Like Ahab and his relentless, doomed quest for the white whale, the Republican Party is fixated on a lost cause in Pennsylvania. This month, the allure of the state’s 20 electoral votes once again pulled at the GOP’s time and money in the crucial last days of the election, all to no avail.
Four years ago, on the Sunday before the election, John McCain announced at a rally in Pennsylvania: “I want to repeat to you one more time my friends—we’re going to win.” Three days later, Barack Obama carried the state with over 54 percent of the vote as he sailed to an electoral college landslide. Mitt Romney made the same mistake in 2012, with the same results. By making a late dash into the state–GOP groups spent $10 million there in the final week of the campaign–he repeated the same pattern that has developed over the last two and half decades.
Not since 1988 has the Republican candidate carried the Keystone State. But that fact has not stopped the party from trying to compete there. Indeed, even in Romney’s losing effort, he carried 55 of the state’s 67 counties—yet still lost by 300,000 votes. With only two major urban centers and vast reaches populated mostly by white, blue-collar workers, Pennsylvania appears prime territory for any Republican presidential hopeful. The GOP does control the statehouse and both houses of the state legislature. And as recently as 2000, the voters of Pennsylvania sent conservative firebrand Rick Santorum to the US Senate—before resoundingly rejecting him in 2006.
“The GOP obsession with Pennsylvania has its roots in the Reagan years,” said Philadelphia Inquirer political columnist Dick Polman. “Reagan was very skilled at appealing to blue-collar, working-class voters.” These voters came to be known as Reagan Democrats, helping him win two sweeping electoral victories in 1980 and 1984.
These more conservative Democrats were turned off by the Democratic Party’s stance on crime and related issues in the 1980s, according to Terry Madonna, director of the Center of Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. These voters—“pro-life, pro-gun, not crazy about gay marriage”—seem a perfect fit for the Republican Party, says Madonna. But those traditional supporters of the GOP have been offset by an emerging counter-development in the suburbs of Philadelphia: the erosion of Republican support among more affluent whites. This occurrence has proved devastating for the GOP nationally, but nowhere is this development more stark than in the Philadelphia suburbs. Given that Philadelphia and its surrounding counties are some of the few growing areas of Pennsylvania, a shift in the state’s politics is underway. “The center of gravity is moving toward a region of the state that is more culturally northeastern,” said Jim O’Toole, politics editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Philadelphia’s suburbs, long a bastion of Republican support, now represent not only Democratic gains, but also Republican failings. It is this region that gave President Obama—and the many Democrats before him—the margin needed to offset the conservative middle of the state: President Obama came out of Philadelphia and its four suburban counties with a 600,000 vote lead over Romney. Voters in places like Montgomery County, where the median household income is over $75,000, were once the sort of people who could be relied on by a moderate Republican establishment that aimed to reduce crime and cut taxes.But as the party has lurched to the right on social issues while digging in on massive cuts to government programs, these voters have fled in droves.
“I remember doing a story in the suburbs in 2004, talking to voters who came from traditionally Republican families,” said Polman via email. “These voters now considered themselves independent or Democratic—because they felt alienated by the modern GOP. They complained (and still do) that the Bush-era GOP had become too socially intolerant, too culturally conservative on everything from abortion to gay rights. They felt (and still feel) that the party has become too oriented to the South and the Sunbelt.”
For the Republican Party as it stands today, Pennsylvania is not a swing state. A Republican shift back towards moderation—however unlikely it might seem today—could put the Philadelphia suburbs, and thus Pennsylvania, back in play. “That is less likely with a more conservative nominee,” said O’Toole. He noted New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels as the type of potential moderate who could attract voters in Pennyslvania. Of course, these candidates would first have to run the gauntlet that is the GOP primary system. It was this system that turned a centrist Massachusetts former governor into a candidate whose positions were anathema to large swaths of Pennsylvania voters.
With just a bit more moderation, Republicans might once more launch their whale boats.
Matthew Nussbaum is a sophomore in Silliman College.