Every four years, the Republican Party willingly undergoes a kind of ritual humiliation: it tries to win the state of Pennsylvania in the presidential election. No doubt you have seen film of this unrequited courtship, but in case you haven’t, voilà.
2012 offered more of the same, as Pennsylvania yanked the football away again, confirming its reputation as a White Whale of American politics.
Not everyone believes the GOP should abandon the chase. As early as 2013, astute observers were urging the GOP to invest more instead of fewer resources in the Keystone State. Pennsylvania, wrote Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, “represents the biggest promise . . . for Republicans in 2016.” Last July, G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young, two of the most authoritative commentators on Pennsylvania politics, published an op-ed claiming the GOP could win Pennsylvania in 2016.
While hardly a consensus, by the start of this cycle the idea that the GOP could win Pennsylvania had become more than a passing fancy. The GOP really does have a good shot to win Pennsylvania. Or at least it did, until voters nominated a candidate who may keep Pennsylvania spurning Republican presidential nominees for another two decades.
Donald Trump’s Rusty Belt
Almost written off as a lost cause, Pennsylvania may in fact be indispensable to Republicans in 2016. Election analyst David Wasserman presents a compelling case that if the GOP wins in 2016, Pennsylvania is likely to be the state that clinches victory for it. The reason for this is that whereas once solidly red states like Colorado and Virginia have become more Democratic, Pennsylvania has become more Republican.
Since 1992, Wasserman calculates, Pennsylvania’s vote has shifted 0.4 percent towards the GOP per cycle. If the trend holds from 2012 to 2016, then Pennsylvania would become the third most-winnable state for Republicans after Florida and Ohio. As he points out, Pennsylvania is also favorable demographic terrain for the GOP. Its electorate is 83 percent white, its median age is the sixth-oldest in the country, and only 29 percent of whites age 25 or older hold bachelor’s degrees. On all these measures, Pennsylvania is more promising than Colorado and Virginia. These advantages may even be compounded with Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, given his overwhelming support from white voters who do not have college degrees.
Such voters dominate the states of the Rust Belt, of which Pennsylvania is part. Unsurprisingly, therefore, once Trump became the frontrunner a consensus quickly emerged: his path to the White House goes through the Rust Belt. Stories assessing Trump’s chances sprouted like spring flowers, many of them drawing a line through Pennsylvania.
The focus on Appalachia and the Rust Belt ignores one crucial fact, however: Appalachia alone is not enough to win Pennsylvania. Statewide elections in Pennsylvania are for the most part decided in the eastern portion of the state, especially the Philadelphia area. Fortunately…