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.”

What We're Following See More »
DOJ Charges Russian For Meddling In 2018 Midterms
1 hours ago

"The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman for her alleged role in a conspiracy to interfere with the 2018 U.S. election, marking the first criminal case prosecutors have brought against a foreign national for interfering in the upcoming midterms. Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said she managed the finances of 'Project Lakhta,' a foreign influence operation they said was designed 'to sow discord in the U.S. political system' by pushing arguments and misinformation online about a host of divisive political issues, including immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control and the National Football League national-anthem protests."

U.S. Cancels Military Exercise With South Korea
2 hours ago

The United States and South Korea have suspended "another major joint military exercise to give the diplomatic process with North Korea 'every opportunity to continue.'" Exercise Vigilant Ace, which last year "involved 12,000 US troops and some 230 military aircraft from the US and South Korea," was due to take place in December. Trump has canceled other operations in the past, which Gen. Robert Abrams said "had resulted in a 'slight degradation' to the readiness of US and Korean troops," but were a "prudent risk" to improve improve relations with Pyongyang.

Mnuchin to Attend Saudi Terror Financing Meeting
4 hours ago

"Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has decided to take part in an anti-terror finance meeting with Saudi security officials and their Middle Eastern counterparts in Riyadh later this month, opting to attend despite growing global outrage over the suspected murder of a U.S.-based journalist at the hands of Saudi operatives, according to three people familiar with his travel plans. The security gathering next week is separate from a Riyadh financial summit that Mnuchin announced on Thursday he would not attend."

Ex-USA Gymnastics CEO Indicted For Tampering With Sexual Assault Evidence
5 hours ago

"Steve Penny, the former president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, has been indicted on a felony count of tampering with evidence" in the sexual assault case against disgraced USA gymnastics physician Larry Nassar. Nassar was found guilty in January of sexually abusing dozens of young gymnasts, and was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison. Penny, who was arrested on Wednesday in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, "is accused of ordering the removal of documents from the Karolyi Ranch in Texas," where much of Nassar's abuse occurred.

Public May Not See Mueller Report
5 hours ago

Defense attorneys involved in the Mueller probe say the public "shouldn’t expect a comprehensive and presidency-wrecking account of Kremlin meddling and alleged obstruction of justice by Trump — not to mention an explanation of the myriad subplots that have bedeviled lawmakers, journalists and amateur Mueller sleuths. ... Perhaps most unsatisfying: Mueller’s findings may never even see the light of day."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.