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What Republicans in Pennsylvania have in common with Charlie Brown

The Fix grew up as a big Peanuts fan -- and specifically a Charlie Brown lover. (His nerdy cynicism appealed to the boyish Fix.)

And so, when we see two new independent polls in Pennsylvania -- one conducted by Quinnipiac University, the other by Muhlenberg College -- that show former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney well within striking distance of President Obama -- we think of Charlie Brown. And specifically his failed attempts to kick a football held by Lucy.

Forgot that moment? Thanks to the glory of You Tube we can all relive it together:

So what does Charlie Brown constantly being fooled by Lucy have to do with the tightening presidential race in Pennsylvania you ask?

Simple. Like Charlie Brown, Republicans convince themselves every four years that the math in Pennsylvania can add up to a majority for their candidate. And, every four years, Democrats pull the ball away at the last minute and carry the Keystone State.

Let's take a quick stroll through the recent electoral history of Pennsylvania. The last time a Republican won it at the presidential level was in 1988 when then Vice President George H.W. Bush took 51 percent of the vote. In the five elections since then the Republican nominee has won 36 percent, 40 percent, 46 percent, 48 percent and 44 percent in the state -- for an average over those five elections of just under 43 percent of the vote. (Worth noting: That average is artificially low due to the fact that in 1992 and 1996 Ross Perot's independent candidacy siphoned off a considerable percentage of the major party vote in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.)

The closest Republicans came during those five elections was in 2004 when George W. Bush lost the state by 144,000 votes (out of almost 5.8 million cast) to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

It's worth digging deeper into those 2004 results to understand why Republicans find the football, er, Pennsylvania so alluring but always wind up flat on their backs electorally speaking when all is said and done.

In that 2004 race, Bush won a majority of the counties in Pennsylvania -- basically everything in between Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west. And yet, those two anchor cities on opposite sides of the state were more than enough to deliver the state to Kerry.

Here's a look at the four major counties in those two regions and how the 2004 vote broke out.

* Allegheny (Pittsburgh): Kerry 363,674 (57%), Bush 268,387 (42%)

* Philadelphia (Philly): Kerry 517,054 (80%), Bush 124,710 (19%)

* Delaware (inner Philly suburbs): Kerry 157,531 (57%), Bush 116,728 (42%)

* Montgomery (inner Philly suburbs): Kerry 217,342 (56%), Bush 172,206 (44%)

Roughly 43 percent of all Kerry's vote in the state of Pennsylvania came from those four counties. His margin over Bush in those four counties was 573,570 votes -- or roughly four times his overall statewide margin.

And that's Republicans' problem in Pennsylvania in a nutshell (This is Austin Powers in a nutshell). They win lots and lots of sparsely populated counties in the vast middle of the state but lose the big population counties in the east and west by such vast margins that the math just doesn't add up.

Could 2012 be different? Of course.  History is the best guide until it isn't anymore -- and states are always shifting due to demographic changes and the broader national political atmosphere.

But, for all the chatter of late about the competitiveness of Pennsylvania, there's very little evidence that Republicans are putting their money where their mouth is.

According to ad buy information provided to the Fix, Romney's campaign has yet to spend a dime in Pennsylvania on television and the panoply of conservative outside groups dumping cash into key states have combined to spend just $10 million. By way of comparison, Romney and outside GOP groups have already spent more than $68 million on ads in Ohio.

Is it possible that Romney's performance in the first debate coupled with ongoing economic unrest in Pennsylvania has turned the state into an emerging Republican opportunity? Sure.

But the weight of history and the lessons that Charlie Brown can teach us provide a strong counter-argument to the idea that Pennsylvania belongs in the narrow group of swing states this fall.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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