes of winning the White House this fall.
Senior aides to presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain rank New Hampshire, Michigan, and Pennsylvania as their top targets among the 19 states that voted for Democrat John Kerry in 2004. If Obama can hold those three states, he could win without penetrating very deeply into Republican territory. He could just reclaim the two states (Iowa and New Mexico) that flipped into President Bush's column in 2004 and add a light-red state, such as Colorado. But if McCain can swipe Pennsylvania's 21 Electoral College votes, Obama could not win without taking states lodged more firmly in the GOP column--either another mega-state (Florida or Ohio) or a combination of fairly large states (such as Virginia and North Carolina).
Most of Pennsylvania's recent political developments, from the trend in voter registration to the latest statewide results, tilt toward the Democrats, often sharply. But the one exception to that pattern encourages Republicans: Although Democrats have carried the state in the past four presidential elections, their winning margins have dropped from about 9 percentage points under Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 to 4 points under Al Gore in 2000 and to just 2.5 points under Kerry. And in McCain, who polls well nationally among independents, Republicans may have a nominee capable of reversing the Democrats' two-decade advance in the affluent, growing, and once reliably Republican suburbs of Philadelphia--the trend most responsible for the Democratic rise in Pennsylvania.
Add to these factors Obama's weak performance in the April primary, and the state's top Democrats are cautioning the party to expect a tough fight in Pennsylvania. "I still think it's a swing state, and all you have to do is look at the trend lines ... in presidential politics, it has been getting closer and closer," Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell told National Journal. "And McCain is the best Republican candidate they have fielded presidentially since Ronald Reagan, in the sense that his reputation as a maverick and a moderate ... holds him in very good stead with the independents and [suburban] Republicans who have been tending to vote Democratic in the last four elections."
Yet the very ferocity of the Keystone State's Democratic presidential primary may have strengthened Obama's chances by spurring a registration surge that has swelled the Democratic lead over the GOP on the voter rolls to nearly 1.1 million, almost double the party's 2004 edge. According to Rendell, that's a record voter-registration advantage for the Democrats, and it dramatizes the extent to which Pennsylvania remains a difficult challenge for McCain, especially amid the intense disillusionment with Bush there. The state is "still in play ... but the idea that it is evenly divided between McCain and Obama, that it is a 50-50 toss-up, I think that is just wrong," says Ruy Teixeira, an electoral analyst at the liberal Brookings Institution who co-authored a recent comprehensive study of the state's demographic and political trends. "It is a purple state leaning blue, and it may be even bluer than it was in 2004. So it is a real uphill climb for McCain in my view."
In its recent political evolution, Pennsylvania has been a tale of two states. It has simultaneously moved sharply toward the Democrats in the southeast, particularly in the comfortable Philadelphia suburbs, and sharply toward the GOP in the southwest, especially in the largely blue-collar suburbs of Pittsburgh. McCain's challenge is to reverse the first trend and reinforce the second, as well as the GOP's more modest gains in presidential races in hardscrabble northeastern counties around Scranton.
"You can play the chess game almost any way, but the Philly 'burbs, southwestern Pennsylvania, and those counties up there [around Scranton] are basically it," says G. Terry Madonna, a longtime Pennsylvania pollster who is now the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. "McCain has to win the [blue-collar] Reagan Democrats in the west and the northeast, and he has to win some independents, independent-minded Republicans, and Democrats in the Philly suburbs."
For generations, the Philadelphia suburbs were the home of prosperous "Main Line" moderate Republicans. But like other socially moderate, white-collar suburbs outside the South, these communities began moving toward the Democrats during Clinton's 1992 race. They have shifted even further in that direction under Bush, who has given the GOP a more Southern and more evangelical face. The growing Lehigh Valley, which is farther north of Philadelphia but is increasingly integrated into the city's orbit, has followed the same general trajectory.
In the four suburban counties immediately outside Philadelphia, the change has been profound. From 1920 through 1988, no Democratic presidential nominee won Delaware or Montgomery counties, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 landslide. During that period in Bucks County, the only Democratic winners were Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, according to figures from Polidata, a political data analysis firm. As late as 1988, George H.W. Bush won 60 percent of the vote in all three counties.
But starting with Clinton in 1992, Democrats have now carried that trio of counties in four consecutive elections. And their margins in Delaware and Montgomery have increased each time. Even in Chester County, the most reliably Republican suburb of Philadelphia, the GOP's winning margin has declined from 35 percentage points for the elder Bush in 1988 to just 4.5 points for his son in 2004. (Except for Barry Goldwater's performance in 1964, that was the GOP's weakest showing in Chester County in any presidential contest since 1920.) In all, George W. Bush lost the four Philadelphia suburban counties in 2004 by a crushing 87,124 votes.
"The suburbs are a place that really liked Bush 41 but couldn't relate to Bush 43," said Christopher Nicholas, a Harrisburg-based Republican consultant who ran the successful 2004 re-election campaign of Republican Sen. Arlen Specter. "They liked the Connecticut Yankee and had trouble relating to the Texan."
Over the same period, though, the state's southwest corner--the counties surrounding Pittsburgh, such as Beaver, Washington, and Westmoreland--have moved in the opposite direction. Although Pittsburgh itself has remained solidly Democratic, these counties, much less affluent and less white-collar than the Philadelphia suburbs, have responded favorably to George W. Bush's conservative cultural and national security policies.
From 1932 to 1996, Westmoreland County southeast of Pittsburgh voted Republican only for Richard Nixon in 1972. But Bush won it in 2000 and more than doubled his victory margin four years later. In Washington County, Bush in 2004 attracted 49.6 percent of the vote--not quite enough to top Kerry, but the best showing there by any GOP presidential nominee since 1932, except for Nixon's in 1972. In Beaver County, Bush ran more strongly in 2004 than any Republican presidential nominee since 1932, except for Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 and Nixon in '72.
Under Bush, heavily blue-collar Luzerne (Wilkes-Barre) and Lackawanna (Scranton) counties in northeast Pennsylvania moved less emphatically along a similar track: In each place, Kerry's 2004 margin of victory was about 10 points lower than Clinton's in 1996.
On balance, this geographic swap has benefited Pennsylvania Democrats, because their new strongholds are bigger and are gaining population, while some of the increasingly Republican areas are shrinking. "Where population is growing, the Democrats are doing better. Where it is declining, Republicans are doing better," says Teixeira, the co-author of the Brookings analysis with demographer William Frey.
The conversion of the Philadelphia suburbs and exurbs, in addition to the Democrats' continuing dominance of Pittsburgh and heavily African-American Philadelphia, has provided the party a fragile but perceptible advantage in the state. After the 2000 election, Republicans controlled the governorship, both U.S. Senate seats, a majority of U.S. House seats, and both chambers of the state Legislature.
In 2002, Rendell captured the governorship. In 2006, Democrats re-elected Rendell, won a majority of the state House, ousted four GOP lawmakers to gain a majority of the state's U.S. House delegation, and took a U.S. Senate seat as Democrat Bob Casey routed staunchly conservative GOP Sen. Rick Santorum. The 2006 recoil from the GOP was especially powerful in the four Philadelphia suburban counties, where Democrats defeated two Republican House members and Casey annihilated Santorum by more than175,000 votes. Six years earlier, Santorum had swept those counties by nearly 152,000 votes.
In this period of Democratic advance, the one big exception was Specter's successful 2004 campaign. On the day that Bush lost the state to Kerry, Specter won re-election with nearly 53 percent of the vote. Specter, a moderate who supports abortion rights, built a much different coalition from Bush's. According to Polidata, Specter actually ran behind Bush in 29 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. Nearly all of these were culturally conservative counties either near Pittsburgh or in the heavily rural "T" that extends through the state's center. But Specter, a former Philadelphia district attorney, ran far better than Bush through all of the eastern counties, from Philadelphia north to Scranton and beyond to the New York border. Most important, Specter held down his losses in Philadelphia itself and amassed a nearly 150,000-vote lead in the four suburban Philadelphia counties that decisively rejected Bush.
Running against the first African-American presidential nominee of a major party, McCain has little chance of minimizing the Democratic advantage in Philadelphia as much as Specter did. But, apart from that, the Specter map may be "as good a model as McCain can find," Madonna says.
In fact, Republicans hope that McCain can do better than Specter among culturally conservative voters. During this year's Democratic primary, Hillary Rodham Clinton overwhelmed Obama outside Pittsburgh, winning some 70 percent of the vote in Washington, Westmoreland, and Beaver. She reached about 75 percent in the demographically similar Scranton area. "Obama's challenge is, how does he win over the working-class white folks that he didn't win [in the primary]?" says consultant Nicholas. "He is just radically different from their lives, and McCain is not. Military, father in the military, grandfather in the military: That's an arc they can understand. The Obama life story, while very unique and interesting, is not something folks in these little railroad towns can relate to."
Rendell, who openly declared during the primary that some Pennsylvania voters might not be willing to vote for a black presidential candidate, says he thinks that economic anxiety may help Obama perform better than Republicans anticipate in the Scranton and Pittsburgh areas. (Some early polling has shown Obama holding his own among blue-collar Pennsylvanians.) But to hold the state, Rendell is mostly counting on Obama's energizing new voters and maintaining the Democratic advantage in the Philadelphia suburbs and Lehigh Valley.
Can Obama defend the Democratic beachheads outside Philadelphia? Since 2004, Democrats have posted substantial voter-registration gains in all four suburban counties, as well as across the Lehigh Valley. But in the Democratic primary, Obama did not run as well in these places as he did in white-collar communities elsewhere: Clinton split the four Philadelphia suburbs with him and swept the Lehigh Valley.
Those results worry Rendell, who was Clinton's highest-profile Pennsylvania supporter. "There is a very strong reservoir of support for Clinton among women [in these counties]," he says. "So ... we have real work to do in the suburbs." Plus, he adds, McCain's reputation for independence will make him a "tough" competitor for moderate suburban voters.
Rendell says that Obama might win the Philadelphia suburbs "by a smaller margin than Kerry did," but he expects the senator from Illinois to run well enough there to hold Pennsylvania. Republicans hope that Rendell is wrong. Both sides agree that no matter how much ground McCain gains elsewhere, he is unlikely to capture the state unless he can run even with or better than Obama immediately outside of Philadelphia. "All roads end up pointing back to those Philly suburbs," one senior McCain campaign aide said.
Madonna agrees. "You can't just give up about 90,000 votes in the Philadelphia suburbs [as Bush did]," he says. "There are so many votes there that making up that kind of deficit elsewhere is really difficult." Such inescapable math ensures the Philadelphia suburbs a spot high on the list of the places picking the next president.
For swing-state profiles, go to nationaljournal.com/swingstates.
This article appears in the Aug. 2, 2008, edition of National Journal.