Hillary Clinton’s Play for Pennsylvania

Obama lost ground in the traditionally-Democratic state in 2012. But with the convention in Philadelphia, Democrats are confident they will extend their winning streak.

Hillary Clinton speaks during a rally in Philadelphia the night she won the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, 2008.
National Journal
Emily Schultheis
Add to Briefcase
Emily Schultheis
Feb. 12, 2015, 3 p.m.

Demo­crats face two ma­jor demo­graph­ic chal­lenges in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. First, can Hil­lary Clin­ton, as­sum­ing she’s the party’s nom­in­ee, win back the white work­ing-class voters who have drif­ted to­ward Re­pub­lic­ans in re­cent years? And second, will she be able to main­tain the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion that twice elec­ted Barack Obama pres­id­ent — in­clud­ing the sky-high turnout among Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters his cam­paign spurred?

Those ques­tions will be partly answered in Pennsylvania, where Demo­crats have just an­nounced they’re hold­ing their 2016 con­ven­tion.

As Phil­adelphia’s se­lec­tion for the 2016 Demo­crat­ic con­ven­tion spurs head­lines about the sym­bol­ism of In­de­pend­ence Hall and the Liberty Bell, the im­port­ance of the state goes far bey­ond that. It’s a mi­cro­cosm of the chal­lenges Demo­crats face in put­ting to­geth­er a win­ning co­ali­tion.

Pennsylvania is the GOP’s per­en­ni­al white whale: Every four years, Re­pub­lic­ans puts money and time in­to a last-minute ef­fort to mine the state’s elect­or­al votes — and every time since 1988, they’ve been un­suc­cess­ful. Though it’s still early, Demo­crats and ob­serv­ers in the state say that with Demo­crats’ pres­id­en­tial-year elect­or­al ad­vant­ages there, there’s little chance that dy­nam­ic will change this time around.

“It’s a state that has be­come solidly blue in pres­id­en­tial polit­ics and now, in many ways, is a corner­stone of the Demo­crat­ic elect­or­al co­ali­tion, along with oth­er big states — along with New York, Illinois, and Cali­for­nia,” said Chris Bor­ick, a vet­er­an Pennsylvania poll­ster at Muh­len­berg Col­lege, adding that win­ning Pennsylvania is “al­most a giv­en for Demo­crats.”

A Feb­ru­ary Quin­nipi­ac poll found Clin­ton start­ing out strong in Pennsylvania with high fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings and double-di­git leads over all her would-be GOP chal­lengers. Fifty-five per­cent of the state’s voters viewed her fa­vor­ably, com­pared with 38 per­cent who viewed her un­fa­vor­ably — far bet­ter than any of the GOP hope­fuls fared. In hy­po­thet­ic­al head-to-head match­ups, Clin­ton bested New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie by 11 points (50-39), former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush by 15 points (50-35), Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky by 19 points (53-34), and both former Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Hucka­bee and former Sen. Rick San­tor­um of Pennsylvania by 20 points (54-34).

But Pennsylvania is a geo­graph­ic­ally and demo­graph­ic­ally di­verse state — and how Clin­ton fares there among the state’s elect­or­ate will be an in­dic­a­tion of her abil­ity to shape a win­ning na­tion­al co­ali­tion. Vic­tory for Demo­crats now largely hinges on the south­east­ern part of the state, where they need to draw a strong turnout in Phil­adelphia prop­er and to win a ma­jor­ity in the four sub­urb­an counties (Mont­gomery, Bucks, Chester, and Delaware) that sur­round it. At the same time, a sig­ni­fic­ant chunk of the state — the south­west­ern part near Pitt­s­burgh and the north­east­ern part sur­round­ing Scrant­on — is full of white, work­ing-class voters whom Demo­crats have struggled with in re­cent years.

Pennsylvania Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives and ob­serv­ers say Clin­ton has a track re­cord of con­nect­ing bet­ter with the state’s work­ing-class elect­or­ate than Obama did in 2008 and 2012 — but that Afric­an-Amer­ic­an turnout drop-off is cer­tainly a con­cern. In an in­ter­view with BuzzFeed, Obama said he didn’t “think any pres­id­ent in­her­its a co­ali­tion,” adding that “any can­did­ate has to win over people based on what they stand for, what their mes­sage is, what their vis­ion is for the fu­ture.”

Back in the 2008 Demo­crat­ic primary, when Clin­ton de­feated Obama by just un­der 10 points, the former sec­ret­ary of State did well among ex­actly those kinds of voters. Exit polls found Clin­ton ahead of Obama among Pennsylvania’s white voters, low- and middle-in­come voters, and those without a col­lege de­gree.

“Her fath­er came from Scrant­on, so she’s al­ways had a strong base there in the same way that Joe Biden has,” said Charlie Ly­ons, a vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic strategist in the state. “And I think she comes out of that area strong, and in the south­w­est I think she has the po­ten­tial to come out per­haps even stronger than the pres­id­ent did.”

As a sur­rog­ate for now-Gov. Tom Wolf in Phil­adelphia last fall, Clin­ton came out swinging with what ob­serv­ers say is the closest in­dic­a­tion she’s giv­en of the kind of mes­sage her cam­paign could have — one heavy on eco­nom­ic fair­ness, equal pay, and edu­ca­tion fund­ing. These are the kinds of is­sues that play well among both minor­ity voters and work­ing-class whites.

As for Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters in Phil­adelphia, ob­serv­ers in the state say it would be tough for Clin­ton to match the kind of turnout Obama drew among that demo­graph­ic — but that the drop-off wouldn’t be enough to af­fect her chances in the state. In 2008, exit polling data showed Obama win­ning 95 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters in Pennsylvania, com­pared with just 5 per­cent for Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee John Mc­Cain; even if turnout among that demo­graph­ic de­creases, the mar­gins will likely be sim­il­ar.

“She clearly has room to build on voters that Obama didn’t have — while be­ing chal­lenged to make sure she has the same or close levels of turnout in the Demo­crat-rich Phil­adelphia city lim­its,” Bor­ick said.

Even if Pennsylvania seems un­likely to top 2016’s list of pres­id­en­tial swing states, it will un­doubtedly be home to one of the most com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate cam­paigns on the map this cycle: the race to un­seat GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, who rode in­to of­fice on the Re­pub­lic­an wave of 2010.

And while party con­ven­tions rarely have an ef­fect on the pres­id­en­tial elect­or­al out­come in a state, they’re known for en­er­giz­ing the party base and draw­ing at­ten­tion to in-state can­did­ates — which, for Phil­adelphia, could have a pos­it­ive ef­fect on turn­ing the city’s Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters out to the polls that fall for both Clin­ton and Toomey’s Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger.

“Pat Toomey is go­ing to be ser­i­ously chal­lenged,” said Dan Fee, a vet­er­an of both of former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s gubernat­ori­al cam­paigns. “This is a year, and this is a race, in which there will be sig­ni­fic­ant turnout in areas that will nev­er vote for Pat Toomey.”

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