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Obama’s WV Problem Stretches Into PA

A significant portion of western and central Pennsylvania Democrats declined to vote for Barack Obama in the April primary, an analysis by PoliticsPA has found. The results there resemble those of Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia, where the President lost around 40 percent of the primary vote to no-name opponents or “undecided”.

A review of county-by-county vote totals show that the President underperformed historic trends, as well as other Democrats on the ballot this year.

Over 30 percent of voters left the presidential ballot blank rather than select Obama’s name in 27 counties. That’s compared to just 6 counties apiece for the two other unopposed statewide Democratic primary candidates, incumbent PA Treasurer Rob McCord and Auditor General hopeful (and first time statewide candidate) Eugene DePasquale.

In southwestern PA minus Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, Obama’s undervote was about 10 percent higher than that of Ed Rendell, who ran unopposed for re-election as Governor in 2006.

Undervote refers to the number of blank ballot selections as a proportion of total voters; in this case, the Democrats who voted in the primary but did not make a selection for President.

Take Greene County, for example. Tucked in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, it’s surrounded on two sides by West Virginia and heavily reliant on the coal industry. Nearly 42 percent of nearly 4,000 Democrats in the historically blue county left the presidential ballot blank. But only 30 percent skipped McCord and DePasquale the same day. And just 26 percent skipped Rendell back in 2006.

Incumbent PA Treasurer Rob McCord's 2012 undervote

That’s not surprising according to Dr. Terry Madonna, Director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.

“The first point is that most, not all, [of the undervote is] in culturally conservative counties which we would call many of the Democrats there ‘Reagan Democrats,’” he said. “Some are in rural counties. As you know, the President has problems with blue collar working class voters. He had that in 2008 and he faces the same problem now. That may not get better with his support for gay marriage and immigration reform. Also these are areas that tend to have higher unemployment which does not help.”

Auditor General hopeful Eugene DePasquale's 2012 undervote

“But,” he added, “In all the polls the President still leads in the state, so one-on-one against Romney it might not have as much meaning, but it certainly shows a measure of discontent. That might also in part explain the huge push for a ground game, the 24 field offices the Obama campaign has opened in the state.”

Indeed, Obama’s campaign made a concerted effort during the primary to obtain petition signatures and votes for the President. Their turnout effort and Obama’s popularity in eastern PA – particularly Philadelphia and its suburbs – yielded a statewide undervote of only about 15 percent, well within historical norms. 616,000 of the approximately 770,000 Democrats who voted statewide cast their ballots for Obama.

Obama actually outperformed McCord in his home county, despite the fact that Montgomery was listed on the ballot beneath the incumbent Treasurer’s name.

And PA’s Obama campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Austin noted that there was no shortage of disenchantment on the Republican side of the primary.

“Despite investing significant time and energy in an essentially uncontested primary race, 40 percent of voting Republicans voted against Romney, and he continues to struggle to win support in Pennsylvania, as was notable during his less than smooth bus tour through the state this weekend,” Austin said.

Romney took just 58 percent of the vote in PA, despite the fact that former Senator Rick Santorum dropped out of the race two weeks before primary day and only the former Massachusetts Governor had any paid advertising. He lost 18.5 percent of the vote to Santorum, 13.1 percent to Texas Congressman Ron Paul, and 10.5 percent to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

She argued that economic issues would bring western PA Dems back into the fold.

“Faced with a clear choice in November between continuing to move forward with a President who has created private sector jobs for 27 straight months, and lead the manufacturing sector to its first period of growth in over a decade, or going backward with Mitt Romney who lost manufacturing jobs at twice the national average in Massachusetts while sinking the state to 3rd worst in the country for job creation, and who built his private sector career on bankrupting companies and shipping jobs overseas, voters in Western Pennsylvania and across the state will no doubt have little trouble deciding to stick with the President.”

Dr. Melanie Blumberg is a Professor of Political Science and the Director of the American Democracy Project at the California University of PA in Washington County. She said socially conservative western PA Dems may have driving up the President’s undervote, but it’s unclear whether they would vote for Romney.

“Voters in southwestern Pennsylvania are, for the most part, socially conservative and economically liberal.  It could be that the progressive agenda may have “lost” the President some supporters,” she said. “If this is the case, the question is whether voters will buy Romney-brand conservatism or if they will just stay home. Either way helps the GOP ticket.”

Republicans had another explanation for the primary results: coal and shale. PA’s Republican National Victory spokesman Billy Pitman noted that the dark areas of the map roughly correlate to communities where coal and natural gas industries are economic staples. They said the undervote was a statement about the President’s energy policies.

“President Obama’s hostility towards the energy sector has alienated the communities who rely on coal and shale development to create new jobs and support their economies,” said Pitman. “Democrats around the country and in Pennsylvania continue to join a growing coalition of Americans disappointed in President Obama’s ability to lead our economic recovery. Now, he finds his approval ratings are under water and Pennsylvania voters are turning to Mitt Romney for new ideas and leadership.”

The energy policy theory bears out in the part of the state where coal is king, but it’s too soon to tell whether Romney can count on the Marcellus shale vote. President Obama has vocally supported gas drilling, and his undervote in counties like Bradford and Washington – at the epicenter of the Marcellus boom – was actually lower than in their neighbors.

Dr. Raymond Wrabley, a professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, said the 2012 primary results match those of 2008. That year, Obama lost western and central PA to Hillary Clinton in the primary and significantly underperformed past Democratic presidential candidates in the general – despite cruising to a 10 point win statewide.

“Obama has struggled with working class, white Democrats, even back in 2008,” he said. “However, those voters will face a different ballot choice in November. They’ll have to choose between a Democrat who will be espousing economic views fairly close to their own and a Republican whose positions may not be as attractive.”

“So Obama will never win the white vote – and no Democrat has since 1964 – but he can still be competitive in November. There is still a lot that will happen between now and November.”

Editor’s note: PA counties have vastly different rules for distributing primary data – hence the nearly two month delay for our research. Those that require in-person requests or other onerous requirements have been marked with an asterisk. In those cases, PoliticsPA took as a baseline the number of Democrats who cast ballots in the county’s highest vote-getting contest (in every case but Philadelphia, this was the Attorney General race). The resulting numbers are likely 2-3 percent lower than the actual undervote.

Jule Pattison-Gordon contributed to this report.

19 Responses

  1. Hey guys, this is about the third time I’ve seen this graphic. I still do not know what information you’re trying to communicate because THERE IS NO COLOR KEY on the map. Am I blind or is this just poor graphic design?

  2. Southern Sue, that’s the sentiment plenty of Dems express. They are losing their homes to unpaid property taxes while members of public sector unions, go on month long vacations and strike, thus putting ungodly pressures on their neighbors. Why haven’t the so-called “elite” devised more professional, inclusive negotiating practices? They quibble violently over contributing to their own benefits, earn $ix figure $alaries and cost the rest of us whose jobs with small businesses give no paid holidays, sick leave or benefits.

  3. “Obama will not win by 11% like last time, but it will be comfortably above 6%.”

    Let’s say you’re right. What does a similar drop in support mean for other swing states?

    Just to refresh your memory, the states Obama won by fewer than 5 points are: FL, OH, NC, IN, and almost (6 points) VA. If Romney flips all 5 plus one other state, he wins. Current polling shows he is moving steadily in that direction, and it is only June.

    Obama should be very concerned by such a noticeable dropoff in support in states like PA, WI, MI, and IA. He may hold them in the end but he will lose others where his margin was not nearly as comfortable.

  4. Obama and Romney are both owned by the same financial establishment-centered in London-which is looting and crushing nations in Europe and the U.S., through the bailout process. American voters are sick of it, and horrified at such a non-choice for President in this huge world crisis.
    Obama should be impeached, the Dems should have an open convention and nominate a qualified candidate, and we should get Marcy Kaptur’s bill to restore Glass Steagall (HR 1489) passed in the House of Reps right away!

  5. One is left to wonder what the Democratic Primary would have looked like post-Wisconsin after both Obama and Biden judged that becoming involved was a political liability, due to their own forecast of a Walker win.

  6. i live in lycoming county, up in the mountains and we are mostly republican.

    philly and pitts are the democratic strong holds.

    i love the mountains, however, the cities and towns are depressing.
    i’m from the beautiful south where our cities and towns are beautiful, yes, some areas are bad, but mostly beautiful. in pa these people need serious work and the infrastructure needs to be modernized.

    but these people keep voting in demons and this is what they get.
    a lot of welfare and lousy looking cities and towns and children that can’t speak correct english and pumping out babies with no father around. i know the baby thing is everywhere in the US, however, it is all over pa.

    one other thing, the teacher’s union is alive and well in pa. they drive beautiful cars and live in nice homes while the tax payers live in yuk! most all of my realestate tax goes to the teacher’s union.

  7. LOL @ Roger Lunds comment.

    Obama’s gonna lose in a landslide. Not just Pennsylvania. All across the United States.

  8. Gee, that’s just the opposite of what we’ve been told for years now. Obama won because he was black and white’s had ‘guilt’. Now it’s white’s will never vote for Obama and never have.


  9. Are they seriously comparing Romney’s numbers right after a bitter primary battle versus Obama’s as the incumbent President?

    Sheesh, of course a lot of Republicans were still saying they wouldn’t support Romney. It’s like polling right after Hillary had dropped out. Lots of her supporters said they wouldn’t vote for Obama–but how’d that pan out? You bet they voted for him.

  10. Obama has ‘under performed’ throughout his presidency. The voters of Pennsylvania are not stupid enough to agree to go over a financial cliff with Obama or another four years of American decline.

  11. Senator Pat Toomey is a layup for VP based on these numbers. Pennsylvania will always be a swing state and a Romney play for it goes down Toomey Avenue….the add on is that it influences DE, Ohio, WV, parts of NY and NJ with they’re respective media footprints. Hard to imagine Toomey not being on the shortest of short lists based on this analysis…

  12. The undervote occurred in both the Presidential and the US Senate race with progressive policy incumbents. The race with the most democratic votes was the attorney generals race where the progressive candidate was also defeated.

    On the gop side, the presidential race had the highest number of votes cast, and followed normal voting patterns and garnered an impressive 58%.against three former Pennsylvanians.

  13. If I was Obama, I would be worried about the results in Luzerne and Carbon counties. Those two counties are true bellweathers and an Obama loss there makes the race very close as those counties are often very swingy.

  14. On the contrary Roger, let them keep campaigning here! Most all prognosticators are starting to turn PA from a swing state into a Lean Dem state based on the comfortable poll margins and Romney’s weakness in PA. Let them waste their dollars here, Wisconsin and Michigan instead of Ohio, Virginia and Florida, where this year’s race will be decided (Virginia topping that list!).

    PA Democrats should have a major focus on taking back the State House after the PA Supreme Court gave them a GIFT in the form of throwing out the GOP monstrosity of a map and allowing the old one to be used this year. Casey’s safe and no congressional districts are going to flip this year (maybe Boockvar against Fitzpatrick but even that’s a long shot). But there’s a very good chance of regaining several of the lost State House seats from the 2010 fluke with a presidential year electorate, the old map and several promising candidates.

  15. Perhaps it isn’t so much the “white, working class” voter as the utterly pissed off female voter still smarting from being stiffed by party leadership in 2008.

  16. Nice try. Obama’s gig is up. He’s done in November and the country will be better off because of it.

  17. These are the same “Democrats” who didn’t show up to vote in 2010 when Onorato and Sestak got creamed in the South West. I would have thought a pro-business, anti-choice Dem like Onorato would have wiped up there, but no, it didn’t happen. Liberal Sestak actually out polled him with these Democrats.

    The most telling of this is the Romney number where so many Repubs would not vote for him even though all other competition (save Ron Paul) had dropped out. That 42% of Republicans STATEWIDE could not support their nominee is telling.

    Obama will not win by 11% like last time, but it will be comfortably above 6%. Repubs… go campaign elsewhere.

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