The Debate Game-Changer in Pennsylvania

Only the staunchest of partisans refused to admit that Pennsylvania was trending strongly towards Obama among the Battleground States.  The reality was while Romney almost certainly will outperform John McCain in 2008, it was simply too much ground to make up across a diverse and changing state.  That all may have changed when Mitt Romney announced his presence with authority in the recent debate.  Ruth-Ann Dailey at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette takes a look at the sudden sea change in Romney Pennsylvania campaign offices as well as across the state:

Days before besting President Barack Obama in their first debate, Republican candidate Mitt Romney was telling a cheering crowd in Wayne, Pa., “We’re going to win Pennsylvania,” while his aides were admitting to reporters that they probably could not. The day after the debate, the 24 Romney offices throughout Pennsylvania fielded 100 new volunteers and had another 200 re-up for new shifts, according to campaign staff. “The Dems seem to think they’ve had [this state] in their pockets for a long time,” said Billy Pitman, the Romney campaign’s state spokesman, “but we’ve got an incredible ground game.

Disaffected 2008 Obama supporters

Whether it’s “incredible” or not, the dissatisfied former Obama voters that the new Romney volunteers will be targeting have actually been out there for two years or more, their numbers growing and — inexplicably, to some — overlooked. Larry Taylor is one of them. A coal miner and registered Democrat in Greene County, he paused a few days ago at an Emerald Mine portal to talk politics before his shift began. Yes, he voted for President Obama in 2008, but in this year’s primary, he left the presidential slot blank. Yes, that was on purpose. No, he won’t be voting for Mr. Obama come November.

The “undervote”

There are thousands of Democrats like him across the commonwealth. They are part of the “undervote” — primary voters who failed or declined, for whatever reason, to vote for their own party’s unopposed incumbent. Some write in another candidate’s name; others leave that section blank, since there’s no real contest, or because they intend, like Larry Taylor, to announce a resounding “no.” In any given year, says Keegan Gibson, managing editor of, the undervote in a statewide or national race might range “from 15 to 23 percent — but usually it’s fairly consistent in most counties.” This year was different. President Obama’s undervote ranged widely — from single digits in Philadelphia, Delaware and Chester counties to the mid-40s in north-central and southwestern Pennsylvania. In 37 counties his undervote was above 25 percent, and in 16 of those, it topped 35 percent.

War on coal

A quick look at a state map reveals a substantial overlap between counties where the undervote was high and counties where the coal and natural gas industries are strong. The nearest to Pittsburgh is Greene County, where hundreds, even thousands, of lawn signs read, “Stop the War on Coal — Fire Obama.” Here, 3,863 (of 14,318) registered Democrats voted in the spring primary, but only 2,247 voted for President Obama — a 42 percent undervote. By contrast, the Greene County undervote for the unopposed Eugene DePasquale (for auditor general) and Rob McCord (for state treasurer) was only 30 percent. And in 2006, according to PoliticsPA, Gov. Ed Rendell’s undervote was 26 percent.

Ground game and turnout

[I]t’s another question whether these disaffected Democrats in the state’s less populated areas are numerous enough to offset the president’s much stronger support in its big cities. It all comes down to voter turnout — and each campaign’s “ground game.” The Obama website lists 45 offices statewide; Romney has 24. Back in November 2008, Greene County turnout was 64 percent; John McCain won here by 60 votes. The much-reviled “war on coal” has only reduced President Obama’s support.

Not single issue voters

At a fast-food spot near the interstate, a state employee who doesn’t want her name made public says the president lost her vote with “Obamacare.” “To me, it’s socialist — forcing people to do something they can’t afford.” At Hot Rod’s, a busy Waynesburg barbecue spot, Democrat Jeff Taylor, a factory worker and Desert Storm vet who voted for Mr. Obama in 2008, now describes himself as “on the fence” and said, “I don’t think his policies are working, but it seems like it doesn’t matter who’s in there.” Back at the Emerald Mine portal, only one of the dozen registered Democrats I interviewed says he still supports the president — and that’s because he figures the mining jobs lost to oppressive coal regulations won’t be any greater than those lost to the “outsourcing” he expects in a Romney economy.

Changing times

I stopped one man wearing an Iraq War ballcap, in a pickup with a Marine Corps window decal. I start my questions: Are you a registered Democrat? He smiles. “I was until last week.” Maybe Pennsylvania is in play.


  1. wholefoodsrepublican
    Posted October 8, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink | Reply

    any tech savvy person out there to do a parody of the much parodied hitler in the bunker going nuclear about the collapse ready to parody obama in obama hq in chicago?

    but let’s not roost yet — get out there and get out the message and get out the vote! vote as if our country depended on it!

  2. Eric
    Posted October 8, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I see Pennsylvania as being easier to win than Michigan, and I’m a Michigan resident. Pennsylvania was closer in 2008 by a lot. Romney should also do a lot better in Western Pennsylvania than McCain did. The Philadelphia suburbs are critical as is Obama’s during in downtown Philadelphia.

  3. Kevin
    Posted October 8, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink | Reply

    The Philadelphia and Pittsburgh markets are hard nuts to crack. Pittsburgh being home to the AFL-CiO, Philadelphia is a strong Union city. Romney needs to chip away at the suburbs in both cities, and he needs to make a run at the Northeast part of the state where unemployment rate is high.

    Allentown has a 8.7% unemployment rate.

    Scranton has a 9.4% unemployment rate.

    If Romney makes a run at those two areas, he might find that people vote with their wallets.

    The rest of the state should fall to Romney.

    • damien
      Posted October 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink | Reply

      hard nuts to crack and even harder when like in 00 and 04…more people voted in certain preceints than were even registered…..guess which side they voted for

  4. margaret
    Posted October 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink | Reply

    The thing is, for a lot of pre-debate analysis, we were making the assumption that those registered Democrat would vote Democrat and those registered Republican would vote Republican. In 2008, we found lots of R’s voted Obama, so that assumption was faulty. This time, I believe that lots of D’s will vote R, at least on the presidential ticket, or maybe not vote for Obama at all. Some of the underlying polls before the debate were showing less Republicans voting Obama than Democrats voting Romney. Post-debate, I think there has been an escalation of D’s voting R, and huge increase of R enthusiasm, and so I think this is going to start showing up in a major way for Romney.

  5. No Tribe
    Posted October 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Well, Obama is airing ads in PA. I was up there on Sat night, watching the ballgame, and caught an Obama ad airing. I doubt he’s buying national cable.

  6. valleyforge
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 1:26 am | Permalink | Reply

    In 2008 my suburban corner of Chester county was littered with Obama yard signs and bumper stickers. My mailbox was stuffed with Obama slicks every day, and starry-eyed kids knocked on my door several times to evangelize me or my wife. This year there is one yard sign, no bumper stickers, no mail, and no deluded kids. Romney signs are a little more prevalent than McCain signs were, but they stand out due to lack of competition. So however Pennsylvania as a state goes, I’m pretty sure Chester county will not be a 15-point win for Obama.

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