The Road to 270: Pennsylvania

The Road to 270 is a weekly column leading up to the presidential election. Each installment is dedicated to understanding one state’s political landscape and how that might influence which party will win its electoral votes in 2020. We’ll do these roughly in order of expected competitiveness, moving toward the most intensely contested battlegrounds as election day nears. 

The Road to 270 will be published every Monday. The column is written by Drew Savicki, a 270toWin elections and politics contributor. Contact Drew via email or on Twitter @DrewSav.

Pennsylvania, the Keystone State, first emerged as a key battleground state in the 1960 election. John F. Kennedy's win in the state came as a surprise given its historical animosity towards Catholic candidates. Despite the changes in the United States and our politics since 1960, the Keystone remains one of the nation's most competitive states at all levels of government. A near perfect mixture of urban, suburban, and rural keeps the state politically balanced.

A changing Commonwealth

Broadly, the Trump era has been defined by two key trends: Democrats have done worse with non-college educated whites but are doing better with their college-educated counterparts. Let’s examine how these trends have played out in Pennsylvania and what it means for the state’s politics. There are two counties I want to highlight that serve as good examples of these trends. First let’s start with Chester County, which is one of the “collar counties” around Philadelphia. This historically Republican county is considerably wealthier and more educated than Pennsylvania as a whole.

From 1968-2004, Chester was reliably Republican at the presidential level -- but by the 1990s and early 2000s, the GOP advantage slid into single-digits. In 2008, Barack Obama carried Chester County by a nine-point margin, after Bush carried it 52%-48% four years earlier. It briefly returned to its Republican roots in 2012, giving Mitt Romney a plurality, but swung almost 10% to Clinton in 2016. As a result, Chester became the only Romney/Clinton county in an Obama/Trump state. Further highlighting this county’s trend to the left, Sen. Bob Casey carried this county by 20% in 2018, a considerable departure from his two-point win six years earlier.

The swing in places like Chester has been counterbalanced by the strong gains Republicans have made in places like Luzerne County. Located in northeastern Pennsylvania, Luzerne is a former coal mining county home to plenty of blue-collar white voters who took to Trump’s message -- in the 2016 Republican primary, it gave him 77%, making it his best county in the state. Luzerne has picked the state winner in every presidential election since 1936, which made it a good bellwether for Pennsylvania. However, Trump’s roughly 20% margin there in 2016 suggests it may stick with him, even if he loses the state.

Congressional politics

As one of the nation’s most competitive states, Pennsylvania is home to a number of swing congressional districts. In January 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the existing congressional map, in place since 2012, was an unconstitutional Republican gerrymander.  A more favorable map, combined with a strong Democratic year, helped Democrats net three seats in the 2018 midterms. 

Let’s look at the competitive seats this year.  Northeast of Philadelphia is the state’s 1st District, which is largely comprised of Bucks County. Represented by Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate Republican, this district should be highly competitive, but Democrats have struggled to take out Fitzpatrick. He has proven to have decent crossover support among Democrats and, although polling shows Joe Biden with a substantial lead in the district, Fitzpatrick is holding his own with Democrats. He has established a local brand for himself so the Crystal Ball rates this race as ‘Leans Republican.’

In South-Central Pennsylvania is the state’s 10th District. Represented by Republican Scott Perry, this district is based in York and Harrisburg. A member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, Perry is an odd fit for this suburban seat, and is facing a tough challenge from state Auditor Eugene DePasquale (D). DePasquale narrowly carried this district in his 2016 reelection and is backed by the moderate Blue Dog Coalition. Perry defeated a weaker Democratic candidate by an underwhelming margin in 2018 and with Trump’s fortunes appearing to sag in the Keystone State and in this district in particular, both the Crystal Ball and Cook rate this race as a ‘Tossup.’ Perry is in for a tough race and unlike Fitzpatrick, his conservative views limit his crossover appeal. 

On the Democratic side, there are two or three seats where Democrats are favored but could be competitive if things turn around for Republicans.

To the north of PA-1 is the state’s 7th District, represented by Democrat Susan Wild. This redrawn seat was previously held by moderate Republican Charlie Dent for over a decade. During his last term in Congress, Dent was one of two pro-choice Republicans in the House (the other being Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey). Dent, an Allentown native, was highly popular in this area and his recent endorsement of Joe Biden could be a boon for Wild.

Wild won this open seat by 10% in 2018 and since it only narrowly went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Republicans think they’ve got a shot at flipping it. If things improve for Trump nationally and in Pennsylvania, then Wild could be in some danger. The district overlaps with the Lehigh Valley, which is prime swing territory. For now though, the Crystal Ball rates this race as ‘Leans Democratic.’

Probably the most interesting congressional district in the state is the 8th District. The birthplace of Joe Biden, this Scranton-based district is heavily blue collar and home to many Obama/Trump voters. The industrial heartland of Pennsylvania, PA-8 was once home to a vibrant coal mining industry. The decline of that industry can be felt in this region, and Hillary Clinton’s environmentalist platform found little support among these voters. Northeastern Pennsylvania has been represented by Democrat Matt Cartwright since 2013. In 2012, Cartwright primaried longtime Blue Dog Rep. Tim Holden from the left but has found himself quite popular here.

Given that Donald Trump carried this district by 10 points in 2016, Cartwright should be a major Republican target but House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s backed candidate, Army veteran Earl Granville, failed to make it through the primary. Despite the rightward trend, both Cook and the Crystal Ball rate this race as ‘Leans Democratic.’ Cartwright has proven appeal with these blue-collar voters but if Biden can’t claw back those voters in his childhood home, Cartwright might end up in a tough race.

If there is one seat Republicans would really love to win back in the Keystone State, it is the 17th District, represented by youthful Democratic rising star Conor Lamb. Lamb came to fame by flipping the old 18th District in a 2018 special election. The old PA-18 supported Trump by 20 points, and Rep. Tim Murphy (R) had only infrequently faced challenges over the years. Amidst a #MeToo scandal, Murphy resigned, and Democrats eyed this ancestrally Democratic seat as ripe for a flip with the right candidate. Lamb narrowly won the special against Republican State Rep. Rick Saccone. Following the state Supreme Court’s decision to order redrawn maps, Lamb opted to run in the significantly more Democratic 17th District, which only voted for Trump by a few points. This led to a rare showdown between two incumbents. 12th District Rep. Keith Rothfus (R) found himself in this much more Democratic seat but opted to run anyways. Despite the President holding a rally for him -- and four Twitter endorsements -- Rothfus lost 56%-44% to Lamb.

Following two defeats, President Trump has been eager to oust Lamb, and personally drafted veteran and Fox News commentator Sean Parnell to run against him. With the President’s enthusiastic backing and a national donor network thanks to his TV appearances, Parnell has fundraised quite well but he has his work cut out for him. Lamb’s strength as a candidate and the suburban nature of the district make him the clear favorite. All major forecasters rate this race as ‘Likely Democratic.’ PA-17 profiles as the type of district that could flip from Trump to Biden, which contributes to Lamb’s advantage.

Pennsylvania’s two senators could not be more different. A Scranton native, the mild-mannered Bob Casey Jr. has been a longtime figure in Pennsylvania politics and has remained quite popular ever since he defeated Sen. Rick Santorum (R) in 2006. As the son of the beloved former Gov. Bob Casey Sr., it seems likely he benefits greatly from styling himself after his father. For the most party, Casey is a mainstream Democrat aside from his stance on abortion rights. Though Casey Sr. was known for his stringent opposition to abortion rights, his son has something of a more mixed record, and generally votes with party leadership. Casey easily won reelection in 2018 against Rep. Lou Barletta (R), who was something of a proto-Trump figure. Barletta, a former mayor of Hazelton, hailed from neighboring Luzerne County, which resulted in a rare Senate race where both candidates were from the same region of the state.

Pennsylvania’s junior Senator is Republican Pat Toomey. A steadfast conservative, Toomey was a Tea Party conservative before it was trendy -- from 2005 to 2009, he led the anti-tax Club for Growth. He was elected to the House in 1998, where he was one of the most conservative members. In 2004, Toomey came close to defeating moderate Sen. Arlen Specter in the Republican Primary. Although Specter had the support of President Bush, his liberal views on issues like abortion and immigration drew skepticism from the party base. In 2010, Specter switched parties and, despite the endorsement of President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, he lost in the Democratic Primary to Rep. Joe Sestak that year. Sestak would go on to lose the election to Toomey. Toomey’s future intentions are unclear, but he has openly weighed a bid for governor in 2022. Either way, he could face strong competition given his underwater approval ratings.

State level politics

Democrats have fared pretty well at the state level in Pennsylvania in recent years -- perhaps a little too well. Three statewide officeholders are considered plausible candidates for governor or the Senate seat held by Toomey; both contests are in 2022. Assuming they are reelected this year, Treasurer Joe Torsella and Attorney General Josh Shapiro will be term limited, thus posing a problem for two men with ambitions for higher office. In addition, Reps. Conor Lamb and Chrissy Houlahan are thought to have higher ambitions as well. There are a plethora of ambitious Democrats but only a limited number of statewide offices to go around. With Pennsylvania set to lose a US House seat again after the Census, that's also weighing on the minds of many.

A major wildcard is the state’s popular Lt. Governor, John Fetterman. In 2018, Fetterman won the Democratic primary for Lt. Governor in a crowded field of candidates including the incumbent, Mike Stack. As mayor of the small town of Braddock and a 2016 Senate candidate, Fetterman was already a known quantity in the state. In contrast to Stack, Fetterman is known for his strong relationship with Gov. Tom Wolf.

Gov. Tom Wolf has a low-key bureaucratic style, but has enjoyed high approval ratings. If Fetterman is the Democratic nominee for Governor in 2022, it’s easy to see Democrats holding the open seat.

Republicans have dominated the Pennsylvania legislature for years but Democrats have a real shot this year at flipping the state House. Flipping the House would give Democrats a leg up in the redistricting process and perhaps help Wolf advance some of his priorities. Speaker Mike Turzai briefly ran for Governor in 2018 and had been weighing another bid come 2022. Turzai had previously announced his retirement from the chamber but abruptly resigned earlier this year to take a private sector job. Turzai was already a Democratic target and with this seat open, it looks to be a real pickup opportunity.

The State Senate does not look to be a realistic flip opportunity for Democrats, after longtime Senator John Yudichak left the Democratic Party to become an independent who caucuses with Republicans. A native of blue collar Luzerne County, Yudichak had often disagreed with the increasingly liberal Democratic Caucus but was quite popular with his constituents. The rightward drift of Northeastern Pennsylvania could pose problems for Democrats if they want to regain control of the upper chamber anytime soon.

Presidential politics

Pennsylvania Polls>>

Every four years, the Keystone State is one of the most contested states in the nation. Candidates barnstorm it and bombard the airwaves with ads. Prior to 2016, Pennsylvania last voted Republican for President in 1988. So how did Trump do it? Trump was able to get lopsided margins out of small towns across the state that outweighed his losses in the suburban collar counties surrounding Philly.

In 2020, Trump faces two big problems: decreased support among non-college educated whites and a huge drop in support from their college educated counterparts. He must improve his margins in outstate Pennsylvania in order to cancel out further drops in the collar counties. In 2016, Pennsylvania was won and lost in small towns but in 2020 it will be decided in the affluent suburbs.

Pre-pandemic, the Trump campaign made some noise about trying to get the Amish out to vote. The Amish don’t really play a role in the state’s politics because, by and large, they don’t vote. This is a strategy George W. Bush’s campaign pursued in 2004 to little success. Given their conservative views, the Amish would be naturally aligned with the Republican Party on social issues but for the most part, most aren’t interested in the political process. If Republicans were to finally turn out the Amish in decent numbers, that could be a boon for them in statewide races.

Pennsylvania is a key part of both candidates’ strategies but, for Trump, polling there suggests a familiar problem: He simply can’t get much above the mid 40’s in polling. Without a substantial third party vote this year, it’ll be harder for Trump to carry the state again with a 48% plurality. As of this writing, the 538 model has Pennsylvania as the tipping-point state, meaning it is the state that is the most likely to put Joe Biden over 270 electoral votes in scenarios where he wins the presidency. Needless to say, Pennsylvania is a must win state for both campaigns and given the long term trends, it seems like Pennsylvania will remain one of the nation's closest states for years to come.

Next Week:  Wisconsin

Tentative Schedule:  Texas (9/21), Ohio (9/28), Arizona (10/5), Florida (10/12), Georgia (10/19), Iowa (10/26), North Carolina (11/2). Dates subject to change. 

We use the model powering the 2020 presidential election simulator to determine the following week's state. Specifically, we will look at the 'Battleground 270' results of 25,000 simulations run late Sunday afternoon.  Of the states remaining, the next to be covered will be that with the highest likelihood of a Trump or Biden win as of that date. View the current state-by-state probabilities in the table at the bottom of the Battleground 270 page.

Reports in this series:


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