Special Report

Pennsylvania and the Reagan Pivot

Is the Keystone State doing what it did in 1980 -- and is it alone?

By 11.1.12

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- The Reagan Pivot. What is it? How to recognize it? What happens when it shows up in a presidential election?

The place to look this last week before the election is Pennsylvania.

Suddenly, Pennsylvania is in electoral fashion.

This commercial has now begun to pop up in a state that until the other day was barren of Romney commercials.

Starting yesterday, Pennsylvania is suddenly being flooded with TV ads from both Romney and Obama, as noted yesterday here. In fact, the money noted is a drop in the bucket. The updated figure has Romney SuperPAC Restore Our Future and a second GOP-leaning SuperPAC, Americans for Job Security, together kicking in a $3.2 million ad buy -- and that doesn't count the $600,000 mentioned above from Crossroads or the $120,000 from the Romney campaign itself. Nor does it count the $1.5 million being dropped now by Americans for Prosperity with this commercial and this commercial.

All told that's almost $5.5 million in television ads suddenly inundating the state for a mere six days.

Of particular note is the Obama money -- some $650,000 abruptly being pumped into the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh TV markets. In the case of Philadelphia this covers the Democrats' base in Philadelphia and the four (read: Republican) suburban counties of Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware. Said a clearly nervous Obama campaign manager Jim Messina in a conference call with reporters:

"We're not gonna take anything for granted and make sure we're doing what we need to do on the ground. We're (also) gonna go up in Pa. They understand they're not gonna be able to win Ohio, so now they're getting desperate."

A brand new Franklin and Marshall poll (full disclosure I am an F&M graduate) has Obama dropping an eleven point 50-39 lead from September to a 48-44 October lead, with 5% undecided. The F&M poll is run by Dr. Terry Madonna and is "produced in conjunction with the Philadelphia Daily News, WGAL-TV (South Central PA), Pittsburgh Tribune Review, WTAE‐TV (Pittsburgh), WPVI‐TV6/ABC (Philadelphia), Times-Shamrock Newspapers, Harrisburg Patriot‐News, and Lancaster Newspapers." For the non-Pennsylvanians in the audience, this is a fairly representative sample in four of the five media markets in the state -- Northeast (Wilkes-Barre, Scranton), Southeast (Philadelphia and the suburbs), Central (Harrisburg, Lancaster, York), and West (Pittsburgh.) The fifth, Erie and the Northwest, are not represented although Pittsburgh media can cover in some cases. 

So. Why now? Why the sudden influx of cash, why is the Obama campaign clearly in such a panic over Pennsylvania that they are dumping $650,000 in media markets where they are playing to the home crowd?

The polls said a Romney victory wasn't in the cards.

But were the polls wrong? Is the first sighting of Romney commercials and the sudden flush of cash in the Keystone State a sign that the polls have missed the Reagan Pivot?

Have they missed the Reagan Pivot as well not just in Pennsylvania but states like Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and yes, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa?

And what is the political phenomenon that is the Reagan Pivot?

How does the Reagan Pivot show itself? How does it hint, nudge and elbow itself to a victory that wasn't anticipated by all the polls and all the experts?

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%.

What happened?

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.

Richard Nixon -- who lost Pennsylvania to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and to Hubert Humphrey in 1968 -- accomplished a stunning feat in 1972. Nixon carried 66 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties -- a feat that has not been replicated by any GOP nominee since. While doing this, Nixon also opened a sizable hole in the Democrats' Philadelphia electoral firewall that Reagan enlarged. A hole that has also been blown in smaller firewalls in places like Northeastern Pennsylvania (Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton) and Western Pennsylvania.

Go through the 1972 Philadelphia results ward by ward and the damage inflicted by the nomination of George McGovern is quickly evident.

Here are once staunchly Democratic wards where Nixon trounces McGovern 61% to 38% (in South Philadelphia) or 56% to 43% (Grays Ferry) or again 61% to 38% (Manayunk) or 59% to 40% (Kensington). And so on.

Nixon didn't win Philadelphia. But it is safe to say that George McGovern and the far-left politics he espoused -- and that now hold the Democrats firmly in its grip -- ruined the idea of Philadelphia as some sort of working class firewall protecting Democrats against a Republican Party dominated by the proverbial country club Republican. Philadelphia Democrats were having trouble carrying their own wards, much less serving as some sort of bulwark against the Nixon tide.

Nineteen seventy-two was arguably the moment the "Reagan Pivot" first showed itself on a considerable scale.

Aside from his isolationist pitch to "Come home America," domestically McGovern had campaigned on the idea of giving a $1,000 to every single American. The "thousand dollar giveaway," as it was quickly dubbed, was the 1972 version of Obamanomics. Redistribution of income. To McGovern's shock, his pitch didn't play in working class South Philly. This was the part of Philadelphia that a few years later would be identified with Sylvester Stallone's iconic boxer Rocky -- filled with blue collar workers who understood instinctively that such a redistribution of income would ultimately be aimed at them.

It didn't work in blue collar Scranton, either. The very same Scranton that was the childhood home of Joe Biden. Scranton is at the center of Lackawanna County -- and Lackawanna County, a smaller version of Philadelphia with its dominance by Democrats, went for Nixon.

On top of this the McGovern campaign began the emblematic branding of the modern Democrats as home to a far-left culture that one Nixon commercial tartly summed up as "amnesty, acid and abortion." Which is to say, it took the party of America's first Catholic president, JFK, and began re-branding it as anti-Catholic. At the time, an unidentified Democratic Senator told columnist Robert Novak:

"The people don't know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot. Once Middle America -- Catholic Middle America, in particular -- finds this out, he's dead."

The irony? That Senator was later revealed to be Missouri's Thomas Eagleton -- who was briefly McGovern's running mate before being dumped because of his controversial medical history.

McGovernites took the party of Baptist Harry Truman and re-branded it as the cultural party of anything goes when it came to sex. They took the party of the strait-laced Hubert Humphrey and re-made it in the image of a party that winked at drug use.

By 1980, the collection of these issues took Nixon's opening and made of his support from Democrats the "Reagan Democrat." And the polls were somewhere short of blind and deaf to this new phenomenon. Why? Because in many cases the pollsters and most importantly the journalists doing the campaign reporting were themselves McGovernites, if not in a literal political sense then certainly in a cultural sense. As many in the base recoiled at McGovern -- and later at Jimmy Carter in 1980 -- journalists began defiantly taking the side of the far-left. Making it almost impossible for them to understand in an objective fashion what "Reagan Democrats" were communicating to them. Making them tone-deaf as they reported on polls or political data.

A telling example of this appeared at the very end of the New York Times October 10 story on the New York Times/CBS poll of Pennsylvania. The very poll that produced a 2 point Reagan lead, a lead that was pooh-pooed by the Times. What did the Times say at the end? This:

One negative reason [meaning an anti-Carter vote] that did not turn up in the telephone poll but came up repeatedly in door-to-door interviews was the hostage situation in Iran.

And how was the "hostage situation" in Iran seen by Americans in places like South Philly? These were people who are intensely patriotic. They fly flags. Stand at attention for the national anthem when the Phillies or the Eagles are having opening game ceremonies. These are people who not only have served in the military themselves -- they are sending their own sons and daughters to do the same. And proudly. The day-in-day-out images of Americans being held hostage by Iranian Islamic radicals did not sit well.

Yet note that sentence again from the Times (bold emphasis mine): The "negative reason" to vote against Carter "that did not turn up in the telephone poll but came up repeatedly in door-to-door interviews was the hostage situation in Iran."

So what do we have in Pennsylvania this year? What are the Reagan Pivot points that are appearing across the state?

Northeastern Pennsylvania: As Congressman Paul Ryan pointed out to a momentarily speechless Joe Biden, the Scranton unemployment rate was 8% when Obama and Biden took office -- and it's now 10%. In 2010, the head of the Catholic Mercy hospital in Scranton (where Joe Biden was born) was momentarily candid enough to admit to a local TV reporter that the passage of Obamacare was the reason why three area Catholic hospitals including Mercy were being sold. The two pro-Obamacare Democrats representing the area lost their re-election bids shortly thereafter.

• Philadelphia: With a 44% black population and a black mayor, the unemployment level for this key Obama constituency is 13.3%. In the words of the local Urban League's president: "The economic landscape for Black Philadelphians is particularly bleak."

On top of which is the Benghazi episode -- which features vivid stories of a White House ordering potential rescuers to "stand down" as four Americans were brutally murdered by Sharia-loving Islamic supremacists is doubtless quietly resonating. In other words, exactly the kind of issue that resonates with Reagan Democrats in places like South Philly -- but was not seen as important by the Times in 1980.

• Western Pennsylvania: This Democratic stronghold was the bane of Obama's fight against Hillary and later McCain. Specifically, as our friends at PoliticsPA, noted, in 2008 Obama had an "undervote" problem. There were Democrats who walked into the polls -- and while not voting for John McCain simply refused to vote for Obama. In the words of the Franklin and Marshall poll's Terry Madonna:

"The first point is that most, not all, [of the undervote is] in culturally conservative counties which we would call many of the Democrats there 'Reagan Democrats,'" he said. "Some are in rural counties. As you know, the President has problems with blue collar working class voters. He had that in 2008 and he faces the same problem now. That may not get better with his support for gay marriage and immigration reform. Also these are areas that tend to have higher unemployment which does not help.

• Central Pennsylvania: Central Pennsylvania, like those four Philadelphia suburban counties, is historically Republican turf. The enthusiasm for Romney here is powered not by racism, as Democrats love to charge -- but by Obamanomics, Obamacare, and cultural issues. The latter of which is shared by Reagan Democrats.

Not to be overlooked in all of this is the hard-core belief that Obama is anti-fossil fuels. To be seen as anti-coal and anti-fracking is a considerable problem in a state where coal mining jobs and the jobs that flow from the fracking for the natural gas of the Marcellus Shale are the bread and butter of many Democrats.

So.

What do we have here? What induces Reagan Pivots away from a liberal Democrat?

A culturally conservative state. A state where energy sector jobs are seen as life's blood. A state with a lot of Catholics. And an Obama Administration that is seen as being culturally far-left, anti-coal, anti-fracking, anti-Catholic and that has produced an abysmal jobs climate.

Does this mean an enthusiastic embrace of Mitt Romney? Yes -- among Republicans. The so-called "intensity factor" is hard at work here. Among Democrats? It means the same thing -- in reverse. The magic of the fall, 2008 campaign for Obama is gone. They have been replaced by a series of Reagan Pivots. The black community in Philadelphia struggles. Jobs are the issue everywhere. The long allegiance between Democrats and coal miners is ruptured. Pennsylvania doctors are furious. Catholics are insulted and angry.

And so on. And on.

The way this is working itself out in the polls is captured by that Franklin and Marshall poll just released yesterday. In a state with all these Democrats, Obama is dropping…dropping…dropping, the F&M poll showing an Obama 11-point lead from September cut to 4 points. A Susquehanna poll actually had Romney in the lead 49%-45% .

The Pennsylvania Poll, published by the liberal Philadelphia Inquirer, records an Obama drop and a Romney gain from September, with an Obama September lead of 50%-42 cut by two points to 49%-43%.

And heaven knows what the internal polls of the Obama and Romney campaigns are showing.

But clearly, they are showing Pennsylvania in play. Romney has that "intensity factor" going for him here. The Republican base is energized. Team Obama is surely disturbed by the very same factor in reverse -- the "no-intensity factor" if you will.

No one suggests the black vote will go for Romney. But could a portion of that black vote -- jobless and disillusioned -- pivot and just not vote? Yes. No one is suggesting the alliance between labor and Democrats is over. But are coal miners in Western and Northeastern Pennsylvania going to flock to Obama? Not a prayer they won't pivot away. All those angry Catholics in Northeastern Pennsylvania who turned on their Democrats in Congress in 2010 for voting for Obamacare? Are they going to run to the polls and vote for Obama? Who since then has managed to antagonize the entire hierarchy of the American Catholic Church with his HHS rules mandating the Church to provide services on abortion and contraception the Church fundamentally opposes? Hardly. Another pivot point.

These individually are Reagan Pivot points. And doubtless they and others are stirring out there in states like Michigan and Minnesota, not to mention Florida, Virginia and -- yes -- Ohio.

In 1980, unseen and overlooked by pollsters and liberal journalists alike, there were enough of these pivot points to cause the entire state of Pennsylvania to do a Reagan Pivot. Making Pennsylvania part of a stampede and turning what the New York Times called a "tight, seesaw contest" into a 44-state Reagan landslide.

Is Pennsylvania doing a Reagan Pivot yet again? Are there enough of these individual pivot points forcing the issue for the entire state to pivot as it did in 1980?

There is about $5.5 million in television ads that are suddenly flooding this state for Mitt Romney. With a $650,000 defense from Obama's campaign.

So what do you think?

Obviously, both sides see Pennsylvania pivoting away from Obama.

Can Mitt Romney win Pennsylvania?

To borrow a phrase: Yes he can.

And Chicago knows it.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.