Turnout Will Tell Who Wins Pennsylvania

By Itkowitz & Kraus, Morning Call - November 3, 2012

After months of punditry and polls, after a superstorm that scattered volunteers and darkened polling places, all that matters is voter turnout.

Although Pennsylvania was not a prime presidential battleground in 2012, both the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns are cranking up plans to get voters to the polls. Unlike states that allow early voting, more than 90 percent of Pennsylvania voters will cast their ballots on Election Day.

Now it's time to see if the campaigns' efforts pay off.

The Obama team, with an expansive grassroots network already in place from 2008, boasts 54 field offices in Pennsylvania and thousands of get-out-the-vote events weekly. The Romney organization touts millions of voter contacts, more than previous presidential election years.

Democratic successes in presidential elections in Pennsylvania are largely tied to the party's 1.1 million advantage among registered voters. Typically the party depends heavily on Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and smaller cities to offset Republican advantages in suburban and rural parts of the state.

"It's a state where all things being equal, the disparity between the number of Democrats and Republicans would determine every election outcome statewide — and the Democrats would dominate," said Chris Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "If Republicans pull an upset in the state, it would all be about turnout."

No one expects Obama to win Pennsylvania by the blowout 10-point margin he did in 2008, when he received 3.2 million votes to Republican John McCain's 2.6 million. Instead turnout is expected to be closer to 2000 or 2004, when the Democrat won by a percentage margin in the low single digits. Democrat John Kerry received 2.9 million votes in 2004, and Republican George W. Bush 2.7 million.

In 2008, Obama was a fresh face offering hope and change. Now a still-struggling economy and partisan vitriol have left many voters disillusioned.

Youth voters who came out in droves in 2008, for instance, are less engaged this time around.

To reverse a 24-year trend of presidential Democrats winning Pennsylvania, Romney needs to match or outperform Bush in the four Philadelphia suburban counties, all of which Bush lost except for Chester County in 2004.

Romney also needs high turnout on the western side of the state, where conservative, blue-collar, white voters make up much of the voting demographic. That was largely how Republican Pat Toomey narrowly beat Democrat Joe Sestak for the U.S. Senate seat in 2010.

Perhaps to Romney's benefit, one of the few hot races in Pennsylvania has been out west. The state's only real competitive U.S. House race is the 12th District outside Pittsburgh. Western Pennsylvania also gets some bleed-over from the overwhelming attention both the Romney and Obama campaigns have paid Ohio.

Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University, said there is a chance Romney squeaks out a 1- or 2-point win in Pennsylvania, provided certain geographic scenarios go his way. That narrow opening appears to be why the Romney team suddenly is investing time and money in Pennsylvania in the campaign's final days.

The latest independent state poll, out Wednesday from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, showed Obama up over Romney by 4 points.

"It is going to depend on what the turnout is in Philly," Brown predicted. "[Democrats] have to pull out their 2008 numbers in Philly, because Republicans are going to pull out [their] 2010 numbers in the west.

"Democrats will get their people out to vote," she said, "I'm just not sure it will be enough due to the temperamental swings in the collar counties [surrounding Philadelphia] and the [GOP] enthusiasm" in parts of western Pennsylvania.

In 2008, Obama received close to 600,000 votes in Philadelphia. In 2010, Sestak, the Democrat who lost to Toomey, received just over 350,000 from the city.

Complicating turnout efforts is Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the eastern part of the state, leaving many still without electricity. For days, both Obama and Romney headquarters in Bethlehem were dark. Obama has two other locations in the Lehigh Valley, Allentown and Easton.

In Reading on Thursday, with the Republican Bethlehem office still shuttered, about 13 volunteers sat in cubicles hunched over a script, calling Republican voters to find out what time they plan to vote. It's part targeting — they can circle back with voters at those specific times on Election Day — and part psychological — it gets people thinking about their schedules.

The office is at the end of a dimly lit hallway in an old office building. On a nondescript brown door is taped a Romney/Ryan sign. Inside, Karen Logue, 50, a fitness instructor in Reading, said she has been coming to volunteer once a week for nearly two months. A conservative Republican, she said it's her first time ever "doing anything like this." But this year was the first time she'd ever been asked.

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