Pennsylvania - Political Positioning or Realistic Chance?


The keystone of the McCain campaign’s victory scenario during the final weeks was a surprise victory in Pennsylvania despite that fact that polls (Real Clear Politics had the gap at 7 points on Election Day) clearly showed Obama comfortably ahead. Why?

Pennsylvania has a Democratic Governor from Philadelphia who was elected twice with sizable margins. Democrats have gotten a big boost over the past two years in voter registration. The political shift from Republican to Democratic in the Philadelphia suburbs is nearly complete – at least when it comes to statewide and federal offices.

This said, no Democratic candidate has ever held the statewide office of Attorney General. The State Senate had a 29 – 21 Republican advantage going into the election and until 2006 Republicans in the State House held 110 seats to the Democrats 93 (currently 102 – 101 Democratic).

In other words, statewide the sum of Republican parts remains greater than Republican voter registration. It was this anomaly that very likely gave McCain hope for winning Pennsylvania by running more a regional than statewide campaign.

This strategy was likely bolstered by what was perceived to be still disaffected Hillary voters. Senator Clinton carried the state by more than 200,000 votes and captured nearly 55 percent of the vote. In Pennsylvania, the divisions between the electoral bases of the two Democratic primary candidates were most clear. Clinton carried the older, rural and lower income Democrats while Obama won the better educated, urban and minority bases. The Clinton Democrats are the same “swing voters” Republicans need to win in the more hotly contested districts.

Obama won 7 of 67 counties in the Primary Election. Obama’s only significant victory was in Philadelphia County which he carried by 130,000 votes. Obama won only two of the four Philadelphia collar counties. Meanwhile, Clinton won many of the state’s rural counties by margins of 2 – 1 or greater.

Yet potential weakness for Obama did not overcome the huge challenges facing the McCain campaign. Democrats now outnumber Republicans by 1.1 million registered voters statewide. According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, Democratic registration grew by 855,000 or 14 percent over the past year while GOP registration shrank by 4 percent or 145,000 voters. In 2000, the difference between the parties was less than 500,000. George W. Bush lost Pennsylvania in 2004 having a much more favorable electoral environment than did McCain in 2008.

The framework for statewide Democratic victories was established by Governor Ed Rendell in 2002. In that race, Rendell won the five counties that comprise the Greater Philadelphia region by 515,000 votes. The vote in the rest of the state, which he lost, didn’t really matter. This is in large measure the model Obama would follow to victory.

McCain has a far more difficult road to victory. He needed to emulate Republican U. S. Senator Arlen Specter’s 2004 victory, which was based on limiting his losses in Philadelphia County to 270,000 votes and winning Delaware, Bucks, Chester and Montgomery Counties (collar counties) by 145,000 votes. This enabled him to achieve a nearly 600,000 vote victory statewide - the highest margin for any statewide Republican candidate in recent history.

The other victory scenario was that used by Republican Attorney General, Tom Corbett in 2004. Corbett won statewide by around 100,000 votes. Corbett lost Philadelphia by almost 400,000 votes, but he won all four collar counties albeit with 90,000 less votes than Specter.

On Tuesday, McCain ended up looking more like a far more strident conservative candidate, former U. S. Senator Rick Santorum who lost to now Senator Bob Casey by more than 700,000 votes in 2006. In that election, Santorum got only 15 percent of the vote in Philadelphia County and lost the collar counties by 175,000 total votes. This was a swing of nearly 320,000 votes compared to those won by Specter two years earlier.

So why did McCain play the Pennsylvania card? Maybe it was the belief that the state’s “Hillary Voters” still felt disaffected from Obama. It may also have been that he had to believe in Pennsylvania in order to have even the most remote chance at victory. Hoping for an October surprise, he thought Pennsylvania would keep him in the game. Without Pennsylvania the election was almost surely lost with states like Virginia, Ohio, and Florida trending toward Obama.

In the end, McCain lost Pennsylvania by more than 600,000 votes and one Republican incumbent in Congress lost in the Erie region. Obama won Philadelphia and it collar counties big, basically replaying Rendell model.

But does this mean that Pennsylvania is now a solid “Blue State?” The answer here is mixed. Republican incumbent Attorney General won statewide by nearly 400,000 votes. The Republican State Senate has seemingly increased its caucus by one Member to 30 – 20. The State House, at this writing, remains in Democratic control by a margin of 104 – 99. Certainly this was not a big change election.

What we saw here was an anti-Bush vote in Pennsylvania that followed the national trend of wanting a change of direction. Locally, voters seem just fine with a status quo that may tilt a bit blue, but still has room for dashes of red.

One thing for sure, at least for now the politically powerful southeast collar counties hold the key to winning statewide in Pennsylvania. A candidate must win at least one of these counties to have any hope of a statewide victory.

Dennis M. Powell is president and CEO of Massey Powell an issues management consulting company located in Plymouth Meeting, PA.