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Pennsylvania becomes major battleground for Obama in 2012

By Anne E. Kornblut and ,

The Obama campaign says it is working on an expanded electoral map in 2012, preparing for battle in so many places that it can afford to lose some of the big, traditional states he won four years ago. Pennsylvania is not one of those states.

As is clear from President Obama’s Wednesday visit to Scranton, some battlegrounds are more equal than others.

Every Democratic nominee in the past two decades has won Pennsylvania — and Obama did so by a comfortable margin in 2008 — but the state has grown less hospitable to Obama in the past three years. Republicans swept the 2010 midterms, winning the governor’s seat, a Senate seat and five congressional districts, including the 11th District, where Obama will appear on Wednesday.

Yet unlike other similarly challenging states — Ohio and Florida — where Democrats think they can lose and still win overall, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral college votes are still key to almost any path to 270 electoral college votes. “It’s hard to figure out a scenario for a Democrat to win the presidency without carrying Pennsylvania,” former Democratic governor Ed Rendell, a prominent Obama supporter, said. “It’s not impossible, but it’s very, very hard.”

Obama aides believe the president maintains a strong advantage in Pennsylvania because of the Democrats’ lead in registered voters – 4.14 million Democrats compared with 3.03 million Republicans, according to the state election office, although that advantage did nothing to blunt Republican gains in 2010.

Obama’s advisers argue that off-year elections are different and that their own massive organization was not out in full force, which is starting to change.

So far, Obama for America has made more than 250,000 calls to supporters and held more than 3,500 conversations with potential volunteers, aides said. When the campaign launched its youth voter initiative several weeks ago, it did so in Philadelphia. “The advantage we have in Scranton and across Pennsylvania is that we’re starting early,” Aletheia Henry, Obama state director, said.

Obama ran even with Mitt Romney — 44 to 43 percent — in a November Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters, but fared better against other contenders, including by 10 points over Newt Gingrich.

Obama’s appearance Wednesday will be his eighth in Pennsylvania this year. He will not be accompanied by Democratic Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., a Scranton native who is running for reelection in 2012; Casey will be in Washington because of Senate votes, but members of Casey’s family will attend, aides said.

The state presents a special political challenge for the president. While Obama won parts of northeastern Pennsylvania in 2008, both congressional districts there rejected longtime Democratic incumbents two years later. Rep. Lou Barletta, the Republican who represents Scranton, said the region’s stubbornly high unemployment has shifted support away from the president.

“I think the president should stay in Washington,” Barletta said. “The people of Scranton would appreciate that more than a visit. They would appreciate a job more than a visit — especially at the taxpayers’ expense.”

The White House has been defending itself against GOP charges that the president has begun campaigning for reelection under the guise of official presidential travel. But it is not uncommon for sitting presidents to combine official and political business on domestic trips. While the Scranton stop is official business — Obama plans to push Congress to pass an extension of the payroll tax cut — he will also stop in New York to raise money for his reelection.

Pennsylvania, with a 9.8 percent unemployment rate, is a unique quandary for Obama. He lost the Democratic primary there in 2008 to Hillary Rodham Clinton after calling Pennsylvanians “bitter,” and while he recovered well enough to beat Sen. John McCain by 11 points in the fall general election, one former Obama official said: “Obama was never adored in Pennsylvania.”

That official said that Obama won in 2008 because of a superior field operation and the country’s desire for change, but he said the “bitter” remark has lingered and the state’s changing demographics could present further challenges.

On the one hand, the percentage of working-class whites is shrinking, by up to 5 percent, said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. Those voters are most hostile to Obama, Teixeira said, so any decrease in their numbers could help the president. Yet it is less clear whether Obama can maintain the winning advantage he had among the growing number of white college graduates.

Barry Denk, director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, said the population is aging and thus getting more conservative.

Perhaps the most unpredictable changes to the population, Denk said, are happening in the northeast part of the state, which has seen an influx of more conservative residents. Conversely, in the southern part of the state, new residents from Baltimore and Washington are making traditionally conservative areas more liberal, Denk said.

“You’re seeing a blending and that makes it less predictable,” Denk said. “You cannot always go on historical patterns.”

Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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