Pennsylvania has not supported a Republican presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988, but late last week realclearpolitics.com, the go-to aggregator of political reporting, opinion and polls, moved Pennsylvania from the “leans Obama” column to “toss-up” status.
If the gap between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is truly narrowing, and if Mr. Romney really wants this state’s 20 electoral votes, local Republican foot soldiers wonder why they can’t even get a darn lawn sign.
Don’t worry, the seasoned pros respond: It’s not what you stick in the ground, it’s how much ground you cover.
Legions of lawn signs or no, and television ads or no, the Romney camp insists it is making a serious bid for the Keystone State.
And local prognosticators read a variety of tea leaves — new statewide registration numbers, policy turn-offs, get-out-the-vote efforts and absentee ballot requests — as evidence their effort is working.
Way back in mid-summer, Allegheny County Council member Heather Heidelbaugh visited Republicans in Whitehall, recalled executive committee member Chris Mooney, and told them, “All we had to do was motivate our base to show up, and we would win Pennsylvania.”
Really? Back when polls gave the president a 6- to 11-point lead? Did she mean that?
“I did. I’m not Joe Biden,” Mrs. Heidelbaugh quips. “If history is the only precursor, then no, Romney can’t win Pennsylvania. But this is a purple state: We elected Gov. [Tom] Corbett, Republicans control both houses, and Pat Toomey won the Senate race. If it’s ever going to happen, this could be the year.”
Mr. Mooney, who agreed with Mrs. Heidelbaugh’s mid-summer forecast, cites the Obama administration’s “heightened regulations” on the energy industry.
“It’s at odds with what’s going on locally. Four different mining operations in this region have announced they’re going to be closing,” he said. “That alone should be able to tilt the table in favor of Romney.”
Troy Hill resident Tony Benvin (who, like Mr. Mooney, tried in vain to get a Romney yard sign weeks ago) linked Obama energy policies directly to the “undervote,” the unusually high number of Democrats in coal- and natural gas-rich counties who declined to vote for the president in the primary.
Another “very strong reason to be cautiously optimistic,” Mr. Benvin said, is the historical correlation between how many people identify with a particular party and which candidate wins the election.
When Democratic affiliation is much higher than Republican, the Democrat wins, he said, pointing to statistics from Rasmussen Reports; when Democratic affiliation is lower than the Republicans’ – or even a percentage point or two higher — the Republican wins.
In 2008, for instance, the year of Mr. Obama’s big win, Democratic affiliation hit a high of 41.6 percent, versus 32.8 percent for Republicans and 25.6 percent for “other.”
In 2006, another big year for Democrats, their affiliation hit 38 percent, while Republicans bottomed out at 31.
But in December 2010, just after historic Republican victories in the U.S. Congress, GOP affiliation hit 37 percent while Democrats’ fell to 33.7. And in November 2004, Republican affiliation was actually lower than Democrats, 37.1 vs. 38.6, but George W. Bush won re-election.
Right now, according to Rasmussen, the Republicans are on top, 36.8 to 34.2, but those are national averages. What exactly is happening in our state?
The much-cited 2008 Democratic advantage of 1.2 million voters has shrunk to 1.1 million. According to figures just released by the Pennsylvania Department of State, there are now 3.11 million Republicans, 4.21 million Democrats and 1.09 million “other” voters registered. That is, the gap between the two major parties is equal to the number of third- or no-party voters.
So it matters very much how many independents and disaffected Democrats vote for the Republican ticket — or vote at all. It matters who has the better “ground game” — and this is where the GOP professionals express confidence.
On Saturday alone, volunteers knocked on 80,000 doors — compared with 130,000 in the entire 2008 campaign, said state spokesman Bill Pitman. “We’ve already made 3.5 million ‘voter contacts,’ and we’re on track to surpass, by the weekend, the total of the ’04 and ’08 [GOP] campaigns, combined.”
In addition, Mr. Pitman said the GOP has “a lead of about 16,000 absentee ballot requests over the Democrats — a 13-point spread, relative to our registration numbers.”
Councilwoman Heidelbaugh is cautious. “It’s a very close race. … But it hasn’t gotten close enough or we’d be seeing television ads.”
Neither state nor national spokesmen for the Romney/Ryan campaign would discuss any advertising strategy. Said Mrs. Heidelbaugh, “The campaigns have polling the public never sees. At this point, it’s all science.”
And shoe leather.