Could McCain Have Carried Pennsylvania?

Posted on November 11, 2008. Filed under: PA State House, PA State Senate, Presidential Election |

McCain’s 10-point percentage loss to Obama (he won the state by an approximate 54%-44% margin) has to be considered a landslide victory for Obama.  In 2004 and 2000, both Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry and Al Gore carried the Keystone State by 2.4% and 4% respectively against President Bush in both 2004 and 2000. Therefore, Obama’s 10-point margin represents a significant increase over the last two presidential years, and Obama made gains in virtually all counties of the Commonwealth in comparison to Kerry’s margins in 2004 with a couple exceptions. So what happened, and could McCain have closed the gap enough to win?


There are several things that had McCain been able to do differently, could have proved successful.  For one, the Obama campaign outspent McCain on paid media with TV ads in almost all media markets, including the vote-rich but expensive Southeast media market where 40% of the state’s population resides if you include Berks County and the Lehigh Valley, both of which are part of the Philadelphia TV market.  This huge fundraising advantage meant that Obama was able to dominate the message flow in the campaign – and more importantly neutralize McCain’s counter message that Obama’s plans to “spread the wealth”  – with higher taxes on small business owners and the wealthy as a way to provide middle class tax cuts – would further cripple the US economy.  This is partly why McCain’s use of “Joe the Plumber” got virtually no traction.  The lesson here is that if you don’t have the money to carry out a message, you will not be able to move critical undecided voters in the remaining weeks.  For instance, our mid October poll showed that Obama held an 8-point, 48% to 40% lead over McCain, but had McCain been able to get the undecided voters to break for him he could have closed the gap in the remaining weeks. Second, the Obama campaign was far more organized and energized than the McCain camp in the state: Obama had more field offices, more troops on the ground, better phone bank operations and a ground game that was unprecedented.  This ground game, which first got its notoriety in the Iowa Caucuses when Obama surprised all the pundits with an upset over Hillary Clinton, should have been a warning sign to McCain.  It is precisely this same ground game that helped propel Obama to victory in closely-contested battle ground states like Ohio, Florida and Indiana where polls showed a tightening of the race in the remaining 2 weeks. 


The third factor that impacted the race was the sheer dominance of the economy as the #1 issue on people’s minds. Pre-election polls, as well as exit polls on Election Day, showed that more than 6 in 10 voters said the economy was the most important issue influencing their vote preferences, and among these voters Obama beat McCain by a decisive margin.  This was an issue largely out of McCain’s hands to control – and one that fundamentally changed the dynamics of the race as far back as mid-September when the stock market dropped 777 points in a single day, precipitated by the failure of Lehman Brothers, the bail out of mortgage lenders Fannie May and Freddie Mac, and the government rescue of insurance giant AIG and others.  Prior to this Wall Street meltdown, and as late as our September 18th statewide poll commissioned jointly with the state GOP, we had McCain in a statistical tie with Obama in the state.  This tightness of the race also mirrored national polling showing the race was up for grabs.  However, after the Dow dropped on 9/22, and Americans watched in horror as their savings, investments and pensions evaporated, all of which helped contribute to a paper loss of $1.7 trillion dollars in the stock market in a little over 2 weeks time, the momentum shifted back to Obama and his surge both nationally and in most battle ground states was the final nail in McCain’s coffin.  This was clearly the game changer.  In fact, McCain failed to recapture the lead in a single poll from that day forward either nationally, in PA, or in most other battleground states.  In a state like Pennsylvania with high concentrations of blue collar “Reagan Democrats”, this was a fatal blow to McCain because our subsequent polling showed these conservative Democrats, which up until that point were the key “swing” voters, were now going back to the Democratic Party and Obama due to concerns about their economic safety.


From a strategic standpoint, a closer look at the county break downs in Pennsylvania showed Obama over performed in relationship to Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. Obama only carried 18 of the 67 counties in the state, but won by a margin of 603,484 votes, almost 4 times Kerry’s vote margin over Bush just four years earlier.  The McCain strategy from the start was to hold Obama to “Kerry” numbers in the vote-rich Southeast, and at the same time maximize gains both in the South Central and “T” (both traditionally GOP bastions), as well as in the Southwest where huge vote margins for Hillary Clinton over Obama in the primary election were fertile ground for McCain. Unfortunately for McCain, many of these things never happened.  Consistent with our mid-October polling Obama went on to win Philadelphia by an even bigger margin than John Kerry, winning the city by an 83/16 margin, or a drop of 3 points from Bush’s 19% in 2004.  In the four suburban counties surrounding Philadelphia, Obama won by 15 points, besting Kerry’s 9-point margin from four years ago and even beating McCain in reliably Republican Chester County. Taken together with Philadelphia, this means that Obama came out of the Southeast with a vote margin of more than half a million votes, or 655,976.  This was no doubt a huge margin to make up in the rest of the state.  In the South Central/Harrisburg market, McCain beat Obama by 7 points, but Obama was able to shave 7 points off this margin in comparison to Bush’s 14-point margin four years ago. [Our mid-October poll showed Obama and McCain in a statistical tie in the Harrisburg media market, a huge problem for McCain]. In the conservative “T” which includes the Johnstown-Altoona media market, McCain still won by 16 points, but it fell far short of Bush’s 26-point margin in this same region 4 years ago.  Only in the Southwest did McCain actually over perform in relationship to Bush. In this region, McCain won the Pittsburgh media market (excluding Allegheny County) by 12 points, compared to Bush’s 8-point margin in 04, but it simply wasn’t enough.  Offsetting this was Obama’s 15-point margin in Allegheny County, which almost exactly mirrored Kerry’s margin in 2004.  


More importantly from a regional standpoint is that in the key “growth” counties of the state, our political consultant Steve Dull maintains that Obama was able to over perform by an average of 8 to 10 points in relationship to the Bush/Kerry results from 2004, and this is a huge problem for McCain and the GOP if the party can’t compete in these areas.  We are talking about counties in the South Central region like Lancaster, York, Dauphin, Adams and Franklin, as well as counties in the Pocono’s like Monroe and Pike.  Lancaster County is prime example of this changing dynamic, where even though McCain won by a 56/43 margin, it was nothing close to Bush’s 2:1 margin in 2004.  If Republicans can’t find a way to grow their bases of support in these growth areas, as well as maximize support from conservative Democrats in the Northeast and Southwest, they won’t be able to compete on a statewide basis given how the tide has turned against them in the Southeast. 


According to Steve Dull, some bright spots for the GOP include Beaver and Westmoreland Counties, both of which were reliably Democratic in past years.  Beaver flipped from Kerry in 2004 to McCain in 2008, and the GOP picked up a state Senate seat (SD47) and House seat (HD15), and also retained a House seat won in 2006 (HD14).  In Westmoreland County, McCain not only won but over performed in relationship to Bush in 2004, and the GOP picked up a House seat (HD57) and retained a Senate seat won in 2004 (SD39).  If Republicans can build on these successes in the Southwest, they can continue to be competitive both statewide and in down ballot races.


In addition, Tom Corbett’s 6-point win over John Morganelli in the Attorney General’s race can probably serve as a case study in how the GOP can be successful winning statewide elections in the future.  In this race, Corbett was able to win the 4 suburban counties surrounding Philadelphia by a 51/47 margin (or 627,897 to 579,953 in votes cast), despite the fact that Obama won these same counties by 15 points. The failure of Morganelli to do better in these collar counties meant it was virtually impossible for him to make up the difference else where without huge financial resources.


The GOP’s problems in PA are unlike the GOP’s problems nationally, where the GOP needs to figure out a way to appeal to Independents, young voters and Hispanic Americans – 3 growing constituency groups that are essential for growth in the future and all ones that exit polls show Obama won by decisive margins.  In Pennsylvania, which is largely a no-growth state, the GOP’s problems are more about strategy and tactics, and if they can make inroads in these areas they can continue to keep the state in play for future presidential contests.



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