A Keystone Election
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
A lot of attention has been given to the results of the November 3 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. But another recent election, in Pennsylvania, also deserves attention.
A lot of attention has been given to the results of the November 3 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. But another election worthy of some attention was held in Pennsylvania, which has been a target state in the last three presidential elections. Pennsylvania elects its statewide judges in partisan elections and, in a state that voted for Democratic presidential candidates in 2000, 2004, and 2008, it elected Republicans to six of the seven statewide judgeships on November 3. In the lead race, for a seat on the state Supreme Court, Republican Joan Orie Melvin beat Democrat Jack Panella 53%–47%. More money was spent on Panella’s behalf, since he had the support of trial lawyers, but Melvin prevailed. Republicans also won five of the six other statewide judicial elections, one in which four were elected to the Superior Court and two were elected to the Commonwealth Court. This was a distinct contrast to the 2008 presidential results in Pennsylvania, where despite intensive campaigning by John McCain and Sarah Palin, Barack Obama and Scranton native son Joe Biden carried the state 54%–44%.
Working hypothesis: the higher-tax, big government policies of Barack Obama and Democratic congressional leaders are pushing big metro area suburbanites back toward the Republicans.
I decided to compare the county-by-county results in 2009’s lead Supreme Court race with the county-by-county results in the 2008 presidential general election. An interesting pattern quickly became apparent, which can be illustrated by grouping the 67 counties into five regional groups. These are Philadelphia (Philadelphia County), the Philly suburbs (Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties), southeast Pennsylvania (Berks, Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Northampton, and York Counties), metro Pittsburgh (Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington, and Westmoreland Counties), and the remainder of the state (the other 49 counties, an area not precisely coincident with “The T” region often used in analyses of Pennsylvania voting patterns). The following table shows the Republican and Democratic percentages statewide and in each of these regions and the increase in Republican percentage between 2008 and 2009.
The Republican percentage increased modestly in Philadelphia, metro Pittsburgh, and the “remainder of Pennsylvania,” by percentages which if applied statewide would not have produced a Republican majority. But in the Philly suburbs and southeast Pennsylvania, the most prosperous and fastest-growing (or at least growing) parts of the state, the Republican percentages were up sharply.
The results reminded me of the 1988 election, in which George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in Pennsylvania by a 50.7%–48.4% margin. So I went back to the 1988 results and calculated the percentage for Bush I and Dukakis in each of these regions. Here are the 1988 Republican and Democratic percentages for each region, with the Republican gain or loss in percentage between 1988 and 2009.
The percentages for southeast Pennsylvania and the “remainder” hardly changed at all; the big changes occurred, in opposite directions, in the state’s two big metropolitan areas. The Republican percentage declined heavily in both Philadelphia and the Philly suburbs. But this is misleading, because Philadelphia (the city and county are coterminous) cast a much larger share of the metro Philadelphia vote in 1988 (43%) than in 2009 (26%). When you add the results in metro Philadelphia for 1988, 2008, and 2009 you get the following Republican and Democratic percentages.
So the Republican percentage decline in metro Philadelphia from 1988 to 2009 is only 3.2%, more than offset by the Republican percentage increase in metro Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2009 of 12.3%.
Why the differences in the responses between the two metro areas? Metro Pittsburgh in 1988 had just gone through a decade of massive losses of steel industry and related jobs; it was one of the most anti-Reagan metro areas in 1984 and one of the most anti-Bush metro areas in 1988. If northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania had been a separate state in 1984, it would have cast its electoral votes for Walter Mondale, and by a bigger percentage margin than Mondale won in his home state of Minnesota. In the intervening two decades, metro Pittsburgh’s economy has moved from steel to healthcare; it is not growing demographically (it’s the only major metro area with more deaths than births and has negligible foreign immigration), but it has developed a mellow economy that its population seems content with (people who aren’t content with it left, most of them a long time ago). Its population is heavily tilted toward the elderly, with their conservative views on cultural issues. And there is less concern about unemployment, since so many are retired, and since metro Pittsburgh in this recession has had lower than national average unemployment. It is one of the few major metro areas where George W. Bush ran ahead of his father and where John McCain ran ahead of Ronald Reagan.
What we see in these Pennsylvania numbers is that Republicans have maintained the gains they made over the last two decades in metro Pittsburgh, while they have recovered most of the ground they had lost metro Philadelphia.
Metro Philadelphia, on the other hand, is much more like other Northeastern metro areas. It’s not quite Boston, New York, or Washington, but it has a large professional population and has experienced at least modest economic growth and modest foreign immigration. It moved heavily toward Bill Clinton in 1996, Al Gore in 2000, and John Kerry in 2004; as noted, it voted 2-1 for Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008.
The 2009 percentage from metro Philadelphia looks a lot more like 1988 than 2008. Working hypothesis: the higher-tax, big government policies of Barack Obama and Democratic congressional leaders are pushing big metro area suburbanites back toward the Republicans. Republican percentages in these suburban counties are down, but in large part because many of the types of people who voted in Philadelphia in 1988 now vote in the suburban counties; half the people remaining in Philadelphia are black, which means Democratic percentages there are sky-high.
The 2009 election for state Supreme Court justice has the advantage, for comparative purposes, of being a partisan election with relatively low issue content. But there is one major caveat to be entered here: this was also a low turnout election, with 1,740,565 voting statewide as compared to 6,013,272 in November 2008 and 4,536,521 in November 1988. Turnout in Philadelphia was only one-sixth that in 2008; it was one-quarter of 2008 levels in the Philly suburbs and southeast Pennsylvania and around one-third of 2008 levels in metro Pittsburgh and the “remainder” of Pennsylvania. This probably reflects the balance of enthusiasm in November 2009, when Democrats were much less motivated to turn out than Republicans or Independents—a condition that may or may not endure through November 2010 or November 2012.
But even with this caveat in mind, what we see in these Pennsylvania numbers is that Republicans have maintained the gains they made over the last two decades in metro Pittsburgh, while they have recovered most of the ground they had lost over the last two decades in metro Philadelphia. The result is a party that is capable, for the moment at least, of carrying a major state which its presidential candidate lost by a 10% margin in 2008.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
FURTHER READING: Barone described how Democrats need their base much more than Republicans in "Republicans and Democrats: A Tale of Two Bases." He discussed “Delayed Childbearing and Voting Behavior” on the correlation between moral values and voting behavior, and the nation's decline in foreign-born population in "An Immigration Tipping Point.”
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.