The question blaring out from an online headline of the New York Times is a jarring one: “What’s Wrong With Pennsylvania?”
And no, despite your first reaction, it’s not an in-depth analysis of the Eagles, the Phillies and the NHL lockout.
In fact, it turns out there’s nothing the matter with the Keystone State — unless you’re the ad manager of a local TV station…or Mitt Romney.
The lengthy Times piece by veteran political journalist Thomas B. Edsall, now a journalism professor at Columbia University, is actually a look at why months of predictions that Pennsylvania would be a key battleground state in the 2012 presidential race – that Romney and President Obama would be criss-crossing the state and flooding our airways with attack ads – have not come to pass.
The “what” of the question is actually clear. The majority of a recent slew of Pennsylvania polls – except for two outliers performed by a Republican-oriented firm, Susquehanna Polling and Research – show the Democratic incumbent with a lead at least in the high single digits, perhaps 10 points or more. Obama’s lead is expanding since the party conventions wrapped up three weeks ago.
And the political big money seems to agree. The Romney campaign yanked its Pennsylvania TV commercials right after the Democratic National Convention earlier this month, as did pro-Republican “Super PACs.” The Obama campaign followed suit, making your TV set safe for Bud Light and Samsung.
But the question that Edsall – and others-- is really asking is not so much “what,” but “why.” Seeking answers, the journalist focused on Allentown and the Lehigh Valley, where blue-collar malaise mourned in the song by Billy Joel a generation ago has continued, even as other groups – from real-estate seeking New Yorkers to Latinos – enter the picture.
He writes that the newcomers are more prone to vote Democratic, quoting a former Republican mayor of Allentown who failed in a bid to win back his office in 2005, claiming without proof that he was defeated by busloads of black and Latino voters who showed up “by the busload, pulled the D lever, and had no idea who they were voting for.” The piece also argues that blue-collar whites – who had once moved into the GOP column as so-called “Reagan Democrats” – are put off by Romney’s wealth and his ties to the venture capital firm Bain Capital.
All those things are probably true, but there’s a couple of other points that the Times piece missed or downplayed.
First, I've long thought before 2012 that it was time to cross Pennsylvania off the list of battleground states. Remember, the last time that a GOP presidential candidate carried the state was in 1988, when Buddy Ryan was in his heyday as coach of the Eagles and W. Wilson Goode was just starting his second term as mayor. The blue-collar “Deer Hunter” vote in western Pa. has been pretty much split between the two parties ever since the Bill Clinton era.
The biggest change I’ve observed over two decades isn’t Latinos, or New Yorkers, or New York Latinos. It’s actually folks who didn't move at all: White white-collar households, and especially women in those households, in the Philadelphia suburbs or similar upscale neighborhoods.
They had no problem with center-right George H.W. Bush but now they're affluent enough to vote less on the economy and more on things like green energy or not naming anti-choice justices to the Supreme Court. And the Bush 43/Palin/Paul Ryan GOP's that does such boffo box office in Texas and Mississippi has got nothing to offer these moderates on the north side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The tipping point in Pennsylvania came in the 1990s, when three suburban Philadelphia counties – Montgomery, Delaware and Bucks, joined more recently by exurban Chester – flipped from R to D, at least in presidential races.
Since that happened, the real question is not “What’s Wrong With Pennsylvania?” but “What’s Wrong With Campaign Officials and Pundits Who Ever Thought Pennsylvania Would Be a Battleground State In the First Place?”
Blogger's note: Expanded and updated from original post, to run in Tuesday's Daily News.