When asked to describe Pennsylvania, Washington political consultant James Carville, who helped elect Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey and U.S. Senator Harris Wofford, once declared that the state was “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” On another occasion, he added: “Pennsylvania is two cities separated by Alabama.”
Carville’s now famous characterizations expressed succinctly the conventional wisdom–then and now: Pennsylvania is a culturally conservative state where tradition is strong, change is slow, and fundamental beliefs are enduring. In truth, that description of the state culture was probably fair for much of the 20th century.
But the past may no longer be prologue for Pennsylvania. Indeed, much recent polling in the state strongly suggests a long-term dynamic shift is underway in public opinion, especially among younger Pennsylvanians–a shift that may foreshadow major changes in Pennsylvania’s political culture. Almost certainly the historical assumption that Pennsylvania’s voters are hard core cultural conservatives is outdated. The Keystone State simply isn’t your grandfather’s Pennsylvania anymore.
The most recent Franklin & Marshall College poll offers a glimpse of why this is occurring by examining voter’s attitudes about marijuana, gay rights and gun control, all hot button cultural issues that tend to clearly locate voters along the conservative-liberal continuum.
Of these, the legalization of marijuana is arguably the litmus test of whether one is culturally conservative or liberal. Not surprisingly Pennsylvanians still oppose recreation marijuana, 54% oppose while 38% approve. Quite surprising, however, is that support for recreation marijuana has increased almost 75% in the past seven years. In 2006, barely a fifth (22%) approved, but approvals now approach four in ten Pennsylvania voters (38%). Even more dramatic, a stunning 72% of voters opposed recreational marijuana in 2006; today, it is slightly more than half opposing (54%).
At this rate of change a majority of Pennsylvanians might favor recreational marijuana before this decade ends and possibly sooner.
In fact, other bellwether cultural issues already enjoy majority support including medical marijuana, some gun control measures, gay marriage, and gay civil unions. A striking eight in ten voters (82%) favor allowing medical marijuana if prescribed by a doctor. Almost nine of ten voters (89%) favor universal gun background checks for all gun sales. More than half (54%) favor gay marriage, while more than six in ten (65%) favor civil unions for same sex couples.
The strongest support for liberal oriented cultural issues tends to come from women rather than men, Democrats rather than Republicans, college educated voters and younger voters.
But it is the support of younger voters that looms most important. Youth is the demographic cohort leading Pennsylvania’s liberal culturalization. More specifically, dynamically changing attitudes toward a cluster of culturally significant issues are being driven by young college educated voters living in the eastern half of the state.
Demography may not always be destiny. But when trends are driven by younger voters, who are entering or have recently entered the electorate, then demographic trends often do portend irreversible change. And that is what we see here.
That they are young is significant because over time their generation will become a larger and larger part of the total electorate; that they are college educated is significant because most of the state’s future leadership will come from this group; and that they are from the eastern part of the state is significant because this is where population growth is occurring in Pennsylvania.
But while young voters are leading this parade they are far from comprising the entire parade. Support for gay marriage for example is a solid 55% in Philadelphia, but it is an overwhelming 70% in the Philadelphia suburbs. Even in the less than liberal Central Pennsylvania area, support for gay marriage is just short of a majority (49%).
Only in western Pennsylvania outside of Allegheny County,and in some rural areas of the state do the more traditional views on marijuana, gun control measures, and gay unions prevail. And these areas, as noted, are growing slowly if at all compared to the rest of Pennsylvania.
It is no longer the case that cultural change is coming to Pennsylvania. It is here already and will only accelerate in the years ahead. Pennsylvania politicians may choose to ignore these trends, but neither they nor anyone else will stop them.
Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner of Michael Young Strategic Research. Madonna and Young encourage responses to the column and can be reached, respectively, at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.