October 27, 2016
A Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won Pennsylvania since the 1988 election, yet every four years since it seems that the GOP nominee optimistically predicts he’ll run a strong campaign and carry the Keystone State in November. Donald Trump, the 2016 GOP standard bearer, has made the same prediction. The problem for Republican White House hopefuls is that since the 1988 election the four suburban counties that surround Philadelphia have trended more Democratic in presidential races.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush swept the four large suburban counties that ring Philadelphia: Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery. But just four years later, in 1992, Bill Clinton carried three of those counties Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery, and Bush won Chester. Independent candidate Ross Perot trailed in all four counties, but his 19 percent vote in the Philadelphia suburbs generally matched his statewide total of 18 percent. (Clinton and Bush both won 41 percent of the vote in the Philadelphia burbs in 1992. Clinton’s statewide total was 45 percent and Bush’s was 36 percent in that election.)
As the chart below shows, after Clinton and Bush battled to essentially a draw in the Philadelphia suburbs in 1992, the Democratic margins in presidential elections in this area gradually grew, peaking at roughly 15 percentage points in 2008, before dropping back down to nine points in 2012.
The relatively high portion of college-graduates in the Philadelphia suburbs, particularly in Chester and Montgomery counties makes this challenging political terrain for Trump.
The city of Philadelphia is a Democratic bastion and if recent voting patterns hold, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, can expect to win at least four-out-of-every-five votes cast there. George H.W. Bush won one-third of the Philadelphia voters in 1988, but by 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s share had fallen to 14 percent. While it’s still uncertain whether Clinton will garner the same kind of support from African Americans that Barack Obama did, her well-organized campaign is focused on turning out a high minority vote.
Offsetting the Democratic advantage in Philadelphia and its suburbs, Trump is likely to perform very well in the largely rural and traditionally Republican counties of central Pennsylvania where more than a fifth of the statewide vote in presidential elections is cast. Romney won three-out-of-five votes in these counties in 2012 and the region contributed the same share of the vote case in that election—22 percent—as the total vote cast in the Philadelphia suburbs. Democratic strategist James Carville once famously described the state as Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east and Alabama in between.
Trump needs to do well in the remaining two regions of the state: the Northeast and the West. The Northeast region, which includes the old industrial Lehigh Valley and the cities of Bethlehem and Allentown and former coal mining communities like Scranton, has been a bit of a swing region in the state. In 2004, George W. Bush narrowly carried the region, 51-to-48 percent, but four years later, Barack Obama won this area 54-to-45 percent. In 2012, Obama’s margin fell and he narrowly defeated Romney in the region, 51-to-48 percent.
But it should be noted that in the Republican presidential primary this year, Trump rolled up his biggest margins in northeast Pennsylvania, winning roughly two-our-of-every-three votes cast there. With its rural pockets and blue-collar lineage, Trump could perform well on this turf.
Lastly, the western portion of the state could be the more critical battleground in this battleground state. The 20 counties in this area stretching from Erie in the north to Allegheny (Pittsburgh) and the coal counties of Washington and Green in the south over to Cambria (Johnstown), closer to the center of the state, have been trending more Republican in presidential elections. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore carried the region, 51-to-46 percent. But in 2012, for the first time in recent memory, Republican Romney won western Pennsylvania, 51-to-47 percent.
Moreover, Western Pennsylvania casts a relatively large share of the statewide presidential vote. In 2012, it accounted for 28 percent of the state’s presidential ballots compared to 22 percent for the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs. Clinton is likely to do well in the city of Pittsburgh, where professionals, managers, high-tech workers and university students hold sway. But the suburbs of Pittsburgh and Erie have a relatively high share of blue-collar workers, a ripe target for Trump.
Clinton’s path to victory in the Keystone State is fairly conventional for a Democrat—carry Philadelphia overwhelmingly, win its suburbs handily, and hold her own in the Northeast and the West. Trump must try to hold down his losses in the Philadelphia suburbs while he pushes up Republican presidential votes in the Northeast and the West.
James A. Barnes is a senior writer for Ballotpedia and co-author of the 2016 edition of the Almanac of American Politics.