The Pennsylvania Polka: Every Election Year Is Groundhog Day in the Keystone State

Each cycle, pundits assure us PA is up for grabs—and every four years, Democrats win it

Groundhog handler John Griffiths holds Punxsutawney Phil after he saw his shadow predicting six more weeks of winter during 128th annual Groundhog Day festivities on February 2, 2014 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

Groundhog handler John Griffiths holds Punxsutawney Phil after he saw his shadow predicting six more weeks of winter during 128th annual Groundhog Day festivities on February 2, 2014 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

The 1993 comedy Groundhog Day centered on a plot that should seem quite familiar to residents of Pennsylvania, where the movie and, of course, the real-life rodent are based. In the movie, the lead character relives the same day over and over again, hoping every evening he will awake to a different tomorrow.

Similarly, every four years, we hear from the punditocracy that this is the year that the Keystone State could really, really be in reach for the Republicans. And every presidential election, at least since 1988, the networks have colored Pennsylvania blue on their electoral maps by the end of the night.

Color this analyst skeptical that this will be the year Charlie Brown kicks the Republican football through the Heinz Field goalposts. Unless Donald Trump wins this election in a walk, his last vision of Pennsylvania will be Hillary Clinton hovering over him with the ball in her hands.

The key to the Keystone State is the gigantic Democratic advantage in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania has gone Republican only four times in the last 14 presidential elections: 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988. What do these four elections have in common? They were all massive national landslides for the GOP, with none of the Republican victors winning fewer than 40 states or 426 electoral votes (out of 538). In short, over the last 60 years, the Keystone State has only gone red when the Republicans won by spectacular margins nationwide. In close national victories for the Republicans (1968, 2000, 2004), Pennsylvania has stayed in Team Blue’s column. Even in 1988, the last year Republicans captured the state, George H.W. Bush barely prevailed, despite his wide national margin. Republicans have underperformed in Pennsylvania as compared to the national popular vote in every election since 1948. This is a consistent pattern.

This is not to say Pennsylvania is never close, or that its voting patterns are entirely static. John Kerry won the state by slightly more than two percentage points in 2004, as did Jimmy Carter in 1976 and John Kennedy in 1960, while Hubert Humphrey pulled out a victory of slightly more than three points in 1968. And certainly the onetime Democratic, working-class voters of western Pennsylvania are much more Republican than they used to be, with all the counties surrounding Pittsburgh ending up in Mitt Romney’s column in 2012. It is entirely possible that the Keystone State will be decided by five points or fewer this year, as it was four years ago, and as it has been in many other elections over the last 60 years.

But getting above 48 percent in Pennsylvania is a very high hurdle for the GOP, and the key reason is the Democratic firewalls of Philadelphia and Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located. In 2012, these two jurisdictions gave Barack Obama an advantage exceeding 550,000 votes. Though he lost the rest of the state by more than 240,000 votes, he finished with an advantage of more than 300,000.

The key to the Keystone State is the gigantic Democratic advantage in Philadelphia. While the state’s rural counties unquestionably have moved in the Republican direction since the Bill Clinton presidency ended, Philadelphia has moved more steadfastly into the Democratic column, offsetting the GOP gains elsewhere. Al Gore only won the city by about 350,000 votes in 2000, but still won the state. By comparison, Democrats now consistently come out of the City of Brotherly Love with margins exceeding 400,000 votes.

It can be reasonably expected that Democrats, at a minimum, will come out of Philadelphia ahead by no less than that margin in 2016. (President Obama had a 465,000-vote cushion there in 2012, so a 400,000-vote margin would represent a significant dropoff in Democratic support.) Even if Democratic margins fall off by half in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County (approximately an 89,000-vote Democratic edge in 2012), Republicans would have to increase their margins in the remainder of the state by more than 80 percent to win statewide. That’s a very heavy lift.

Then consider this: George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign, boosted by the talented Karl Rove, represented a high-water mark for Republicans since 1988. Through diligent microtargeting, Rove was able to turn out Republican voters in a manner that flummoxed exit pollsters on Election Day, and the brilliant exploitation of cultural wedge issues helped Bush outperform all other recent Republican presidential campaigns among voters of color. Even Rove’s 2004 effort, a masterpiece, was not enough to get Bush closer than 140,000 votes in the Keystone State.

For all the fretting in Democratic quarters about Pennsylvania, the numbers are clear. As long as Team Blue can get anything close to its recent margins in Philadelphia, to say nothing of Pittsburgh, it would be nearly impossible to find enough Republican votes in the rest of the state to put Trump over the top.

By no means would The Party Crasher suggest that Democrats should pay no attention to Pennsylvania and turn their focus entirely to other states. It is, of course, crucial for Team Blue to turn out its voters in the Keystone State, especially in the cities. But if Democrats do their job, they’ll win the state. Again. Period.

So go ahead and set your alarm clocks if you want, but be ready to dance the Pennsylvania Polka with Bill Murray the day after the election. The calendar might say November 9, but in the Keystone State, it will be Groundhog Day. Again.

Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.

Cliston Brown is a communications executive and political analyst in the San Francisco Bay Area who previously served as director of communications to a longtime Democratic Representative in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter (@ClistonBrown) and visit his website at ClistonBrown.com.

The Pennsylvania Polka: Every Election Year Is Groundhog Day in the Keystone State