The answer to the first – can the GOP win Pennsylvania? – determines whether the second is worth asking.
The consensus on this question is far from a settled one. On one hand, many observers now believe the Keystone State’s days as a battleground state are over.
Driving this conclusion is a compelling fact: Democrats have carried the state in the last six presidential elections. Not since George H.W. Bush’s victory over Michael Dukakis in 1988 has a Republican carried the state in a presidential contest.
Ongoing regional trends have abetted Democratic dominance. The eastern areas of the state – more and more Democratic – have been growing, while western Pennsylvania, often supportive of Republicans, has been losing population.
The dramatic migration of the formerly solid Republican Philadelphia suburbs to the Democrats in presidential elections exemplifies this larger pattern favoring the Democratic Party.
So can Republicans reasonably hope to win Pennsylvania?
The answer is a surprisingly emphatic yes. Five factors compel that conclusion.
1. Hillary is a flawed candidate. The presumptive Democratic nominee brings significant weaknesses to the campaign. She and her Republican adversary are now the most negatively viewed of any major party presumptive nominees in modern times. Moreover, serious questions of trust and integrity will be raised against her. Already some early polls show her actually trailing or in head to head match-ups with her GOP opponent.
2. Presidential elections in Pennsylvania are close.
Except for Obama’s 10-point win in 2008, presidential elections in the Keystone State have been close. Previous Democratic winners have never received more than 52 percent of the popular vote. Of the widely watched swing states, Pennsylvania had the sixth closest popular vote in 2012. Every indication points to a similarly close contest in 2016.
3. The GOP was a Pennsylvania no-show in 2012. Romney made only cursory visits to the state, mostly at the end of the campaign, never seriously contested Obama’s modest lead. Consequently, Republicans spent little presidential treasure in the state – even less than in past elections. Still, Obama only won the state by five points. Romney lost Pennsylvania in 2012 because he thought he couldn’t win it and didn’t try.
4. Democrats may struggle in 2016. State Democrats have to defend two important state offices up for election in 2016: state treasurer and attorney general – both shrouded in controversy. The state treasurer has pled guilt to extortion, and the current attorney general’s tenure has been marred by endless recurring controversies, including 12 criminal charges. Moreover, holding the governorship has not been helpful, historically. Pennsylvania has a long history of voting for presidents from a party different than the incumbent governor.
5. Republicans seem resurgent in Western Pennsylvania. There is growing evidence that the western half of the state is diverging electorally more and more from the east. Obama lost the Pittsburgh media market in 2012, culminating a trend that began in the 1990’s. Republican strategists rightly see a great-untapped reservoir of GOP support among unregistered voters a trend certainly under girded by the Trump ascendancy. The stage could be set for a re-invigoration of the old conservative “Reagan Democrats,” particularly in southwestern Pennsylvania.
So to the first great question: can the GOP win Pennsylvania in 2016? The answer is a resounding yes.
That’s far from clear. Close analysis of the Electoral College map shows irrefutably that the key to a Trump victory is to carry the so-called rust belt states: Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania may be the toughest.
Clinton and the Democrats want Pennsylvania; Trump and the GOP need it.
And if Trump wins Pennsylvania he will do it by building on Romney’s 2012 support in the state’s rust belt, those portions of the state with a substantial number of unemployed blue collar workers in the old mining and mill towns with little prospects for future employment. This is the core of his constituency and trade policies and jobs matter most to them.
To win, two of Pennsylvania’s geographic areas matter most, one a looming obstacle to be neutralized and the other a rich opportunity to be grasped.
To be neutralized is the Philly suburbs. Solid Republican just two decades ago, but now increasingly Democratic, this is the home of Pennsylvania’s swing voters, many culturally liberal and fiscally conservative. This sharp shift in voter allegiance in the Pennsylvania southeast over the past 24 years has upended state geopolitics. Not since 1988 have Republicans won the four Philly suburban counties (Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester). Together with the Lehigh Valley, winning there is the key to winning the state’s 20 electoral votes. Trump cannot ignore them.
The great opportunity for Trump, however, is western Pennsylvania, more specifically the dozen or so rust belt counties surrounding Pittsburgh. In 2012, Obama, while winning Pennsylvania by five points, lost every one of these rust belt counties except for Allegheny. In 2016 the real question is not whether the Republican trending southwest will vote Republican, but by how much and whether it will make a difference.
For Trump, this is do-or-die. He must outperform Romney in this part of the state. Auspiciously for him he already carried these counties in the Republican primary on April 26, as he did in every other county in the state, besting his rivals by 35 points.
Trump can win Pennsylvania. Not easily and not by much. The early polls confirm that while Trump’s personal style suggests he might accomplish it.
Democrats will be tempted to dismiss Trump in Pennsylvania. They may have four long years to regret it.