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Drilling Down: How Democrats Can Make The Most of Their Advantages in Pennsylvania This Year

In this pivotal election cycle, where goes Pennsylvania?  With statewide senatorial and gubernatorial contests at the top of the ticket, a plethora of competitive congressional races and state legislative elections for half of the state senate and the entire state house, much is at stake – and up in the air.  Game on!

Myriad factors would all seem to accrue to the benefit of Democratic candidates.  These include the typical mid-term election advantages afforded to the party that doesn’t hold the White House; increasingly ginned up opposition to the President Trump among Democratic and Independent voters; new congressional districts that are far more amenable to Democratic candidates, courtesy of the state Supreme Court; an unprecedented number of female candidates on the ballot at all levels, including eight who are running for Congress; and a whopping seven congressional districts, two open and five vacant, without incumbents, out of 18 total, largely due to the retirements and resignations of Republican Representatives.  All that stipulated, how then does the party leverage such largess in order to make the most of their electoral results at all levels?

As a starting point, I have extrapolated from the results of past relevant statewide gubernatorial year General Elections, adjusted by current voter registration figures that nearly 4 million (47 percent) voters will turn-out on Election Day in November.  Of these, 48 percent are expected to vote for Democrats, while 49 percent are likely to go Republican – very close, indeed.

The next step is to tease out where campaigns should best allocate the limited time and resources available, a true nexus of art and science.  Again, my analysis of past relevant election results for each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, shows five counties likely to be carried by Democratic candidates; another ten counties that lean toward one party or the other, or are toss-ups; and three counties that probably will fall into the Republican column.  The remaining 49 counties can be considered to be “safe” for Republican candidates.

Those 18 counties, many situated in the voter-rich southeastern part of the state, that are not categorized as the Republican base, account for over 2.4 million votes (47 percent) of total projected votes.  Democratic candidates can be expected to net 56 percent of these, or over 1.3 million votes.

Going on two decades, statewide Democratic candidates have successfully relied almost solely on votes from one variation or another of these targeted counties as a default strategy – that is until the meltdown that was the 2016 presidential election.  Hillary Clinton won in only eleven of these counties, losing three that President Obama carried in his successful 2012 re-election bid.

While the unique Democratic advantages listed above may well re-create a scenario that once again leads to victory for statewide Democrats in these midterms, essentially writing off the voters in 49 counties would be to the great detriment of down-ballot Democratic candidates in those areas, particularly when money and resources flow overwhelmingly to the top of the ticket, and with it, consequently, voter attention and interest.

That said, perhaps it’s time to start letting go of the traditional time-worn playbook and thinking out of the box to find a way that can work for both interests.  While candidates may well not be expected to carry these 49 counties, there are indeed pockets of support for Democrats, from the top of the ticket down, in municipalities located in nearly all of them.  Such municipalities can be worked like a coal seam to the collective advantage of all Democratic candidates. It’s time to start drilling down.

Using three criteria, municipalities with a majority of Democrats as local elected officials; municipalities with majority African American or Hispanic population voting precincts and/or municipalities in which a secular university or college is located, likely support for Democratic candidates can be gauged.  

Of the 2,560 municipalities in Pennsylvania, 742, situated in 63 of 67 counties, meet one or more of these criteria.  They account for over 6.5 million (52 percent) citizens, more than half of the states’ population. Candidates could extend their targets from reliable counties with large populations to also include these equally fruitful municipalities in counties that otherwise would be largely ignored.  This could bring much needed votes for down-ballot Democratic races which, in turn, could greatly assist a re-elected Governor Tom Wolf in governing.

This thinking has been adopted by the current Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.  Fetterman has been visiting out-of-the-way counties and municipalities that mainstream Democratic candidates typically avoid since he ran for U.S. Senate in 2016.  Such an approach, if successful, could also help with the re-election bid of U.S. Senator Bob Casey, who doesn’t always fit the progressive Democratic mold that does so well in Pennsylvania’s southeast corner.  Finally, it could serve as a test case for a Democrat’s presidential bid in 2020, particularly one such as former Vice-President Joe Biden.

Appealing candidates with messages that resound across differing constituencies and the ability to execute well-tailored plans could help to stitch together a coalition of Obama voters, many of whom were absent in 2016, and white, working class voters who increasingly have abandoned the Democratic Party.  Remember, such a strategy isn’t designed for the party to necessarily prevail in these 49 counties, but to devote resources designed to make strategic inroads there, offering a much needed assist to down-ballot Democratic candidates and, ultimately, to create a long term working governing majority. That, after all, should be the real goal of politics and political campaigns.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for the very thoughtful comments. It is critical to note that nearly all research points to the fact that the PA Congressional Districts were configured “courtesy” of a Republican PA legislature after the 2010 election. The present (2018) legislature was given the opportunity to redraw the districts but their partisan decisions lead to the PA Supreme Court action. Voting, based on learned information is essential to our democracy. We need Americans more than Democrats or Republicans.

  2. What is said here is so true in that it is a great sign that Dems can elect a Fetterman and a Casey at the same time because it shows the Dem tent is broad. I contend that 2016 was a unique moment in political history where Clinton was not connecting in a way that had clearly shown to all concerned that the Dems had some serious homework to do in terms of the message and folks intended to receive it. If 2018 is a measure, the Dems are rebounding. Clinton’s loss was a blessing and a curse in a sense because while it stinks to lose it also allowed for a realignment in the Democratic Party and thrust forward newer candidates who ushered in a new generation and/or message. Yet, Biden’s potential candidacy also has possibilities in this new era for Dems.

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