Pennsylvania, the Democratic political consultant James Carville once famously observed, is “Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with Alabama in between.”
- Graphic:Courting the Keystone State
Although the Democrats carried the Keystone State in the past five presidential contests, it is competitive this time. In 2010, the Republicans captured the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat.
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“This will be the closest election we’ve seen in decades,” says former Republican Governor Tom Ridge. He sees the state as “slightly light blue,” or just tilting Democratic.
“Democrats can’t be complacent,” says former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, who nonetheless gives President Barack Obama an edge.
Both parties are putting a priority on winning Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, with frequent visits by the candidates.
It is especially critical for Obama. He is working to repeat his huge margins in the two major cities and four voter- rich suburban Philadelphia counties. His Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, will try to limit the Democrats’ urban advantage, poll evenly in the suburbs and win big in “Alabama,” or the rest of the state.
Voter responses to Obama himself may help decide the state, in addition to the economic stagnation that is a central issue nationally. Diminished enthusiasm may shrink the president’s margins in the cities and suburbs while widening Romney’s advantage in most other places, according to Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall College’s Pennsylvania poll. In 2008, Obama beat the Republican John McCain by 759,319 votes in the six urban and suburban counties, overwhelming McCain’s advantage of almost 150,000 in the rest of the state.
Recent polls consistently show Obama with an advantage, with as much as a double-digit lead.
At 7.5 percent, the jobless rate in Pennsylvania is almost a percentage point below the national average and down from a peak of 8.7 percent in March 2010. Manufacturing accounts for 13 percent of the state’s jobs, compared with 25 percent three decades ago as the coal and steel industries have declined.
A new and potentially transformative economic element is booming natural gas production from shale using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in western Pennsylvania and bordering eastern Ohio. The industry is adding jobs in both states.
Politically that may cut both ways, benefiting Romney as an advocate of increased output, and lifting Obama because of employment gains. At the same time, environmental concerns related to fracking, including the potential of water pollution, complicate the issue, according to the former governors Ridge and Rendell.
In general, says the Republican Ridge, there’s a sense that “a President Romney would be more helpful to the industry than a President Obama.”
Westmoreland County, in western Pennsylvania, is the heart of Pennsylvania’s fracking industry and the Marcellus shale formation. Four years ago, McCain carried the county with 58 percent. It is the sort of Republican venue where Romney will have to beat McCain’s result to carry the state.
It isn’t implausible, politicians of both parties say, that the Democrats’ urban advantage will erode while Romney gains ground in the central and western parts of the state. That would leave the outcome to the four big Philadelphia suburban counties: Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery. Voters there are more affluent and better-educated than average in Pennsylvania and are more moderate economically and socially.
Romney would have been the perfect “moderate” to run well in those areas, says the Democrat Rendell, whose first term coincided with Romney’s as governor of Massachusetts. However, the positions Romney took in the primaries on social and economic issues -- including opposition to gay marriage and abortion, and advocating tax cuts for the wealthy and spending reductions on domestic programs -- make him a tough sell in those suburbs, Rendell says.
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