Pennsylvania Could Be In Play In Presidential Race

James O’Toole
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If no candidate sweeps early primaries, the state could be key as it was in 2008

Will it happen again?

Four years ago, Gov. Ed Rendell tried in vain to persuade the Legislature to move Pennsylvania’s primary earlier in the election calendar. Allowing it to remain in late April, he and many other astute analysts believed, would consign it to irrelevance.

The Legislature was unmoved, but,in an example of the workings of the law of unintended consequences, Pennsylvania found itself on center stage after all. On the Republican side, following a familiar pattern, Pennsylvania was indeed irrelevant to the nomination. John McCain made a quick kill. After, Mike Huckabee wounded Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, Mr. McCain won the first two primaries – New Hampshire and South Carolina, then secured the GOP standard with another win in Florida.

But the protracted Democratic battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton slogged on unresolved after the Super Tuesday and subsequent contests of early March. For weeks, Pennsylvania’s April 22 primary had no major competition for the candidates’ attention.

Sens. Clinton and Obama crisscrossed the state as though they were running for governor.

This year’s Republican race, so far, has time and again confounded predictions. It may well be that one candidate will make a run through the traditional early states to a quick resolution, a scenario that once seemed the most likely and may unfold again. But Pennsylvania has at least a chance for another unexpected turn in the nominating spotlight.

“I see no path to victory for anybody, right now,” said state GOP chairman Rob Gleason. “So that’s what makes me think that … we’re still going to be important. I feel certain about it.”

The last time Pennsylvania was truly in play in a Republican nominating contest was 1980, when two future presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, faced off in the state.

Changes in the GOP rules this time around have increased, though by no means guaranteed, the possibility that the nomination would remain undecided well into the spring. In an only partially successful attempt to impose order on the selection process, the GOP barred winner-take-all outcomes for early primaries, so that a narrow victory like the one Mr. McCain eked out in South Carolina in 2008 would not allow the winner to claim all of the state’s delegates.

Similar proportional delegate rules on the Democratic side helped set the stage for the protracted competition between the Obama and Clinton campaigns. Had winner-take-all been in place on the Democratic side, Mrs. Clinton’s convincing big-state victories in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania might have made for a very different delegate picture by the late spring.

Pennsylvania’s somewhat unusual delegate selection rules for the GOP also suggest that a well-organized campaign — or party power brokers — could have advantages here over a late-surging but less-well-funded campaign. In contrast to the Democratic rules, which apportion most delegates depending on vote totals in Congressional districts, the GOP presidential preference primary in Pennsylvania is a pure beauty contest, with absolutely no legal impact on delegate totals.

Pennsylvania Republicans elect individual delegates who may choose to pledge themselves to a presidential candidate, but have no obligation to do so. The April 24 ballot will list the names of the individuals seeking delegate and alternate spots for the Tampa convention, but will not specify any presidential candidate with them. In theory, a White House contender could win the GOP primary in a landslide only to see a rival win the lion’s share of the delegates.

The nominating calendar offers clues but no clear road map.

The big four January contests (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida) will yield waves of media attention and quite possibly enough momentum to declare a likely winner — but not all that many delegates. The next primaries are not until Feb. 28 in Michigan and Arizona, although there are several caucus events earlier. A dozen states will cast Republican votes March 6 – Super Tuesday.

If no candidate breaks from the pack by then, states including Maryland and Wisconsin would have a chance to clear the picture in early April. But if a muddle persists, the next big Tuesday occurs April 24, when New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Delaware vote, along with Pennsylvania.

In an interview with the New York Times last week, Mr. Romney acknowledged the possibility of a drawn-out battle. “Those early states continue to shout, they’re powerful, they have a big impact, but the later states have a lot of delegates.”

In the 1980 Pennsylvania primary, as Franklin and Marshall College political scientist Terry Madonna recounts in “Pivotal Pennsylvania, “Pennsylvania offered George H.W. Bush one of his last chances to blunt the by-then-well-established momentum of Mr. Reagan. The Bush forces poured roughly $1 million into the state, while the front-runner and eventual winner spent just about a tenth of that.

Mr. Bush won the state by about 100,000 votes, but it wasn’t enough to derail Mr. Reagan.

The state also played a notable role in the 1976 Republican nomination fight, but not through its primary. Mr. Reagan didn’t bother to campaign in Pennsylvania, acknowledging its solid support for President Gerald Ford. But given that its delegates were still officially uncommitted, Mr. Reagan made an unusual convention-eve effort to attract their support by announcing that he would choose the state’s moderate Sen. Richard Schweiker as his running mate. While the move ultimately failed, it added to the intrigue of the last nomination battle of either party that remained undecided as the convention began.

“Is it likely to happen — no,” Mr. Madonna said of the possibility of a truly contested primary this time around. “But you have to look at how bizarre it’s been so far. Not in modern times have there been five different polling leaders. I don’t think you can rule out anything happening this year.”

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