What Not Getting It Looks Like
For most of the last 40 years or so, Pennsylvania has been viewed as an important swing state in Presidential elections. Prior to 2000, it had voted with the winning Presidential candidate for nearly three decades, and in all but one election after 1956. Even in 2000 and 2004, when the Keystone State voted for the losing Democratic candidate, the margin of victory in the state for the Democratic candidate was quite small, within 5 points in 2000 and within 2 points in 2004. It is, moreover, a state in which the Republican party overwhelmingly controls both houses of the legislature, and in which the Republican governor was comfortably elected just two years ago, winning by a 9 point margin. Yet in national politics, this traditional swing state is now reliably Democratic, and has not gone to a Republican Presidential candidate in over 20 years, with Obama winning by double digits in 2008.
Naturally, the GOP would love to make the state competitive in national politics again, and it hardly seems a coincidence that Pennsylvania is amongst the states where the GOP has made the strongest push for voter ID laws. One would think that the combination of voter ID laws, a terrible economy, and a sudden and overwhelming Republican wave for state offices in 2010 (in which all but 4 counties voted for the Republican gubernatorial candidate), this year presents a golden opportunity to, if not win the state for Romney, at least give President Obama a good run.
As it turns out, though….not so much: Nate Silver has the state listed as “Safe Obama,” with the President having over a 90% chance of carrying the state on Election Day, and with most polls in the last month giving him around a 10 point lead.
The billboard pictured above strikes me as emblematic of why, despite all of the favorable trends for Republicans in state politics the last two years, it is highly unlikely that Romney will reverse the trend towards Pennsylvania becoming a deeper and deeper blue in national elections.
The billboard, which states “Obama supports gay marriage and abortion. Do you? Vote Republican,” is one of at least two identical such ads placed by the Republican Party on I-95 north of Philadelphia. This particular stretch of road is perhaps amongst the most trafficked stretches of road in the country, and certainly in the Northeast, meaning that any billboard is going to catch well in excess of 100,000 eyeballs a day. Many, perhaps even most, of those eyeballs belong to suburban Philadelphia voters from places like Bucks and Montgomery counties, which just so happen to be about the most important swing districts in the entire state, and are home to about 10 percent of the state’s total electorate. Combined, they have roughly the same amount of population as the Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia itself., and more than double the population of all of the Republican Central Pennsylvania stronghold.
Simply put, Republicans cannot win, or even really compete, in Pennsylvania without winning in Bucks and Montgomery counties. In other words, any political billboards on I-95 just north of Philadelphia are presumptively aimed entirely at folks from Montgomery and Bucks counties. These folks are also, on average, the classic fiscally conservative, socially liberal Northeastern moderates of lore. They are the reason why, even before President Obama’s announcement flipped African-American sentiment on gay marriage (which was always weakly held anyhow) in Philadelphia, gay marriage may have already had the support of 50 percent of the state’s voters; these counties are also noticeably more pro-choice than the rest of the state.
In effect, the above billboards, despite their imperative to “Vote Republican” are about as effective an ad as one can imagine…. for President Obama. The ads tell a critical group of swing voters that, by and large, are fairly likely to answer the question “do you?” in the affirmative that President Obama agrees with them on the issue.
As importantly, in a year where the economy is as terrible as it currently is, this ad ensures that the national Republican Party is reaching out at least twice a day to this group of voters to tell them that gay marriage is the issue at the core of this election, the issue that most defines President Obama’s record. Not taxes. Not jobs. Hell, not even health care. Indeed, not anything that actively and tangibly harms or threatens to actively and tangibly harm these voters. But gay marriage and abortion? The message this billboard sends, even to those in the area who are ambivalent on gay marriage and abortion, is “even if you like what we have to say on other issues, we’re not actually very interested in the issues that matter to you.”
And so, nationally, it would seem, the Republican Party* remains fairly uninterested in what actually matters to voters outside of the party’s rural strongholds. Instead, it seems to just assume that their problem is merely that people haven’t heard their message, rather than recognizing that it’s a message people outside of those rural strongholds just aren’t buying.
I remain hopeful that at some point before 2016, the GOP will start actually listening to its new breed of Northeastern politicians about what actually matters to the rest of the country. But that won’t start happening until the party is able to understand the difference between what people care about along the I-95 corridor in Southeastern Pennsylvania and what people care about along the I-81 corridor in Central Pennsylvania.
*To be absolutely clear, all of this criticism is directed to the GOP’s national organization, not at its state-level politicians, who are less committed to a sweeping, all-encompassing, dogmatic narrative.