The Romney campaign seems to have committed to a late push into Pennsylvania, to the derision of Team Obama. The latter sees this as a desperation ploy by a foundering campaign, similar to John McCain’s late entrance into the Keystone State in 2008. Is that right?
I don’t think so.
For starters, this is not 2008. The national polls are showing a tie at the moment, and as Sean Trende ably noted last week, a nationwide tie does not square with the kind of leads Obama “has” in the swing states. Romney can’t be down in Ohio by 3, tied in Florida, Virginia, and Colorado, yet still be running neck and neck with the president nationwide. You literally cannot find the votes for the GOP, unless you assume that California is a toss-up and New York is set to go Republican for the first time in thirty years.
So why head into Pennsylvania, a state the GOP has not won in twenty years?
Liberal proponents of the “emerging Democratic majority” love to talk about shifting demographics in their favor, but they regularly ignore the many ways in which demographics have shifted toward the GOP. For instance, Nevada and its six electoral votes tipping red to blue is all the rage, but West Virginia and its five, Kentucky and its eight, Arkansas and its five, and Missouri and its ten switching blue to red is ignored.
And so it goes with Pennsylvania, a state that has slowly been shifting toward the Republicans for the last twenty years. Or, at least part of the state has been shifting red.
Here’s what I mean. The political story of Pennsylvania comes down to a battle between Philadelphia County and the rest of the state.
The non-Philly portion of the state has slowly been trending red since 1988. Democrats hype their gains in the Philadelphia suburban counties, but often fail to mention how Republicans have more than made up ground in the exurban counties of York and Lancaster, as well as taken advantage of the collapse of the Democratic coalition in Western Pennsylvania, at least on the presidential level. In 1988 Michael Dukakis won five of the six counties that comprise metropolitan Pittsburgh; in 2008 Barack Obama won only one of them.
So why hasn’t the rest of the state tipped toward the GOP, especially given how hard George W. Bush worked to flip the Keystone State in 2000 and 2004?
The answer: The Democrats have done a monumental job of mobilizing the vote in Philadelphia County. In 1988 Pennsylvania minus Philly was 0.5 percent more Republican than the country writ large. Twenty years later, in 2008, it was roughly 2.5 percent more Republican. But Philadelphia County went from being 23 percent more Democratic in 1988 to 30 percent more Democratic in 2008.
Not only have Democrats moved Philadelphia leftward, they have done an expert job of keeping turnout growing cycle after cycle. This is extremely impressive because, as a share of the state’s population, Philadelphia County has been in a slow but steady decline (from upwards of 18 percent in the 1970s to about 12 percent today). What’s more, the county is now just 45 percent white, and non-whites are less likely to vote than whites.
I cannot overstate this: The prowess of the Democratic operation in Philadelphia over the last decade alone is simply incredible. Even though the population has been flat since 2000, Barack Obama managed to net 130,000 more votes out of the county than Al Gore!
The problem for Democrats is that they will bump up against a ceiling, sooner or later: The party already regularly wins 80 percent or more of the county’s vote, so there is not much room for growth there; additionally, the county’s population is flat, so the vote margin is not going to increase merely because of demographics.
That’s likely the context for Romney’s entrance into Pennsylvania. The GOP campaign’s strategy is probably three-fold:
1.) Extend the party’s winning streak in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Win all the counties McCain carried with larger margins, and keep Allegheny County within 10 to 12 points.
2.) Mitigate the party’s losses in the working class areas in the Northwest (Erie) and Northeast (Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Allentown). The Democrats should win these areas, but the GOP’s goal is to improve on Bush’s 2004 standing.
3.) Drive up turnout in the exurban counties of Lancaster and York while mitigating losses in the interior suburban counties. In particular, improve on Bush's standing in Chester County and flip Bucks County from blue to red.
In the end, the goal would be to improve upon Bush’s margins in the state minus Philadelphia County. Bush netted 270,000 votes in all; given the increase in population in the non-Philly portion of the state, Obama’s soft support among suburbanites in metro Philly, and the shift of the white working class in the west, a target of 425,000 net votes is not unreasonable. That would assume a 4 percent increase in the vote in the non-Philly portion of the state relative to 2008, and Romney winning those voters by eight points (compared to five for George W. Bush and ten for Pat Toomey).
And then it just comes down to how well Team Obama has Philadelphia County organized. If he can drive turnout there as he did in 2008, netting 470,000 votes, the state will go his way, albeit narrowly. If his turnout machine is lacking a little bit – due to diminished grassroots enthusiasm, lack of preparation by Team Obama, or just the inevitable drift of marginal Republican voters in the county to the GOP banner – Obama will be in trouble. After all, John Kerry broke all the records in Philadelphia County in 2004 by netting about 410,000 votes, then Obama smashed them to reach 480,000 even as the county’s population was stagnant. If Obama “only” has the county as well organized as Kerry did, then in this scenario Romney would win the Keystone State, albeit it narrowly.
You can tweak various assumptions here in reasonable ways to see the state flip as well. For instance, assume Romney does as well as Toomey did in the rest of the state, where turnout is still up 4 points, then Obama will have to exceed his 2008 haul from Philadelphia. Obviously, tweaks can go in the other direction to yield an Obama hold on the state as well. The point is that Team Romney has a reasonable shot here, one worth an investment, especially given the level of saturation in the other swing states.
Final point: I wonder if Romney has caught Team Obama flat-footed. For months the Obama campaign has bet that the map would basically look like it did in 2008, then after the debates there was a definite shift. Now, the president is left fighting not in the 2008 battlegrounds, but in the 2004 battlegrounds, which included Pennsylvania. I do not think the president’s campaign was fully prepared for this, and I bet he wishes he could have all the money poured into North Carolina back, to redirect it into Pennsylvania.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.