Is Pennsylvania In Play for November? Maybe.

by Stuart Rothenberg May 16, 2012 · 9:32 AM EDT

I never include the Keystone State in my list of presidential swing states for November. Am I making a mistake? Possibly.

There are plenty of reasons to leave the commonwealth of Pennsylvania off any list of the most competitive states that will decide the next president.

While the 2000 national election split the country almost down the middle — then-Vice President Al Gore (D) beat George W. Bush (R) in the popular vote by one-half of 1 percent — Pennsylvania went for the Democrat by more than 4 points.

Four years later, with Bush winning reelection over Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) nationally by almost 2.5 points, Kerry was carrying Pennsylvania by virtually the same margin. And in 2008, Pennsylvania performed about as it had in the two previous elections. While Barack Obama (D) won nationally by just more than 7 points, he carried the Keystone State by a little more than 10 points.

In other words, over the past three elections, the state has been 3 or 4 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole. That doesn’t make Pennsylvania another Maryland, Massachusetts or Hawaii, but it also doesn’t make it Ohio, Iowa or Colorado, three true swing states.

The state often looks tantalizingly competitive to GOP strategists, who usually start off hoping to compete in Pennsylvania. But at the end of the day, they usually find it a mirage.

Still, there are reasons for GOP strategists to look long and hard at the state this time, thinking 2012 could be different.

The GOP controls both chambers of the state Legislature, the governorship, one of the state’s Senate seats and a large majority of the House delegation (in part because of creative mapmaking). George H. W. Bush carried the state in 1988, and in spite of the defeats in 2000 and 2004, those presidential contests in the state were close.

Potentially more important than historical considerations is the makeup of the state. Pennsylvania is an old state. Only Florida, West Virginia and Maine have a higher percentage of residents 65 years old or older, according to 2010 census data. And the Keystone State is white. Among the nation’s dozen largest states, it ranks behind only Ohio for the lowest percentage of minority residents. Just more than one-fifth of Pennsylvania’s population is minority, slightly above Ohio’s 18.9 percent.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won both whites and voters 65 and older in 2008, according to the national exit poll, and the president is likely to be weaker in those two demographic groups again.

Pennsylvania is also well-known as a state with a large number of working-class whites, particularly in northeastern (Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton, for example) and western Pennsylvania (Erie, Johnstown and Pittsburgh) — the kind of people one GOP strategist says “have their names on their shirts when they are at work.”

Candidate Obama had problems with those kinds of voters in 2008 — county-level data shows he did worse than Kerry in 2004 in a swath of counties running from southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia through extreme southwestern Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, and into Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma. If anything, he seems weaker in those areas this year.

These voters don’t have an automatic cultural connection to Obama (or to presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney), and the president’s recent announcement supporting same-sex marriage isn’t likely to be a plus with them. Jobs, of course, remain a big issue with these voters, and whatever hope they had that Obama would turn the economy around has almost certainly evaporated.

Potentially, Romney could outperform most national Republicans in the southeastern corner of the state, as he is a better “cultural fit” there, particularly in Philadelphia’s upscale suburbs (Montgomery, Bucks and Delaware counties).

There isn’t much polling in the state. The only recent survey, conducted by Quinnipiac University, shows the president siting at 47 percent of the vote and leading Romney by 8 points.

Given these considerations, is there enough reason to include Pennsylvania in a short list of swing states? Not yet, for me. But there certainly is enough reason to treat Pennsylvania as a potential battleground and to continue to monitor the presidential numbers in the state.

After all, strange things can happen in elections. Indiana isn’t a swing state, but Obama won it in 2008. Sometimes, states that aren’t the most competitive do swing from one party to the other, and there is a plausible case that Pennsylvania could be that kind of state in 2012.

Of course, Pennsylvania is not the only state where demographics come into play. Older working-class, white voters are also key to winning Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin. West Virginia isn’t in play, but the other two are.

These kinds of voters are likely to be conflicted in November. They often identify more with the Democratic Party’s working-class positioning and rhetoric, and Romney’s background and style isn’t appealing to them. But they have little in common with the president, have some differences with Democrats’ positions on cultural issues and are disappointed with the performance of the economy.

These voters were once loyal members of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition. But will they back Obama? Will they support Democratic Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, or even Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts?

The answers are unclear, which is exactly why Obama’s campaign is running a TV spot in Pennsylvania about Romney’s jobs record at private equity firm Bain Capital. Pennsylvania remains an intriguing state.