When Erie County Democrats cast ballots in the Pennsylvania primary, 17 percent either didn’t vote for President Barack Obama or wrote in someone else’s name. In Crawford County, 23 percent of Democrats at the polls declined to vote for the president.
And the website www.PoliticsPA.com recently reported that in 27 of the state’s 67 counties, primarily in central and southwestern Pennsylvania, more than 30 percent of the Democratic voters failed to vote for Obama on April 24.
Does that translate into a battleground-state problem for Obama against presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the Nov. 6 election?
Bill Cole, Erie County Democratic Party chairman, said he’s not concerned. Some voters were focused on contested races and weren’t concerned about an uncontested race, he said.
“The fall will be much more intense. … It’s like a party where the bands are starting to play,” he said.
But two local political scientists said there’s at least some cause for concern.
Robert Speel, associate political-science professor at Penn State Behrend, said, “It’s never good if registered Democrats are not voting for a presidential candidate who doesn’t have any opposition on a primary ballot.”
But Speel said he doesn’t think the voters who took a pass on Obama in the primary will have an effect on his showing in Pennsylvania.
“I don’t think it will hurt him in the fall,” he said.
Speel pointed to recent history as the reason.
Four years ago, Obama lost the Pennsylvania primary to Hillary Rodham Clinton, yet easily won the state against John McCain in the general election, he said.
Speel also said some Democrats are registered with the party in name only, and they tend to vote Republican in the November election. And vice versa with some registered Republicans, he said.
“These are largely people who remain registered in a party due to family history and never bothered to switch, even though they don’t support people in that party anymore,” he said.
Democrats and Republicans can vote only within their respective parties in the Pennsylvania primary, but anyone can vote for any candidates in the general election.
Speel said there could be another factor in the nonvotes for Obama in the primary season. “In Obama’s case, race unfortunately probably plays a factor in some of that,” he said.
Michael Federici, a political-science professor at Mercyhurst University, said that at first glance, the number of people who didn’t vote for Obama in northwestern Pennsylvania and other parts of the state could potentially signal trouble for the fall.
But he said that must be put in perspective by comparing the numbers to states such as Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia, where Obama failed to get about 40 percent of the votes.
Obama isn’t going to win those more conservative states anyway, Federici said.
Electoral maps list Pennsylvania as leaning toward Obama, but the no-vote numbers from the primary are high enough in Pennsylvania that it should cause some concern in the Obama camp, he said.
“The enthusiasm issue, for me, is the key. Those people who are leaving a blank in the presidential primary — the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania — they’re not switching parties, they’re not becoming Republicans. They don’t want to vote for Romney, but they’re reticent about Obama,” Federici said.
“And that hesitation would concern me if I were in the Obama campaign,” he said.
“You have to find a way to energize those voters. You don’t want them doing the same thing in the fall — coming out and voting and just leaving that one blank,” he said.
“I would want to secure things up and get Pennsylvania in the bag before Romney could make some inroads and make Obama really fight for Pennsylvania.”
That could be why the Obama campaign is heavily advertising in Pennsylvania now, he said.
“They really want to nail down Pennsylvania while they have a big lead and discourage the Romney campaign from competing for it,” he said.
A Franklin & Marshall College poll earlier this month showed Obama with a 12 percentage-point lead, though a Quinnipiac University poll had Obama’s lead at 6 percentage points.