Pennsylvania’s Fading Presidential Blue

Wall Street Journal

Pennsylvanians have no problem voting Republican. Out of 67 counties, 52 are in GOP hands. So are 12 of 19 congressional districts, both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion. Republican Pat Toomey won a Senate seat in 2010.

As party hacks know, the trouble for the GOP here is at the top of the ticket. The state last turned red in a presidential race 24 years ago for George H.W. Bush. His son made it a priority in 2004 and lost by 2.5%. Barack Obama’s 10-point win in 2008 was supposed to take it out of the swing column this year.

Yet one of the surprises of the past month is a quietly competitive race for Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes. Since the Denver debate on Oct. 3, Mr. Obama’s lead has narrowed to 4.7%, according to the RealClearPolitics average of state polls. On Tuesday, the Romney campaign leaked plans to air television ads in Pennsylvania, starting as early as today. The effort joins two pro-Republican Super PACs that on Monday revealed a $3 million-plus last-minute ad blitz, including in the expensive Philadelphia media market.

If Pennsylvania stages a surprise next week, it’ll come out of suburban Philadelphia. The four so-called collar counties (Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery) were once moderate Republican bastions. In the past two decades, the suburbs have gone for Democratic presidential candidates. You can’t win without them. Bucks (pop. 626,854) is the bellwether: A mix of educated middle-class, rural and blue-collar communities, it votes both ways in local elections—and always for the presidential winner.

Do the math. The 2004 Bush campaign sought to limit his deficit in predominantly Democratic Philadelphia and the collar counties to around 400,000 votes. Mr. Bush ended up losing the area by half a million votes, giving the state to John Kerry by 142,000. (Mr. Obama won the area by 681,000 votes, the state by 621,000.) The Romney campaign wants to hold the losses here to at most 425,000 votes and pick up the difference in the rest of the state. Mr. Romney even looks competitive in traditionally Democratic Allegheny County, around Pittsburgh, which hasn’t gone Republican for president since 1972. President Obama needs to run up his score in and around Philadelphia.

Republicans in the collar counties had little reason for enthusiasm before the first debate. The morning after Denver, the party office in Bucks was overrun with people looking for Romney-Ryan lawn signs. The Romney message strategy echoes that of Sen. Toomey and other successful GOP candidates here two years ago: Talk about jobs and debt, appeal to bipartisanship, and avoid the subjects of abortion and religion as much as possible.

As it happens, Mr. Romney is the first Northeasterner to get the Republican nod since the Connecticut native Bush 41 in 1988. He looks and sounds like Republicans whom Pennsylvanians have voted for in the past. Texas swagger and Sarah Palin didn’t play well in Bucks.

Republican Mike Fitzpatrick lost his congressional seat in this district in the anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War wave of 2006. He won it back in 2010 and is favored to keep it. A debate last week between Mr. Fitzpatrick and Democratic challenger Kathy Boockvar at Bucks County Community College in Bristol gives a sense of the mood. “Name one instance where the opposition had a good idea” is the opening question. Both candidates call themselves bipartisan “bridge builders.”

Then comes a series of queries about high gas prices, a tough job market and how to balance budgets. A local software provider and Fitzpatrick supporter standing next to me in the audience says: “There’s only one businessman I know of who is doing better” than four years ago “and he’s a bankruptcy lawyer.”

Three out of five voters in Bucks care primarily about the economy, according to Fitzpatrick internal polls. The congressman mentions, at nearly every opportunity, that he is rated one of the most “independent” members of Congress. “I stood up against my party and I’m ready to do it again,” he says in the debate. This goes over well in Bucks too.

A visible difference from 2008 is the improvement in the Republican ground game. As in Ohio, the Romney campaign has been able to tap local evangelicals and tea-party activists and has built up a decent infrastructure with 24 offices and 60 staffers in the state.

Four years ago, a McCain phone bank was hard to find. “We all had bags on our heads,” says a volunteer from that effort. An aggressive strategy of door-knocking visits and telephone calls is supposed to make up for the absence of Romney TV ads until this week.

Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor, says in a telephone interview before the Romney TV buys were announced that any late ad push may backfire for Republicans. “It would remind people that there’s an election going on,” he says. Republicans “clearly hope Democratic turnout collapses.” The Obama campaign, calling the Romney buys “a desperate play,” is going on air in response.

A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Rendell made waves locally by dressing down Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, who’s in a tough race against political newcomer Republican Tom Smith. “Casey? He hasn’t run a campaign,” Mr. Rendell says. And he has a point.

Mr. Casey, the son of a popular former governor, took victory for granted. His support was wide but, it turned out, soft — his job-approval rating has hovered at or below 50%. You might say the same about President Obama. Pennsylvania’s first love was Hillary Clinton, who won the 2008 primary in a rout.

Mr. Smith, a 65-year-old farmer and businessman who made millions in the coal business near Pittsburgh, won the GOP nomination without the party’s support. He then spent heavily on ads that portrayed the incumbent as “Senator Zero,” who almost always votes with Democrats and has no piece of Senate legislation to his name. Mr. Casey was slow to respond. Mr. Smith has used his business background as a plus in an energy-producing state—home to yesterday’s coal mines and today’s Marcellus Shale natural-gas reserves. He has trimmed the incumbent’s lead to six or fewer points in recent polls.

Mr. Casey, whose familiar last name gives him a built-in advantage, paints the challenger as right-wing extremist on abortion and gay rights. In an interview, Mr. Smith says: “I am what I am. Yes, I am pro-life. Now let’s talk about the economy.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests a GOP enthusiasm edge. Registered Republicans are, in one small example, requesting absentee ballots at a faster rate than Democrats. Though a self-funder, Mr. Smith has raised more money than Mr. Casey from outside donors. In Philadelphia, Obama signs and posters are scant in number compared with 2008. This is a GOP challenge by stealth—to convince swing voters who went for Mr. Obama last time to feel comfortable with the Romney brand of Republicanism.

The Democratic game is about turnout. The president’s re-election campaign is a formidable operation. In a signal that Pennsylvania is not a closed deal, Mr. Obama last week gave an Oval Office interview to Michael Smerconish, a Philadelphia radio talk-show host who was born in Bucks County and has a following in the collar counties. Gov. Rendell sums up the mood among Democrats: “We’re nervous.”

Read more: