‘Keystone’ in more ways than one

Commissioner analyzes voter shift in Pennsylvania

LEWISTOWN – On Tuesday, multitudes of Pennsylvania voters will be casting their vote this Election Day that were not even born the last time our state voted for a Republican presidential candidate.

The last year in which Keystone voters cast their ballots and electoral votes for a Republican was in 1988, nearly 30 years ago, when George H. W. Bush won his first and only term as president.

Until that time, Pennsylvania was truly a swing/battleground state. In presidential elections from 1952 through 1984, Republicans carried our commonwealth five times: Dwight Eisenhower on two occasions, Richard Nixon in his re-election bid and Ronald Reagan in his initial defeat of Jimmy Carter and his re-election campaign.

Democrats were successful in four elections, including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and

Carter in 1976.

Since the 1988 presidential election, Pennsylvania has become a deep shade of purple in presidential election years with a decidedly blue halo around it.

Our state gave its votes to Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and his re-election campaign in 2012. To be certain, Pennsylvania is not a solid blue state such as New York, Hawaii and California.

However, it is moving in that direction in presidential years.

But neither is it a swing state in the truest sense of the word. To put it in common terms, if one is shooting at a target, and the rings on the bull’s-eye were the swing states, Pennsylvania would now be just outside the outer ring.

From post-World War II until 1990 the formula for Republican success in Pennsylvania was to rack up substantial numbers in the bedroom counties surrounding Philadelphia, including Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester counties, as well as central Pennsylvania from Lancaster county in the southeast to Somerset County south of Johnstown. Add to this the northern tier of Pennsylvania (excluding Erie County) and everything that falls in between.

The blueprint for success among Democrats was to roll up the numbers in Philadelphia, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area, Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) and the seven or eight counties that are near Pittsburgh.  In essence, this included the entire southwestern corner of the state. It was an area where organized labor was especially strong, including the steelworkers and mineworkers, among others.

A massive political realignment within Pennsylvania began in the early ’90s and was in full swing shortly after the turn of the century.

During the Reagan years, and especially in the post-Reagan era, social issues became very pronounced within the Republican Party. While economic issues, budgets, deficits, taxes and spending were still a major mantra to Republicans, social issues were given as much and in many cases even more attention than traditional fiscal concerns.

The new GOP strategy solidified rural and a substantial number of ex-urban voters within the Republican Party. As a result, the majority of rural counties are more Republican today than at any time in history.

Mifflin County is a perfect example of this transition. As recently as the late 1970s, the voter registration difference between Republicans and Democrats was marginal. At that time, there was little difference between registered Republicans and Democrats (less than 200 registrations).

According to the latest voter registration figures just released by Harry Clever, director of the Voter Registration office in Mifflin County, Republicans now have more than a two-to-one advantage within the county with 15,559 Republican and 7,599 Democrats.

Further, not one single precinct within the county has more Democrat registrations than Republicans.

Gone are the “old days” when Democrats had numerical advantages in parts of Lewistown, East Granville, Juniata Terrace, Burnham, West Derry (Yeagertown), and Kistler. While the numbers fluctuate county by county, trend lines are the same in rural areas.

Conversely, just the opposite happened in the suburban counties surrounding Philadelphia. The counties that once led the way to Republican statewide victories have now become a key component in Democratic victories within Pennsylvania. To illustrate this, one need look no further than Montgomery County.

In 1984, during Reagan’s re-election, he carried Montgomery County by more than 70,000 votes.

In 2012, Obama carried Montgomery County by approximately 60,000 votes.

That was a huge swing, the significance of which is the state’s bend toward the Democratic Party in presidential elections. Why? There are many reasons, including demographic shifts, but the principle reason is the population in these counties versus rural counties.

While the counties surrounding Philadelphia have moved to the left and are substantially more Democrat, this gain has been negated in part by movement in the counties surrounding Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Once solidly and dependently Democrat, they have completely reversed and are now voting Republican. These counties include Lawrence, Beaver, Washington, Greene, Fayette, Westmoreland and Cambria counties.

Each of these counties voted for Romney over Obama in 2012. However, the transition or movement from Democrat to Republican began later in southwestern Pennsylvania than the movement of the larger counties in the Philadelphia area.

Further, most of these counties are mid-sized with moderate to light population density as compared to the counties surrounding Philadelphia.

Finally, another factor which also accrues to the benefit of Republicans is Allegheny County and the city of Pittsburgh no longer deliver the massive vote pluralities to the Democrats as they once did.

A book could easily be written on the recent transformation of Pennsylvania politics with dozens of maps and graphs. However, let’s turn our attention to the election being held tomorrow and which candidate is likely to carry Pennsylvania now that we have some historical background.

To begin, remember Democrats have carried Pennsylvania in each of the last six presidential elections.

In 2012, President Barack Obama carried Pennsylvania by about 288,000 votes to win 52 percent of the state’s total.

In Philadelphia alone, Obama won by about 465,000 votes. In other words, if Philadelphia could have been floated down the Delaware River or given to New Jersey, Romney would have carried Pennsylvania by roughly 178,000 votes.

The Susquehanna River, which flows from north to south, divides the state into two geographic sections.

One third of the state is east of the river and two thirds of the state is west of it. The area to the west of the Susquehanna is far more conservative than the area to the east of the river. In fact, during the last presidential election, Obama only carried two counties west of the river – Allegheny and Erie.

The counties that surround Allegheny County were able to more than negate Obama’s plurality in Erie and Allegheny Counties.  In total, Obama carried 12 of the 67 counties, the other 55 counties choosing Romney. The 12 counties Obama carried represented 48 percent of the state’s total population.

Hillary Clinton

Here are 10 things that need/needed to happen for Clinton to carry Pennsylvania on Tuesday:

1.  Carry Philadelphia by a huge margin, similar to what Obama did in 2012.

2.  Carry the suburban counties around Philadelphia by margins equal to or greater than 2012. This includes carrying Chester County, which Romney won by about 1,500 votes in 2012.

3.   Hold the Democratic base vote. Turn out African American and Hispanic/Latino voters. Both groups, especially African Americans, are overwhelmingly Democrat.

4.  Take the women’s vote by a greater margin than men will likely vote for Trump. Women voters outnumber male voters.

5.   Cut into the higher educated Republican voters.

6.  Rack up huge numbers east of the Susquehanna River.

7.  Utilize organized labor, special interest and moderate to liberal groups/organizations.

8.   Take advantage of the huge influx of former New Jersey and New York residents that are moving into the Pocono Mountain region of the state.

9.  Turn out voters on college/university campuses.

10.  Have a superior “ground game” or turn out the vote plan and execution. This is easier to do in cities than rural areas.

Factors working for Clinton:

¯ Potential to be our first woman president

¯ Recent Pennsylvania vote history

¯ Refined ground game

¯ Support of former Gov. Ed Rendell in Philadelphia area

Factors working against Clinton:

¯ Likely reduced voter turnout among African Americans, especially in Philadelphia

¯ Likely reduced interest and turnout of people younger than age 30

¯ Concerns among voters about her trustworthiness

Donald Trump

Here are the 10 things that Trump needs/needed to do in order to win Pennsylvania:

1.  Galvanize the Republican base after a brutal primary season in which major Republicans have been withholding support.

2.  Drive up turnout in areas west of the Susquehanna River.

3.  Maximize turnout with men and white voters.

4.  Focus on blue collar voters.

5.  Utilize special interest, moderate and conservative groups, especially those who feel government is broken or that personal liberties are being lost.

6.   Turn out independent evangelical non-denominational church members who are generally more conservative.

7.   Increase vote margins in ring of counties around Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

8.  Increase vote share among women voters to close the gender gap.

9.  Maximize voter turnout with Second Amendment advocates.

10.  Use of Republican surrogates from the Pennsylvania congressional delegation and Pennsylvania General Assembly, which are heavily Republican and can deliver votes within their districts.

Factors working for Trump:

¯ Zeal and enthusiasm of his supporters

¯ Likely increased pluralities in southwest Pennsylvania

¯ Mobilization of people heretofore not involved in politics

Factors working against Trump:

¯ Population growth in eastern Pennsylvania

¯ Recent Pennsylvania vote history

¯ Concerns among voters about his unpredictability/unknown issues

The purpose of this article is to give you a better understanding of the variables that will determine the outcome in Pennsylvania and why the successful candidate likely wins and the unsuccessful candidate loses.

The author of this article has made every effort to present the facts and assessments in a fair and unbiased manner. This article is not written to influence your vote one way or the other. It is written solely as an informational/educational tool. Remember, your vote counts, as does that of family members, friends and neighbors. Do your part to lead our nation, and vote.


This article was researched and written by Mifflin County Commissioner Stephen Dunkle. Prior to serving his current term as commissioner, Dunkle had more than 30 years experience as a political consultant and campaign organizer, working with various elected officials throughout the state and in Washington, D.C.