Mitt Romney’s Pennsylvania play is real, but whether it will pay off is another story.
Both the Republican and Democratic professionals in the state most deeply involved in the campaign have their doubts — serious ones.
“It’s a real long-shot,” a Republican ad-maker for a GOP group on the air told The Daily. “I think we’ll fall short at the end. But clearly we caught the Obama people napping on this.”
Romney made a late-campaign stop at a farm here Sunday night — rallying thousands in this working class suburb of Philadelphia — the latest piece of his effort to put Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral college votes in the GOP column for the first time since 1988.
That effort includes more than $12 million worth of TV ads that Romney’s campaign and supporting groups have purchased to inundate the airwaves in the closing week of the race, and an energized ground game that state Republican officials contend is better than it has ever been.
“We’re taking back the White House because we’re going to win Pennsylvania!” Romney told supporters.
But at the end of the day, the facts that matter most to political pros haven’t changed: Democrats outnumber Republicans by a million voters, and the electorate that comes out in presidential years is nothing like the smaller, more conservative one that led Republicans to a up-and-down-the-ballot sweep in 2010.
“You would have to have a turnout model that is so unbelievably bad for [President Obama] to lose,” said Neil Oxman, a top Democratic strategist who is helping run two statewide races this year. “He’s going to beat Romney 90 [percent] to 10 [percent] among Democrats, just as Romney’s going to beat him with Republicans. The difference is registration, and that difference is so enormous.”
The senior Pennsylvania Republican officials who huddled in the cold here awaiting Romney’s arrival could best be described as cautiously optimistic, more than than they ever have been. Even those who had long been skeptical of Romney’s prospects here insist there’s a bubbling excitement on the ground that hasn’t registered in polls showing Obama holding a modest but steady lead.
“There’s a feeling here, a mood across Pennsylvania that I’ve never seen before,” said Republican National Committeewoman Christine Toretti, who along with powerful committeeman Bob Asher and state party chairman Rob Gleason had been lobbying Romney’s campaign to make a bigger play here.
Warming up the crowd, Gov. Tom Corbett declared: “Pennsylvania is in play!”
But even Republicans hopeful for an Election Day surprise in Pennsylvania acknowledge the narrow path for Romney to prevail. He needs to hope that Obama’s winning margin in the Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia is held far below its 2008 level, while fighting to something close to a draw in the population-rich Philadelphia suburbs, which have trended increasingly Democratic over the last decade.
One top Republican on hand posited that Romney can only win if Obama’s margin in Philadelphia is held under 375,000 votes — a much bigger number than former Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak racked up in narrowly losing the 2010 Senate race, but also a much smaller edge than the 478,000-vote advantage Obama took out of the city last time.
“If the whole things collapses to a turnout model like 2004 or 2010, then it’s collapsing everywhere else,” Oxman said. “If [Obama] loses Pennsylvania, he’s like Jimmy Carter losing every state.”
The massive advertising Republican unleashed here over the last week have clogged the airwaves, but it’s unclear if they’re moving numbers in Romney’s direction; much of the movement took place before that investment started, as the race naturally tightened in both state and national polls. And despite Republican claims that they’re expanding the map for a looming electoral college blowout, a strategist involved in the Republican National Committee’s independent expenditure effort told The Daily that the main reason the group pumped $3 million into ads here is because there was nowhere else left with available advertising inventory.
“There’s just no more money to be spent in other states,” this strategist said.
The divide between optimistic Republicans and the rest of the political class largely comes down to which turnout model and which pollsters you believe. The latest survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm with a good track record in the state, shows Obama leading Romney by 6 points but with a heavily Democratic electorate. A new Muhlenberg College poll shows Obama clinging to a more narrow 3-point lead. Romney has never led in any public polling.
If Romney is to have any hope of flipping Pennsylvania, he’ll need to perform well in Bucks County, where he staged his only major rally in the state here on Sunday night. Republicans swept statewide races in 2010 in part because they ran up big margins among Bucks County’s white, working class voters.
“Gov. Romney came to the right place,” said local Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, who represents Bucks County. “This is a bellwether area, a very independent electorate. They cross party lines frequently, and Gov. Romney appeals to the suburban Bucks County family.
There’s clearly enthusiasm for Romney among Republicans here. They turned out in droves — 30,000 by one early estimate — and waited in 40-degree weather while Romney was delayed traveling from Ohio. When he took the stage, Romney made the same bipartisan appeal he’s been making during the homestretch.
“So many of you look at the problems this country faces not as Democrats or Republicans but as independents.”
They were treated to a rousing display of fireworks when Romney wrapped up his remarks. If those fireworks are repeated on Election Day, Democrats and Republicans alike will be surprised.
A top Republican strategist involved in the campaign here, bracing himself for a loss on Tuesday, put it this way: “We’re a lot closer than they’d like us to be, that’s for damn sure.”