With just one week before next Tuesday’s presidential election, the Romney campaign has apparently decided to embark on a last-minute effort to win the Keystone State. But while Pennsylvania is always tempting for Republicans, there's a reason Democrats always seem to win by a slight margin. And despite Obama's weakness in coal country, that pattern seems likely to endure through this election.
While most view Pennsylvania as a state where Democratic fortunes are dependent on white working class voters, the two parties have flipped coalitions over the last two decades. In 2008, Obama lost every rural county in the culturally conservative but populist stretches of western Pennsylvania, territory that Dukakis won twenty years earlier. Instead, Obama won Pennsylvania with an exceptional performance in the well-educated and affluent suburbs of southeastern Pennsylvania and among black voters in Philadelphia.
Romney could do much better than McCain in western Pennsylvania and in the Philadelphia suburbs, but it’s hard to get Romney over the top. In 2004, Bush lost Pennsylvania by 145,000 votes or 2.5 percent. But an increase in black turnout and support for Obama would have increased Kerry’s margin by an additional 160,000 votes. Much of this came from Philadelphia, where Obama’s margin grew by 66,000 votes. But Obama’s strong performance among black voters also helped his standing in Delaware and Dauphin Counties, where Obama’s performance was actually the best by a Democratic presidential candidate in the history of those two counties.
While the Romney campaign says they’re faring well in the Philadelphia suburbs and will probably do better than McCain’s performance four years ago, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll do better than Bush. After all, Obama is doing better than Kerry in states like Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina, where Obama’s improvements are driven in part by strength in diverse and well-educated suburbs not too dissimilar from Montgomery, Delaware, or Chester Counties. With Obama doing better than Kerry among college-educated voters, wealthy voters, and in affluent states, the better bet is that Obama does better than Kerry outside of Philadelphia, even if far worse than Obama did in 2008.
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Can Romney really make up a 300,000-vote deficit with gains elsewhere in the state, or even a 200,000-vote deficit? To pull it off, Romney would need to out-perform Bush by a net-7.5 percent outside of Philadelphia and it’s four main suburban counties. In wide swaths of western Pennsylvania—although perhaps not Allegheny County—large gains are completely conceivable. Obama’s performance in western Pennsylvania was worse than Kerry’s and the so-called ‘war on coal’ could allow Romney to win huge numbers of traditionally Democratic but socially conservative voters who were never sold on the president. And coal country represents a larger share of Pennsylvania than any other battleground state—with coal counties tallying 16 percent of the state’s electorate.
Bush won coal country by 13 points in 2004 and Romney will get a head start in the western Pennsylvania counties where McCain actually did better than Bush four years ago. But netting hundreds of thousands of votes in these counties probably isn’t going to happen. With only around one million votes in Pennsylvania coal country in 2008, it would take a complete collapse of Obama’s standing to generate the 300,000 votes necessary to outweigh Kerry’s lead and Obama’s gains among black voters, let alone the possibility that Obama outperforms Kerry in the Philadelphia suburbs. Even if Romney has an extraordinary performance yielding an extra 150,000 votes in coal country—outperforming Bush by a net-15 percent—he’ll need to find gains elsewhere in the state. And of course, it's an open question whether Romney can make massive gains in these areas. Although Obama is unpopular in coal country, a wealthy financier is hardly a perfect fit for populist and traditionally Democratic voters considering voting for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time.
And although there are a few areas—northeastern Pennsylvania (Scranton!), Allegheny County—where Romney could easily improve over Bush’s performance, it’s hard to find enough voters for Romney to go over the top. Obama won’t fall far (if at all) beneath Bush in rural (but populous) York and Lancaster counties, where Obama has always held unusual appeal. And the Lehigh Valley, Reading, and Philadelphia exurbs have been transformed by a surging Hispanic population over the last decade. Incredibly, Hispanics now represent 19 percent of the population in Lehigh County, home to Allentown, and 16 percent of Reading’s Berks County. If Romney isn’t likely to make considerable improvements over Bush's performance in rural southeast, Reading, the Lehigh Valley, the Philadelphia suburbs, and Philadelphia, his burden elsewhere in the state probably becomes just too great.
It's easy to understand why Romney would invest in Pennsylvania. Like Missouri or North Carolina for Democrats, Pennsylvania is what I call a “spreadsheet state.” When you start plugging in favorable numbers for the traditionally disadvantaged party, it’s too easy to get up to 48 percent of the vote, or even more. But those final hundred thousand votes are incredibly difficult and require something extraordinary. In North Carolina, for instance, it's the possibility of another truly historic black turnout that keeps Obama's narrow pathway to victory open at this stage. It’s possible to envision how Romney could get “extraordinary” out of western Pennsylvania, something strong enough to have provided Bush the state if Kerry had performed as poorly in western Pennsylvania as Obama might in 2012. But it’s also possible that a wealthy financier can’t run up the score as much as Boston would like in these areas, especially since many of these voters traditionally vote for Democratic candidates. Obama’s resilience in the eastern half of the state, combined with a strong performance among black voters, make it very difficult for Romney to go over the top, even if Romney did make massive gains in western Pennsylvania. The polls seem to confirm as much, with Obama leading by 5.1 points, 49.6 to 44.4, in six surveys conducted since October 15.