Finally, the presidential nomination campaigns move to the Northeast. New York votes on April 19th and five more states-including critical Pennsylvania – vote one week later.
Even now, the presidential candidates are arriving in Pennsylvania: campaign headquarters are being opened, volunteers are being organized, and the state’s media is abuzz for the upcoming April 26th presidential primary.
One day, two primaries: as both state Democrats and Republicans vote on the same day. (Yes, there some are states that don’t do it this way).
There is little to say about the Democratic contest; indeed, it would be stunning if Hillary Clinton were to lose the state. Put simply, Pennsylvania is Hillary Clinton country.
Her husband carried the state twice, winning the presidency in 1992 and 1996. In 2008, she won by 10 points over then U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. She has close personal connections with much of the party establishment and has been endorsed by former Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.
Today, she holds a 16-point lead over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Real Clear Politics average. Her popularity in the state, combined with her strong support among the state’s 21 super delegates, means she should command a majority of the 210 Democratic delegates at stake in Pennsylvania.
The Republican contest, however, looks far from settled. The Pennsylvania campaign will be critical to whether Donald Trump gets close to achieving the magic 1,237 delegates necessary for the nomination. The latest polling shows Trump with an early lead and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich bunched tightly behind him.
Trump’s decisive defeat in Wisconsin means he needs to win about 60 percent of the remaining delegates to be nominated on the first ballot. A big win in Pennsylvania could put him on a glide path to the nomination. A loss would mean a contested convention is all but certain.
But winning in Pennsylvania comes with a huge asterisk. That’s because regardless of who wins a majority of the vote, 54 of the state’s 71 GOP delegates will be officially “unbound” when they arrive in Cleveland for the convention. They will join another estimated 150 or so unbound delegates from other states who might well decide whether Trump wins the nomination.
The path to a popular-vote victory in Pennsylvania differs markedly for each of the three Republican candidates. Critical demographic and regional patterns, influential in many past elections, are again re-emerging in this year’s primary.
For Trump, the key to any victory will be his showing in southwestern Pennsylvania, in the old mining and mill town counties surrounding Pittsburgh, namely Beaver, Westmoreland, Washington, Greene, Cambria, and Fayette. This is where the old Reagan Democrat still survives, and is the demographic pattern observed in his performance in contests in earlier states. Trump needs to excel there among workingmen and women who believe the economy has passed them by and who have not recovered from the Great Recession. These voters have been the core of his support in previous contests – and must support him on April 26, if he is to do well in Pennsylvania.
For Kasich, governor of neighboring Ohio, Pennsylvania could be friendly country. A native of suburban Pittsburgh, he is a centrist in a party that no longer has a center. Nevertheless, there are arguably more moderate Republicans in Pennsylvania than any other state and they are his natural constituency. Moreover, Kasich was the beneficiary of Marco Rubio’s exit from the race, picking up the lion’s share of Rubio’s support.
A victory in Pennsylvania for Kasich depends upon a strong showing in the southeastern part of the state among moderate Republicans. Kasich seems positioned to do this. He has benefited from impressive endorsements, namely from popular former Pennsylvania governors, Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge, and he has emerged as something of the establishment candidate in a state that still likes establishment candidates.
For Cruz, any path to victory in Pennsylvania will be a windy road. Indeed, the Northeastern states generally are not fertile ground for the Cruz candidacy. Nevertheless, there are evangelical and tea party Republicans scattered throughout Central Pennsylvania as well as other rural parts of the state. These are Cruz’s natural constituency. They tend to vote disproportionately in Republican primaries and will be there for Cruz on Election Day. But to do well in Pennsylvania, Cruz also has to compete with John Kasich for the moderate voters so abundant in the voter-rich Philadelphia suburbs and Lehigh Valley. This is Cruz’s toughest challenge.
Prediction: Trump should still win the statewide vote in a closer than expected outcome. Cruz is poised for a spoiler role, while Kasich could still score an upset. If either Cruz or Kasich were to win, it will slow down, but not stop the Trump express. If that’s going to happen it will be in July, not April – and in Cleveland, not Pennsylvania.