Why Are Democrats Down in Pennsylvania?

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Pennsylvania Senate candidate Joe Sestak Matt Rourke / AP

If there's one state that is supposed to represent Democratic ascendancy in recent years, it is Pennsylvania. As one of the Big Three swing states that have determined recent close presidential elections, it was more Democratic than Ohio or Florida, having swung for Al Gore and John Kerry and favored Barack Obama by 10 points. In 2006 Pennsylvania's polarizing, socially conservative senator, Rick Santorum, was tossed out of office by a wide margin. In 2008 Democratic registration in Pennsylvania shot up thanks to excitement over the hotly contested presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, leaving Pennsylvania with 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans.

But even in a state with such a strong trend toward blue, the unpopularity of President Obama's agenda is hurting Democrats' midterm election prospects. "Pennsylvanians are disillusioned with Obama," says Beverly Cigler, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University. "Cap-and-trade scared them, and they are convinced that health care is not a good idea and that the stimulus didn't work."

A host of Democratic congressmen in the state are looking vulnerable, and Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, who isn't up for reelection this year, is deeply unpopular. House races have less polling data available, but Democrats are likely to lose at least one important contest in November—the one to fill Arlen Specter's seat. Rep. Joe Sestak, the military veteran whom Democrats nominated to succeed Specter, is polling consistently behind Republican Pat Toomey. Internal polls from the Sestak campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released last week showed a dead heat, while Rasmussen Reports, which tends to lean Republican, shows Toomey up by 10. As Nate Silver of The New York Times explains, internal polls average a 6-point bias in favor of the side that commissioned them. So Silver stands by his projection of a 7-point victory for Toomey that he found from averaging nonpartisan polls, and gives Toomey a 92 percent chance of winning.

"Sestak has been tied to Obama from day one," says Cigler. "Obama was his role model and he supported Obama's agenda." Rep. Patrick Murphy is another Democrat who looks highly vulnerable, thanks in part to his association with Obama.

What makes the Democrats' predicament in Pennsylvania especially interesting is the possibility that they will actually hold a Senate seat in neighboring West Virginia. Pennsylvania, in Democratic consultant James Carville's formulation, is "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between." The in-between part—sometimes called "Pennsyltucky"—is a lot like West Virginia: white, rural, blue-collar, and poor. The iron and coal mining and heavy industries have given these regions an economically populist tilt with historical ties to the Democrats, but also a suspicious attitude toward environmental legislation that, coupled with the electorate's social conservatism, has led them to vote heavily Republican. In a tough year for Democrats, it is remarkable that a Democrat could win over such voters, as Gov. Joe Manchin appears to be doing in West Virginia. But, in Pennsylvania, where the cities are heavily Democratic, you would expect Democrats to be doing better, not worse, than Manchin.

The party's hopes of winning over Pennsyltuckians depend on economic appeals. The late congressman Jack Murtha was much beloved in his central Pennsylvania district for his ability to bring home the federal bacon. These voters are not opposed to government economic intervention in principle. But they grow skeptical when the economy is weak and interventions seem not to have worked, says Terry Madonna, who runs the Franklin & Marshall University poll on Pennsylvania politics.

"The perception of voters in the state is it hasn't worked," says Madonna. "Pennsylvanians are not inherently opposed to more stimulus spending. We asked in polls and they're not averse, but it hasn't produced what they see as recovery from the recession."

With Pennsyltucky favoring Republicans this year, while Philadelphia stays reliably Democratic, the suburbs are the crucial swing territory. Demographically and culturally, the socially liberal and fiscally moderate Philadelphia suburbs belong to the Northeast. Similar areas in nearby New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Maryland began shifting decades ago from Republican to Democratic. The Philadelphia suburbs have undergone the same transition, but more slowly. Specter, whose base was in that corner of the state, was one of the Senate's last moderate Republicans. (Sestak defeated Specter, who switched parties last year, in the Democratic primary.)

But with high concern about the deficit rising on the Democrats' watch, suburban voters are also leaning more Republican than usual. "Forty to 45 percent of voters think deficits and debt are a problem," says Madonna. "Independent voters in the suburbs of Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley are the ones who are more concerned about the deficit."

And thus Democrats are caught in an ironic bind: they spent a bunch of money to stave off economic collapse—too much for the tastes of upscale suburban voters but not enough to win over rural working-class voters. This phenomenon could continue to hobble Democrats and President Obama in this crucial swing state as they prepare for the 2012 presidential election. If they hold back on more stimulus spending, they may continue to be seen as ineffective economic stewards by Pennsylvania's rural voters, but more spending could alienate the suburban swing vote. As Madonna says, their position boils down to "damned if you do, damned if you don't."