Mitt Romney is poised to win Pennsylvania — if he can stay competitive in the moderate suburbs and put up large numbers in Pennsylvania’s conservative pockets. “If he runs up big margins in the central and western parts of the state, and holds his own in the Philadelphia suburbs, he can win it, even if he gets his butt beat in Philadelphia,” says former Republican senator Rick Santorum. “Even then, he’ll need a little magic.”
The last Republican to win Pennsylvania was George H. W. Bush in 1988. Ever since, Republican nominees have struggled to build a statewide coalition. They keep winning rural areas and coal country, but white-collar voters have drifted away, and the steelworkers who once heartily backed Ronald Reagan have moved toward the Democratic party. In the final hours, Romney must woo those former Republican voters back.
It won’t be easy. “Republicans have been here before,” says G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College. “In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush got to within three or four points in the last week, and ended up losing both times. They know how to get to the red zone, but they haven’t figure out how to get into the end zone.” Four years ago, John McCain lost every county in suburban Philadelphia.
Romney’s senior advisers, however, are increasingly optimistic. Pennsylvania wasn’t originally part of their electoral calculus, and only recently have they begun to spend money on television advertising in the state. But after Romney’s impressive performance in the first presidential debate, they saw their internal poll numbers rise in Pennsylvania, and eventually they decided to make a surprise play. Now they’re in a dead heat in the polls.
A Pittsburgh Tribune-Review poll released late last week shows Romney and President Barack Obama tied at 47 percent. Obama still leads by four points in the Real Clear Politics poll average, but Romney has momentum. “It’s one of those states where the president is underperforming,” says Kevin Madden, a Romney adviser. “It’s competitive, and we believe that suburban swing voters are troubled by the president’s leadership.”
Speaking on background, a top Romney official says Pennsylvania is now the must-watch state in the campaign’s Boston headquarters. “You’ve got to win either Pennsylvania or Ohio,” the official says. “If you lose Ohio and its 18 electoral votes, you’ve got to make that up somewhere else, and Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes are a perfect substitute. But it’s tight, and no one really knows where either state will end up.”
Winning Pennsylvania is complicated. In a way, it’s a microcosm of America. It has big, deep-blue cities, sprawling, deep-red rural counties, and highly populated suburbs. It has a pro-life Democratic senator (Bob Casey), but five times elected a pro-choice Republican (Arlen Specter) to the upper chamber. It counts a Democratic grandee (Ed Rendell) as a former governor, and Pat Toomey, the former Club for Growth president, as a senator.
The mixed political scene intrigues Romney advisers. They may have entered the Pennsylvania fray late, but the state Republican party is well organized, and outside groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, have experienced staffers on the ground and hundreds of volunteers. “The Tea Party has rallied the ranks,” says J. D. Mullane, a columnist for the Bucks County Courier Times. “Energized? They’re nuke-powered.”
But door knocking won’t be the deciding factor. For Romney to win, five key counties need to either shift toward Romney or see depressed Democratic turnout. And most important, these shifts need to happen in a synchronized fashion. For example, even if Romney does better than McCain in the suburbs, he needs turnout among Philadelphia Democrats to be average and Republican turnout in western Pennsylvania to be heavy.
To get a sense of how these counties will vote, you need to understand the sensibility of their residents. The various regions, from Bucks County in the southeast to Cambria County in the southwest, are separate and unique political cultures, and some are unpredictable. Romney advisers are keeping a close watch on all five counties as Election Day nears, and the Obama campaign, for its part, is sending Bill Clinton to a few of the areas on Monday.
2008 result: Obama +9
2004 result: Kerry +3
Bucks County is a tale of two suburbs. In upper Bucks, there are thousands of stucco-and-brick mansions that are home to well educated, socially liberal professionals. Many of them moved here from New Jersey or New York, and they are moderate Republicans of the Arlen Specter school, or centrist, Clinton-admiring Democrats. In lower Bucks, you have thousands of Levittown homes, built after World War II by William Levitt as a sequel to his famous New York suburb. The people here are blue-collar Democrats. Many of them had union jobs at Fairless Works, a U.S. Steel mill, until it closed, and now work in non-industrial sectors. Together, these two suburban areas and their 600,000 residents form a capricious political powerhouse.
To win Bucks, you need to win the hearts of the Reagan Democrats and the fickle soccer moms who live in the palaces on former farmland. This can be a political tightrope act, but it’s necessary to win the state, especially for Republicans running statewide. George W. Bush campaigned hard in Bucks during his 2004 run but failed to connect, and he narrowly lost Pennsylvania because of his soft support in the Philadelphia suburbs. Romney, though, has a real chance of winning Bucks County. As a reserved, Harvard-trained businessman, Romney appeals temperamentally to upper-Bucks Republicans, and his economic-focused campaign appeals to Levittown’s many out-of-work residents.