Pennsylvania — which Democratic strategist James Carville famously described as Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west and Alabama in between — is among the swing states that could decide whether President Donald Trump wins a second term or former Vice President Joe Biden is inaugurated in January 2021. And pundit Nathaniel Rakich, in an article published by pollster Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website on September 15, explains why Pennsylvania is such a make-or-break state in 2020’s presidential election.
“Right now, Pennsylvania looks like the single most important state of the 2020 election,” Rakich explains. “According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast, Pennsylvania is by far the likeliest state to provide either President Trump or Joe Biden with the decisive vote in the Electoral College: it has a 31% chance of being the tipping-point state. That’s what happens when you take one of the most evenly divided states in the union and give it 20 electoral votes.”
Rakich adds, “In fact, Pennsylvania is so important that our model gives Trump an 84% chance of winning the presidency if he carries the state — and it gives Biden a 96% chance of winning if Pennsylvania goes blue.”
Whether Pennsylvania goes Democrat or Republican in statewide races has a lot to do with who shows up on Election Day. While densely populated Philadelphia is overwhelmingly Democratic — the city hasn’t had a Republican mayor since the early 1950s — Central Pennsylvania, which Pennsylvanians jokingly refer to as “Pennsyltucky” is much more GOP-friendly. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton underperformed in Philly and its suburbs, while Trump overperformed in Central Pennsylvania as well as Northeastern and Northwestern Pennsylvania — and Trump became the first Republican to carry the state in a presidential election since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
But Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania, as Rakich points out, was a narrow one: he carried the state by only 0.7%. Had Democratic voter turnout been better in Philadelphia — and had Republican turnout in Central Pennsylvania or “Pennsyltucky” been weaker — Clinton would have won Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes. Biden, in order to carry the Keystone State, needs to flip as many voters in Central Pennsylvania as he can, while making sure that there is a heavy voter turnout in Philadelphia.
Rakich explains why Pennsylvania demographics worked to Trump’s advantage in 2016, noting, “Non-Hispanic white people without bachelor’s degrees make up 55% of Pennsylvania’s population age 25 or older, and Trump accelerated their migration to the Republican Party in 2016. According to the Center for American Progress, the turnout rate among these voters increased from 53.0% in 2012 to 57.4% in 2016 — and they went from voting for Mitt Romney by 20.3 points to voting for Trump by 28.6 points.”
Rakich points out that Trump’s base is not only found in Central Pennsylvania, but also, in the northeastern part of the state. While Philly is in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Northeastern Pennsylvania includes places like Allentown, Scranton (Biden’s home town), Wilkes-Barre, Bethlehem and the Poconos.
“Campaigns have also been forced to reconsider their conception of Pennsylvania’s political geography,” Rakich explains. “The conventional wisdom was that Western and Eastern Pennsylvania were Democratic and Central Pennsylvania was solidly Republican, memorably summarized by Democratic strategist James Carville’s quote that, between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was just Alabama. While this may have been true, at least politically, in, say, 2000, working-class Western and Northeastern Pennsylvania have slowly but surely been getting redder. As a result, Pennsylvania’s new geographic divide is between Southeastern Pennsylvania and the rest of the state — in other words, the parts of the state that are culturally northeastern and the parts that are culturally midwestern or Appalachian.”