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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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On Specter and Pennsylvania Republicans

As I have written before, the punditocracy's preferred explanation for Specter's decision to jump is that the Pennsylvania GOP is now such a small, conservative rump that it will not tolerate a moderate such as he. I think that is a bunch of bull - and a recent poll from Public Opinion Strategies backs me up (to an extent).

Their poll of likely Republican voters found Tom Ridge trouncing Pat Toomey, 60% to 23%. It also found that the former Republican governor has an approval rating among Republicans of 80%, compared to Arlen Specter's approval of just 30%.

It's early of course, but the results are still relevant. As I noted Tuesday, Tom Ridge is a moderate Republican. He's not quite as close to the middle as Specter, but he was one of the more moderate members of the Republican caucus when he served. So, why is it that these supposedly intolerant conservatives approve so highly of Ridge? Additionally, though it is still early, it's notable that the moderate Ridge is trouncing the conservative Toomey. And remember: the early numbers were enough to cause Specter to switch.

I'd suggest that the ideological intolerance - or whatever - of the Pennsylvania GOP cannot account for this. Instead, I think this is anti-Specter sentiment. Specter is not particularly well liked, especially among Pennsylvania Republicans outside metro Philadelphia. Is this so difficult to believe? After all, this is the guy who said Jack Kemp would still be alive if Congress had spent more money on cancer research. Nothing.But.Class.

Here's another data point that offers pushback on this meme. Again, the story goes that the hardcore conservatives are the ones who won't tolerate Specter. Ok. Let's test this. The most conservative part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is the center of the state - the counties where there is nothing but forests and mountains as far as the eye can see. If Specter's problem is really ideological, we should have expected him to do the worst in those areas when he ran against Toomey in 2004.

But he didn't. The following map is a color coded depiction of the 2004 primary. I've put Specter counties in blue and Toomey counties in red. Deeper shading indicates a wider margin of victory.

Specter v. Toomey 2004.gif

As you can see, Specter held his own in the center of the state. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but I'd bet the spicy chicken sandwich I'm eating that he won PA-5 and PA-9, the two most conservative districts in the state. These places are mostly rural, uniformly white, low income, historically Republican - the exact kinds of places media pundits in Washington say are ruining the GOP. Yet they went for Specter in 2004.

As I indicated last week, Specter's problem was his near-ruinous results in metropolitan Pittsburgh, losing every county in the area. He lost heavily Republican Butler county by about 20 points. Butler County is not part of what the pundits would identify as the GOP's trouble. It's dominated by Cranberry Township, a far north suburb of Pittsburgh. The county as a whole grew by about 15% in the 1990s. In the last 10 years, growth has slowed to about 6%. Cranberry is dominated by younger families looking to buy a home without Allegheny County's real estate taxes weighing them down. There has been a big boom in development in the last 25 years, which means plenty of Starbucks around Cranberry, though it still voted for Toomey in 2004. For good measure, the senior Pennsylvania senator also lost York and Lancaster counties - which, because they sit between Philly and Baltimore, are much larger exurban communities. So, you also would have seen a lot of people there who picked up their Starbucks Espresso Double Shots on the way to vote against Snarlin' Arlen a few years back.

Bottom line: Specter's problem in 2004 was not conservatives, especially the "clingy" and "bitter" small town GOPers that the media is pegging as the bane of his existence. As you can see, the most conservative counties in the state actually went for Specter. His problem was the west, which I am guessing is powering Ridge's huge margin over Toomey in that Strategic Vision poll.

If the west prefers Toomey over Specter, but Ridge over Toomey - it can't be ideology driving the results.

Update: Specter can breath a little easier, as Ridge has now said he's not running.

-Jay Cost