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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Return To Pennsylvania

Michael Barone published an excellent essay on Pennsylvania earlier this week. In it, he analyzed McCain's prospects in the Keystone State, and from there pivoted to a broader discussion about the governing coalition Obama hopes to form.

I cannot recommend it more highly. Here, I'd like to supplement it, hoping to specify McCain's strategy in the Keystone State and its likelihood of success.

I suspect that McCain is aiming for a voting coalition roughly similar to the one Hillary Clinton fashioned in the April, 22 primary.

2008 D Primary Pennsylvania.jpg

As we can see, Obama performed well in the southeast, winning three of the five counties in Metropolitan Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Hillary dominated the rest of the state, winning the rural areas, metro Pittsburgh, and the smaller cities along the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike - Allentown, Bethlehem, Wilkes-Barre, and Scranton.

Indeed, another look at the primary data indicates just how well Clinton performed in these areas.

Clinton Margin.jpg

Those are some very large margins of victory outside Philadelphia. Pittsburgh presents an interesting case. Thanks to strong African American support in the city and the neighborhoods in the east, Obama won 45% of the vote in Allegheny County. However, outside Allegheny County, he did quite poorly. He only cracked the 33% threshold in Butler County, which is an exurban county (Obama tended to do well in exurban counties nationwide in the primaries). In Fayette County, he barely managed to win one of five primary voters. As we can see from the map above, Obama's generally performed quite poorly throughout the western third of the state.

This data seems to indicate an opportunity for John McCain and Sarah Palin. If primary voting Democrats broadly preferred Clinton over Obama, it might be that Independents and persuadable Democrats can be brought to the GOP. But can they really? Can McCain make any progress in these areas? The fact that both sides have been stumping in the state recently suggests that the answer might be yes. In light of this, let's examine the following chart - which tracks the "Republican tilt" of these areas since 1964.

Republican Tilt.jpg

As we can see, the rural areas have consistently supported the Republican candidate at levels greater than his national average. Allentown and the cities along the Turnpike Extension have been pretty consistent over the last 40 years, displaying a Democratic tilt between 1 and 10%. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is once again an interesting case. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Pittsburgh is not home to "Reagan Democrats." The steel industry took a huge hit in the early 1980s, and the town responded by favoring Mondale by nearly 13 points. George W. Bush, however, did very well here, performing better than any Republican since Richard Nixon in 1972. That had a lot to do with the region's cultural conservatism.

So, there is potential for McCain. Republicans tend to do all right in these ares, so McCain might have an opportunity here to do well. If he hopes to win the state, he would have ultimately have to pull more votes in these three places combined than Bush did in 2004.

However, this strategy faces a major obstacle: Philadelphia. Barone notes that the southeast, according to the most recent Survey USA poll, seems primed to favor Barack Obama by a margin greater than what John Kerry pulled. He offers a very cogent theory for why:

My hypothesis is that that is because places like the Philly suburbs are places where the recent decline in household wealth has been most conspicuous. Housing prices mean a lot more to you when your house started off at $400,000 and declined to $290,000 than they did when you started off (as may be typical of Scranton or a blue-collar town in metro Pittsburgh) at $140,000 and declined to $110,000. Newspaper coverage of our current economic distress focuses on the very poor (like a recent Washington Post story on North Carolina, which focused on an ex-convict in a cheap motel in Charlotte), but the people who are getting hurt most visibly in their lifelong project of accumulating wealth are the more affluent. They're the ones whose house values have most visibly and spectacularly declined, and whose 401(k) accounts and stock portfolios have tanked in the last few months as well. Folks in Scranton or in the cheap motel in Charlotte didn't expect to live comfortably ever after off their increased house values, 401(k)'s, and Merrill Lynch accounts; a $700 monthly check from Social Security is about what they have long expected and that's not in danger (yet). Folks in the Philly suburbs did expect to live comfortably off such assets.

It seems to me that this hypothesis might be generalizable to McCain's weaknesses in Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina - where wealthier suburbanites have taken a huge hit in the last month.

Barone notes another problem for McCain in Philly - as the above chart makes clear, the trend-line has been bad for the GOP. George H.W. Bush did quite well in metro Philly - but since then it has been downhill for the Republicans. George W. Bush lost the state twice in part because he twice lost 4 of the 5 counties in metro Philly. Additionally, as the primary data indicates, Obama did quite well here. He carried Philadelphia County thanks to strong support from African Americans. He also won Chester and Delaware counties, and he split Bucks County with Hillary Clinton. Clearly, the problems Obama had in the northeast and the southwest were not present in the southeast.

There might be an additional complication for McCain - the fast-growing counties surrounding metro Philly. Since 2000, the Census Bureau estimates that Berks, Lancaster, and York counties have grown anywhere between 5% and 10%. Most recent estimates indicate that more than 1.2 million people live in these places. Bush carried Berks County by about 6 points in 2004, and he dominated Kerry in Lancaster and York - winning both by near 2:1 margins. So, for McCain, victories in these places are already built into a statewide Republican loss. He must hold the line here. This could be problematic if Barone's hypothesis about the political implications of the financial crash is accurate.

So, all in all, Pennsylvania is a very tough challenge for McCain-Palin. Barone is skeptical that the GOP can win the state, and I share that skepticism.

That being said, I will be interested in examining the data after the election. I suspect the emphasis on Pennsylvania recently is due to the fact Obama is weak somewhere - either in the northeast, the southwest, or both. If that turns out to be the case on Election Day, Pennsylvania might exhibit a sharper urban-rural divide than it has in any recent cycle. As Barone notes - that would make for a very interesting electoral coalition for Obama, one based upon the wealthy and the poor in big cities like Philadelphia.

-Jay Cost