Days before besting President Barack Obama in their first debate, Republican candidate Mitt Romney was telling a cheering crowd in Wayne, Pa., “We’re going to win Pennsylvania,” while his aides were admitting to reporters that they probably could not.
The day after the debate, the 24 Romney offices throughout Pennsylvania fielded 100 new volunteers and had another 200 re-up for new shifts, according to campaign staff.
“The Dems seem to think they’ve had [this state] in their pockets for a long time,” said Billy Pitman, the Romney campaign’s state spokesman, “but we’ve got an incredible ground game.”
Whether it’s “incredible” or not, the dissatisfied former Obama voters that the new Romney volunteers will be targeting have actually been out there for two years or more, their numbers growing and — inexplicably, to some — overlooked.
Larry Taylor is one of them. A coal miner and registered Democrat in Greene County, he paused a few days ago at an Emerald Mine portal to talk politics before his shift began.
Yes, he voted for President Obama in 2008, but in this year’s primary, he left the presidential slot blank. Yes, that was on purpose. No, he won’t be voting for Mr. Obama come November.
There are thousands of Democrats like him across the commonwealth. They are part of the “undervote” — primary voters who failed or declined, for whatever reason, to vote for their own party’s unopposed incumbent. Some write in another candidate’s name; others leave that section blank, since there’s no real contest, or because they intend, like Larry Taylor, to announce a resounding “no.”
In any given year, says Keegan Gibson, managing editor of PoliticsPA.com, the undervote in a statewide or national race might range “from 15 to 23 percent — but usually it’s fairly consistent in most counties.”
This year was different. President Obama’s undervote ranged widely — from single digits in Philadelphia, Delaware and Chester counties to the mid-40s in north-central and southwestern Pennsylvania. In 37 counties his undervote was above 25 percent, and in 16 of those, it topped 35 percent.
A quick look at a state map reveals a substantial overlap between counties where the undervote was high and counties where the coal and natural gas industries are strong. The nearest to Pittsburgh is Greene County, where hundreds, even thousands, of lawn signs read, “Stop the War on Coal — Fire Obama.”
Here, 3,863 (of 14,318) registered Democrats voted in the spring primary, but only 2,247 voted for President Obama — a 42 percent undervote. By contrast, the Greene County undervote for the unopposed Eugene DePasquale (for auditor general) and Rob McCord (for state treasurer) was only 30 percent. And in 2006, according to PoliticsPA, Gov. Ed Rendell’s undervote was 26 percent.
Seasoned political observers like Terry Madonna, of Franklin & Marshall College, warn these facts “could be read a number of different ways.” And while Republicans clearly hope the trend favors their candidate, it’s an open question whether the Democrats who decline to vote for Obama will go so far as to vote for Romney.
If they do, it’s another question whether these disaffected Democrats in the state’s less populated areas are numerous enough to offset the president’s much stronger support in its big cities.
It all comes down to voter turnout — and each campaign’s “ground game.” The Obama website lists 45 offices statewide; Romney has 24.
Back in November 2008, Greene County turnout was 64 percent; John McCain won here by 60 votes. The much-reviled “war on coal” has only reduced President Obama’s support — but it’s not the only reason.
At a fast-food spot near the interstate, a state employee who doesn’t want her name made public says the president lost her vote with “Obamacare.”
“To me, it’s socialist — forcing people to do something they can’t afford.”
At Hot Rod’s, a busy Waynesburg barbecue spot, Democrat Jeff Taylor, a factory worker and Desert Storm vet who voted for Mr. Obama in 2008, now describes himself as “on the fence” and said, “I don’t think his policies are working, but it seems like it doesn’t matter who’s in there.”
Back at the Emerald Mine portal, only one of the dozen registered Democrats I interviewed says he still supports the president — and that’s because he figures the mining jobs lost to oppressive coal regulations won’t be any greater than those lost to the “outsourcing” he expects in a Romney economy.
I stopped one man wearing an Iraq War ballcap, in a pickup with a Marine Corps window decal.
I start my questions: Are you a registered Democrat?
He smiles. “I was until last week.”
Maybe Pennsylvania is in play.