Pennsylvania has a long history as an important swing state in presidential elections. But over the last decade, approximately, political shifts have kept the state swinging left again and again — Republicans haven’t won Pennsylvania since 1988.
Nevertheless, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are fighting hard for Keystone State votes this year.
According to Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, Pennsylvania has been like “fool’s gold” for Republicans in recent years: tantalizing, but just out of reach.
“One of the great disadvantages for Republicans is the gap in registered voters,” Borick said. “There’s almost a million more Democrats in the state than Republicans in terms of registered voter status. That means, if Democrats get out their voters, they’re going to do well.”
That handicap has led recent GOP candidates to largely ignore the state.
“The last time a Republican really fought here was in 2004 when President Bush spent a lot of time, a lot of money in the state, and actually made it a very close race. John Kerry won by two points,” Borick said.
But Borick added that these next few months in Pennsylvania will look a lot like 2004. Trump sees the Keystone State as a must-win, so he’s campaigning hard. And he has expressed confidence in his chances.
“The only way we can lose, in my opinion, I really mean this Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on. I really believe it,” Trump told supporters at a rally in Altoona.
Will ‘unlikely voters’ turn the tide?
But for all of Trump’s focus on the state, the race might still be a wash for the GOP.
That is largely because Trump polls poorly with voters from the Philadelphia suburbs. And, as Borick said, those are the people who swing the state.
“Places like Montgomery County, Bucks County, Delaware County Chester County — those counties have been key in really determining which candidates will win Pennsylvania’s statewide races,” he said.
The way Pennsylvania breaks down demographically, liberal voters dominate Philly and Pittsburgh, and conservatives are concentrated in the T-shaped region across the top and down the middle of the state.
Voters in the Philly suburbs tend to be fiscally conservative but socially liberal, and they oscillate between voting Democrat and Republican. But in a recent state poll, Clinton is up 40 percent in Southeastern Pennsylvania. And she’s been concentrating her campaign there, too.
Trump, on the other hand, has a plan that largely ignores the Philadelphia region, instead trying to appeal to a specific demographic across the state.
“This is going to be an election of unlikely voters,” said Lou Barletta, a Pennsylvania Republican congressman and Trump surrogate. “You know, people who have not voted in some time, who feel they have left behind, and are coming back because of Donald Trump.”
Barletta, who has campaigned extensively with Trump, said polls that show the candidate down by nine or more points in the state don’t accurately reflect the voters who will turn out.
“Actually, I think it’s a lot better than what the polling is showing,” he said. “I’m sensing, on the ground, an energy like I haven’t seen in a long time. And certainly much more than what we’re seeing with Hillary Clinton.”
Borick agreed that Trump tends to appeal to infrequent voters. But he noted that concentrating resources on that demographic isn’t guaranteed to pay off.
“Lots of candidates have gone down the path of saying they’re going to be different in terms of bringing out voters that don’t usually turn out,” Borick said. “It’s a big risk. There’s a reason that campaigns spend a lot of time going after voters that show up. Because they’re the ones that are ultimately going to decide the election.”
With Clinton leading comfortably in state polls, one pro-Clinton super PAC recently paused its TV ads in Pennsylvania in a show of confidence.
Borick said the race isn’t at all a done deal yet. But, it’s looking more and more like Trump has a tough, uphill road ahead of him.