Pennsylvania Is Keystone in the Race for President

Times Staff Writer

President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry have campaigned in Pennsylvania more than in any other state.

Hardly a day has passed, of late, without an appearance by one of the candidates, their running mates, wives or children. From Erie in the state’s northwestern corner to Philadelphia and its suburbs, television advertising has spiraled toward near-saturation levels. And the Bush and Kerry field operations each claim new highs in citizen participation.

The Keystone State has earned its nickname this presidential season.

Bush’s aides say he dearly wants to reverse his defeat in Pennsylvania four years ago. Democrats concede their dreams of retaking the White House will end early on Nov. 2 if they fail to capture the state’s 21 electoral votes.


A seesaw competition initially had Bush ahead. Now, after several apparent lead changes, Kerry seems to have fought back to a slight advantage -- largely on the strength of his performance Sept. 30 in the first of three nationally televised presidential debates.

The contest remains close, with Republicans saying they will rely on an enormous precinct-level organization statewide to get their voters out, and Democrats hoping an influx of about 85,000 new voters in Philadelphia will help them build an insurmountable advantage.

“People are very aware of what’s happening here. They are constantly being told how important their votes are ... that they are one of the two or three key states in the election,” said Brian O’Connell, editor of a twice-monthly newsletter on Pennsylvania politics. “Kerry has a small advantage. But who knows what will happen.”

Pennsylvania’s voting history gives both Bush and Kerry reason to think they can win here. The state has bounced from the Republican to Democratic column in presidential races, with Gore scoring a 200,000-vote victory in 2000. After picking conservative Republican Rick Santorum for the U.S. Senate that year, Pennsylvanians turned to moderate Democrat Ed Rendell for governor in 2002.

The nation’s sixth most populous state is a socioeconomic and cultural amalgam that defies easy categories. President Clinton’s political guru, James Carville, once described the state as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between.”

Indeed, local politicians have long explained the state’s partisan landscape in terms of the two largely Democratic urban areas, separated by the mostly conservative “T” in Pennsylvania’s midsection and north.


Strategies for the two parties this year are mirror opposites, with Republicans attempting to drive up voting in the state’s rural heart and to cut losses elsewhere, particularly in the Philadelphia suburbs, while Democrats try to run away with the metropolitan areas and avoid a drubbing in the countryside.

“This state is leaning Democratic, and that is because Kerry is doing much better in the suburbs,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “But the Bush people are waging holy war in the Pennsylvania T, where the more conservative voters live. They have to cut the edge down in the suburbs and then get their people out in the T.”

That formulation has been complicated in recent times, however, by voters who cut against the partisan grain.

The first realignment became most vivid in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan began to peel away longtime Democrats who were alienated from their party on issues such as abortion and gun control. That trend was underscored when the old steel mill hub of Westmoreland County, east of Pittsburgh, went Republican for the first time in a presidential race in 2000.

Jason Burchianti personifies the new order. The 30-year-old chemist from Greensburg in Westmoreland County became so alienated by the Democrats’ attitude toward abortion and gay marriage that he ended his family’s long Democratic tradition and registered Republican.

“I’m passionately pro-life,” said Burchianti, who is among the 30% of Pennsylvanians who are Catholic. “I am offended by the position that you can be Catholic and not support one of the most basic positions of the Catholic Church.”


Kerry, who is Catholic, has said he personally opposed abortion but that it should remain “safe and legal.”

The Massachusetts senator’s support for gun control measures also troubles some in this state. Despite Kerry’s hunting appearances, some sportsmen still see a Northeastern liberal beneath the Pendleton shirts and L.L. Bean duck boots.

A letter writer to one Pennsylvania newspaper even questioned why the senator had been unable to tell an interviewer the exact size of the biggest buck deer he ever bagged.

Gun owners might have been expected to line up with Bush, but earlier polls showed he moved into the lead because of a less-expected boost from suburban women. “Security moms,” the new category into which many of these voters fall, said they were concerned about terrorism above all other issues.

But the president has run into trouble holding those gains, partly because of another powerful realignment in the state’s political order: the growing tendency of suburban moderates to vote for Democrats.

Madonna, the political scientist, has found that pattern most strikingly in Abington Township in Montgomery County, a community of 57,000 north of Philadelphia. Although Republicans outnumber Democrats there, the high-income, highly educated voters are often uncomfortable with Bush’s social conservatism.


Many sound like Jennifer Smith, a 32-year-old schoolteacher and mother, who said recently that she disagreed with the president and his party on “all of the social issues ... on abortion, on gay marriage and on education.”

Recent polls also have shown that even Bush’s profile as a strong foe of terrorism has begun to slip.

“I’m a Republican, but I don’t like his arrogance,” said Deborah Dolnick, on a break from her department store sales job in Abington Township. “I don’t like what he has done to the perception of Americans abroad. He has made it so much harder.”

The result has been that Bush’s once-wide lead over Kerry as the candidate best-suited to stop terrorists has been reduced to insignificance in the state. That is bad news for Bush, given that he has consistently scored lower on the other issue that worries most of the state’s voters: the economy.

Statistically, the president would seem to be on fairly solid ground in Pennsylvania, with unemployment sitting at 5.3%. That’s slightly lower than the national average of 5.4%, and at the same level as when Clinton won the state in 1996.

But Bush takes blame, in some voters’ minds, for a net loss of 161,200 manufacturing jobs statewide. Because those jobs paid more than many of the jobs being created, the losses have been particularly dispiriting to many Pennsylvanians.


“The thing that frustrates me is they’ve spent over $100 billion in Iraq.... That’s hard to swallow when our own people are hurting,” said Brent Thomas, a Greensburg laborer who voted for Bush in 2000 but is undecided this year.

A West Chester University poll found 56% of likely voters tabbing Kerry as better on economic matters, compared with 39% who named Bush.

While both sides have been pummeling viewers with their message, Kerry has moved ahead markedly on the airwaves in major television markets. In the two weeks ending Saturday, Kerry and his allies blitzed viewers with 5,881 television ads -- nearly 1,700 more than were aired by the Bush side, according to an independent analysis.

Although figures aren’t available, it’s believed Bush advertised more on the radio and in smaller television markets.

Tony Podesta, manager of Kerry’s campaign here, hopes to build a huge advantage in Philadelphia -- as much as 375,000 votes. That plan appeared to get a boost last week, when voting officials in the city reported a surge of about 85,000 new voter registrations. New Democrats outnumbered new Republicans and independents 9 to 1.

But Leslie Gromis Baker, mid-Atlantic regional chair for Bush-Cheney ‘04, thinks the Kerry margin in Philadelphia can be held under 300,000. The party would then turn to 66,000 volunteers and more than 8,000 precinct leaders it has signed on to close the gap, Baker said.


“As the television and radio gets louder and more confusing, who will you trust?” Baker said. “We are trying to really make it friend to friend and neighbor to neighbor.”

Democrats have countered with thousands of volunteers and paid staffers from America Coming Together, a Democratic activist group, which will work to get new registrants out to vote.

“This is a much more high-intensity race than we have seen before,” Podesta said. “People really care about this.”


Battleground state: Pennsylvania

President Bush wants to reverse his loss of four years ago in the Keystone State. Sen. John F. Kerry must win there to become president, many experts believe.

2000 presidential vote results

Al Gore: 2,485,967 (50.6%) George W. Bush: 2,281,127 (46.43%) Ralph Nader/Other: 146,025 (2.97%)


Total non-farm jobs lost since Jan. ‘01: 74,800 Total manufacturing jobs lost since Jan. ‘01: 161,200


Ethnic/racial demographics

White, non-Hispanic 84% Black 10 Latino 3 Asian 2 Other 1

Health insurance (Average percentage without health insurance, 2001-2003) Pennsylvania: 10.7% U.S.: 15.1%

Iraq casualties: 57 (Calif.: 127)

Electoral votes: 21

Voter registration: Democratic: 48% Republican: 42% Other: 11% (May not add up to 100% due to rounding.)

Religious makeup

Protestant 50.5% Catholic 30.1 Other Christian 4.4 Jewish 1.9 Mormon 0.3 None 7.8 Refused to answer, other/don’t know 5.0 Note: Based on Gallup Poll interviews between 2000 and 2004

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Pennsylvania Department of State, Associated Press, Federal Election Commission, Gallup Poll, ESRI, GDT, USGS. Graphics reporting by Julie Sheer and Susannah Rosenblatt.