If public polls of battleground states are accurate, Mitt Romney doesn’t have a viable path to the 270 electoral votes he needs to win the White House. To expand the map, he’s making a late push for Pennsylvania with a campaign stop on Sunday. Why Pennsylvania? It’s a Midwestern state. He hasn’t been pummeled by ads there. And Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes would make up for Ohio’s 18 that Romney needs but appears on track to lose. But there’s a reason he didn’t try earlier: Obama won it 54-44 in 2008.
Still, Republicans can and do thrive there. Romney’s runner-up for the GOP nomination, Rick Santorum, was a two-term Pennsylvania senator, and the governor, Tom Corbett, is also a Republican. To find out how Romney could win, I called John Brabender, strategist for both men.
For Romney to win, Brabender said, four things would have to fall into place. First, turnout in the Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia would need to disappoint. That’s not inconceivable. “Anecdotally, there doesn’t seem to be the same enthusiasm that there was four years ago,” he said. “I’ve talked to a number of Democrats on the ground in Philadelphia and think the assumption is that no one thought it would be in play, so they never did the ground work you need to do.” But neither did Republicans.
Second, Romney would need to perform well in the collar counties of Philadelphia, which have a large number of pro-choice, moderate women who will support the right kind of Republican. This is one of the state’s two distinct blocs of swing voters. “Romney needs to pick up a decent share of those votes,” says Brabender, “and to do that, he’ll have to be seen as more moderate than some previous Republican candidates, such as President Bush.”
Third, Romney would need to win the other swing bloc, conservative male Democrats concentrated in the western part of the state around Pittsburgh, Johnstown, and Erie. Once known as “Reagan Democrats,” they’re older, blue-collar, and socially conservative. “They’re the type of people who cling to their guns and religion, as Obama put it, and wear that as a badge of honor, not as a criticism,” Brabender says. Culturally speaking, Romney isn’t their ideal candidate. “That’s where the battle is raging over the ’47 percent’ tape. If you think of the election like It’s a Wonderful Life, Obama’s trying to make Romney into Mr. Potter and Romney’s trying to present himself as George Bailey. [Winning this bloc] could hinge on which character they decide Romney really is.”
Fourth, Romney needs to win (probably overwhelmingly) the 12 percent of voters that Brabender says are true independents and generally vote against the party in power.
One advantage Romney has in Pennsylvania is that it has one of the oldest populations in the country. Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) often competes with counties in Florida for that honor. Romney performs best with elderly voters—and could perform even better here. “Normally, the Democrats would have run a month’s worth of television saying Republicans were coming to destroy Medicare and Social Security,” Brabender says. “But because Pennsylvania hasn’t been targeted, that air war hasn’t happened. So I don’t think you’ll see as much of a dent in the Republicans’ armor from seniors.”
To understand what kind of Republicans do and don’t win in Pennsylvania, Brabender pointed to 2000. Santorum was reelected by six points, while George W. Bush lost by six points. Santorum won 25 percent of Democrats—mainly the western Democrats Bush couldn’t carry. In 2006, Santorum won only 8 percent of Democrats, and lost his bid for reelection.
Based on public and private polling data, Brabender believes that Pennsylvania is “a 3- or 4-point race.” (A Public Policy Polling survey released Saturday night had Obama up 52-46.) There is a path to victory, he says, but it’s a difficult one. “All those things have to come true for Romney to win,” he says. Even if they do, Republican presidential candidates have a history of disappointment. “Pennsylvania often looks better than it is,” he says, “and then, at the end, it changes.”