Pennsylvania may be Rick Santorum’s home state, but its demographics, especially in the more populous suburbs, suit Mitt Romney. In the “collar counties” around Philadelphia — Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery — Republican voters tend to support mild-mannered conservatives who are focused on economic and fiscal issues.
Three Republican congressmen with flinty, independent personalities — Mike Fitzpatrick, Pat Meehan, and Jim Gerlach — represent districts in this critical slice of the Keystone State. While Santorum has the support of a few House members elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Romney’s identification with this southeastern trio, in terms of his politics and sensibility, will be a bigger factor.
In recent months, Santorum, who touts his candidacy as the blue-collar alternative to Romney, has dominated the more rural stretches of the industrial Rust Belt. But in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio, Romney found a path to victory by outperforming Santorum among well-educated, middle-to-upper-income voters.
In Pennsylvania, which will hold its primary on April 24, look for Romney to continue his suburban strategy. Santorum, who hails from western Pennsylvania, may be able to sweep the deep-red swaths in the central and southwestern parts of the state, but if Romney can put up solid numbers in the northeast near Scranton, in select pockets near Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, and around Philadelphia, he’ll probably win.
Four years ago, the GOP presidential primary was effectively over by late April, when Pennsylvanians went to the polls. Senator John McCain of Arizona was the presumptive nominee, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee had conceded, and Representative Ron Paul of Texas had officially “wound down” his campaign.
But in certain counties, Mike Huckabee, whose insurgent campaign resembles Santorum’s bid, collected more than 10 percent of the vote. In the southwestern, rural counties — Bedford, Somerset, and Fayette — he won strong support from evangelicals, many of whom were unhappy with McCain’s ascendance. These counties, along with Butler, where Santorum grew up, form the senator’s base. But they’re hardly a majority.
Pennsylvania’s conservative movement, for the most part, is not based on evangelical activism but on anti-government anger. Its most notable achievements have been a select few tea-party challenges, mostly on the state-senate level, directed at Harrisburg’s pork barons. The pro-life cause, though very influential, is not at the heart of its efforts.
The pressing question for Santorum is whether he can expand his political network beyond the state’s conservative bastions in three short weeks. Mounting a challenge to the party favorite is not an easy task in Pennsylvania, which is geographically large, home to expensive media markets, and favorable to the establishment, in terms of party organization. It is home to many tea-party voters, but it’s not a tea-party state.
The 2004 experience of then-congressman Pat Toomey, who ran against incumbent Republican senator Arlen Specter in the Republican primary, is indicative how tough it can be to beat the party, even if you have the support of outside conservative leaders and grassroots groups. Toomey, who was featured on the cover of National Review, and celebrated by in-state conservatives, was unable to topple the liberal Specter.
Toomey won three counties near his Allentown-area district, two counties in Pennsylvania’s conservative Dutch Country, and much of the Pittsburgh region. Specter, however, eked out slim victories in many central counties and put up double-digit margins in the Philadelphia suburbs. Toomey, even with a fantastic ground game, national fundraising, and a sharp message, was narrowly defeated.
Santorum, who lacks Toomey’s appeal with many Pennsylvania conservatives, especially after endorsing Specter in that 2004 primary, will have a difficult time building an organization that can overcome Romney’s suburban strength. Winning western Pennsylvania is enough to get a GOP candidate into contention, but rarely is it enough to win. Santorum, so far, has shown little momentum beyond Steel City.
Romney, for his part, is seeing his support grow across Republican groups. He may be focusing on the suburbs, but according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey, his support among Pennsylvania evangelicals is also gaining. Santorum, according to PPP, once led Romney by 37 points among this group. Now, as Romney begins to look like the likely nominee, Santorum’s lead has shrunk to ten points, 44 to 34 percent. And among tea-party voters, Santorum leads the former governor by a mere six points.
Speaking in Harrisburg, Pa., on Thursday, Romney played down his rise in the Pennsylvania polls. “I think everybody expects someone to win their home state,” he said. “Newt Gingrich won his state, I won my state, I think people expect the senator to win his home state.” But behind the scenes, as Romney opens offices and hits the trail in the suburbs and cities, it’s clear that he is in position to land a knock-out blow.
But don’t count Santorum out, yet. As Michael Smerconish observed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, many moderate Pennsylvania Republicans have joined the Democratic party, or registered as independents, since Toomey and Specter clashed eight years ago. The GOP electorate that remains is more conservative than it’s been in decades. In Pennsylvania’s closed primary, Santorum could surprise.
Santorum won Philadelphia’s suburbs in 1994 and 2000, the years in which he also won statewide. To be sure, his working-class rhetoric and gritty narrative have won him fans across the state over the past two decades. But after he became a nationally recognized culture warrior in the 2005–2006 period, his favorable ratings dropped in those suburban swing counties. He lost them badly in 2006, and his message today echoes his approach that year, not the more moderate message from earlier runs.
Romney should benefit from Santorum’s inability to rekindle his earlier statewide success, and from his own disciplined, even-tempered presentation. Fiery fighting words play well in certain towns, but in the Philadelphia suburbs, where this crucial primary will likely be decided, conservatives with low-key, business-minded platforms do well.
Toomey, now a senator, is a prime example of the kind of conservative that is now a winner in the Pennsylvania GOP. He is a former business owner, a fiscal hawk, and a social conservative, but he doesn’t lead with the latter. He is connected with tea-party groups, but his Wall Street ties, supply-side economic politics, and soft-spoken nature make him more than an anti-establishment outsider. Toomey 2012 has more in common with Romney 2012 than with Toomey 2004, the unsuccessful Senate challenger.
When Toomey won his Senate seat in 2010, he concentrated heavily on the economy. Toomey has working-class, Catholic roots but he did not emphasize his biography. He ran against Washington, but not necessarily against the Republican establishment. To win in Pennsylvania, he told me at a Lancaster, Pa., greasy spoon, you need to win across the suburban spectrum, not only within your base. “Those voters are not ideological; they’re practical,” he said. “They know that you can’t borrow and spend your way to prosperity.”
Romney, you can be sure, is taking a cue from Toomey this cycle. He’s focused on the economy, jobs, and the federal debt. On the stump, he doesn’t mention his primary opponents. He doesn’t talk about divisive issues. The conservatives of the state are focused on Obama, not internecine warfare, and the polling reflects that. Unless Santorum finds a way to recast his campaign, and quickly, he risks losing his home state to the GOP’s suburban stalwart.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.