Is the Keystone State doing what it did in 1980 — and is it alone?
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Let’s do the Pennsylvania Polka with that elusive, alluring political attraction known as the Reagan Pivot.
In 1980 Jimmy Carter was supposedly wiping the floor with Ronald Reagan. Nationally the Gallup Poll in October gave Carter an 8 point lead of 47%-39%. On October 10, the New York Times/CBS poll reported that while Reagan had a 2 point lead over Carter in Pennsylvania Reagan was actually not doing well. Reagan’s Pennsylvania fundraising was weak, insisted the Times, which in turn meant the $700,000 budget for the Reagan phone bank operation had to be shaved to $400,000. Not to mention Reagan was trailing Carter in union households and getting absolutely whomped in Philadelphia 52%-15%.
Reagan’s anemic numbers in Pennsylvania were having an effect on Arlen Specter’s Senate race as well. The Times noted Specter was far behind Democrat Pete Flaherty, trailing by 11 points at 47%-36%.
On Election Day Reagan carried Pennsylvania — by seven points. Specter won as well — not to be defeated for re-election for 30 years.
Which is to say, somewhere along the line there was a “Reagan Pivot” in Pennsylvania.
A definable point that was unseen and unmeasured in the polls — both in Pennsylvania and nationally. The Gallup October poll that had Reagan losing nationally 47%-39% had, by election day, turned into a 50.7%-41% Reagan rout.
Pennsylvania is frequently cast these days as a “blue state” — and that is wrong. The late Senator Arlen Specter — he who was written off in that 1980 October poll and who was no slouch at understanding the state he represented in the Senate for five terms (the longest serving U.S. Senator in the state’s history) — once insisted to me that Pat Toomey could not possibly win a Senate seat in the state because he was “too conservative.” Specter was wrong, with Toomey not simply driving the Senator from the Republican Party but going on to defeat Democrat Joe Sestak for Specter’s Senate seat.
Pennsylvania is not simply repeatedly competitive. There is a politically structural reason for that competiveness. As the Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Kaminski noted yesterday, of the state’s 67 counties, 52 are controlled by the GOP. Ditto 12 of the 19 congressional districts, both the State House and State Senate, plus the governorship and Specter’s old Senate seat now held by Toomey. It is instinctively and historically conservative, even when electing Democrats. Toomey’s Senate seatmate from Pennsylvania is the pro-life Robert P. Casey, Jr., son of the late governor who was once denied a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention because of his conservative — read Catholic — views on abortion.
A look back at the last five decades of presidential politics in Pennsylvania — 13 presidential elections — is instructive.
Rule Number One? Philadelphia always votes for the Democrat. Once upon a time Philadelphia was a Republican city — a Civil War-era fact of life that vanished in the 1940s. From JFK to Barack Obama the city has gone for the Democrats 13 out of 13 times.
But the key question is: by how much? The fact of presidential political life in Pennsylvania is that regardless of its size and its overwhelming tilt to Democrats, Philadelphia in fact is more enamored of some Democrats running for president than others. This goes double for the rest of the state, which has one million more registered Democrats.
When that lack of enthusiasm is manifest in the numbers, in the turnout — Republicans can carry the state in a blink.
And when a Republican candidate has a particular appeal to Philadelphians, regardless of their party registration they will abandon their party.
While I call this the “Reagan Pivot” — in fact this problem for Democrats began to emerge not in 1980 with Ronald Reagan but in 1972. The year Richard Nixon was challenged by the now-recently-deceased South Dakota Senator George McGovern.
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H/T to National Review Online