Split Ticket recently started a new series studying realignments in specific states. Our first article, touching on New Jersey, determined that traditional down ballot partisan leans continue to weather opposing national trends, albeit to a lesser degree than in years past.
This fundamental conclusion regarding “down ballot lag” is more or less applicable to any state. Many well-educated suburban sprawls, for example, continue to move leftward but remain open to socially-moderate, fiscally-conservative Republicans at the state and local levels. At the same time, certain rural and WWC areas have shifted to the right federally while sticking true to the remnants of their ancestrally-Democratic loyalties.
This lag is not impenetrable, though, indicating that changes to voting patterns at the top of a given ticket will continue to bleed downwards, stimulating permanent realignment. Perhaps no state contrasts these two disparate coalitions better than Pennsylvania. Let’s take a deep dive into the recent history of the Commonwealth’s geographic coalitions to examine how changes at the federal level have begun to impact down ballot politics.
Parameters & Standards
Most of the parameters used for this series, including a definition of realignment, were intricately laid out in its first installment on New Jersey. For those readers who would prefer a brief recap, the term realignment could be described as referring to consistent long-term shifts in the voting patterns of individuals on geographic or demographic terms.
It is also important to once again break down the two mathematical metrics that are often utilized in pieces of this nature: trends and margins. Trends are preferable to swings in this case because they juxtapose and quantify regional electoral shifts against changes in the nation’s electorate as a whole. As for margins, Split Ticket is partial to them over vote shares (for this series) because the figures are easier for the average reader to decipher.
Following the same standards that were laid out for the Garden State analysis, this piece will revolve around a breakdown of geographic coalition changes that have taken place in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Historical anecdotes and multi-level election results for the state as a whole, as well as for specific regions selected to highlight different sections of the state, will be provided.
History – Recent State & Federal Races
For most of the last fifteen years, Pennsylvania has had a split U.S. Senate delegation. This began in 2006, when conservative Republican incumbent Rick Santorum lost a lopsided reelection to Democrat Bob Casey, who was then state Treasurer, amid a toxic national environment for President Bush’s GOP. Casey, the son of a popular pro-life Governor, has been reelected easily twice since then.
The delegation’s divide briefly ended in 2010, when long-time Republican Senator Arlen Specter joined the Democratic Party. An erstwhile Philadelphia District Attorney, Specter had been a member of the Senate GOP’s moderate wing since 1981. He survived many tough races during his long career, allowing him to chair the Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs, Judiciary, and Intelligence committees.
Though Specter’s switch might seem odd now, the decision makes sense when one remembers that Specter had nearly lost his 2004 primary to right-wing Congressman Pat Toomey. Had he stayed in the GOP, preliminary polls, and the general momentum of the Tea Party at the time, suggest that he would have lost his rematch.
Specter’s entreaties to Obama were enough to draw a Presidential endorsement ahead of the Democratic primary, but the incumbent’s self-interested motives for abandoning the Republican ship did not sit well with many among his new party’s electorate. The winner of the primary ended up being Delaware County Congressman and Navy veteran Joe Sestak. Republican Pat Toomey, this time unburdened by major primary opposition, narrowly beat Sestak in November.
Toomey won a tough reelection battle over Katie McGinty in 2016, but chose to retire in 2022. The TOSSUP race to succeed him between Republican Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman will determine whether the Commonwealth’s split delegation will continue over the next few years.
From 1988 to now, Pennsylvania has only preferred two Republican presidential nominees: George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump. Despite sharing the same party identification, both ex-Presidents had different approaches to political policy and were elected by visibly-different coalitions.
In between those two far-flung GOP victories, the Commonwealth backed Democratic nominees six times by respectable margins. Pennsylvania was also critical to incumbent President Joe Biden’s 2020 defeat of Trump, suggesting that voting Republican for President is more of an exception to the norm for this closely-divided swing state, at least recently.
For over a century, one thing was certain about gubernatorial elections in Pennsylvania: control of the Governor’s mansion would shift after eight years of one-party rule. That all changed in 2014, when, despite a favorable national environment, unpopular Republican incumbent Tom Corbett lost reelection after a single term. He became the first state executive to do so since 1854.
As a result of that unusual election, businessman Tom Wolf became the first Democratic Governor of the state since Ed Rendell had left office in 2011 after being term-limited. While polarization and trends limited the number of traditionally-Democratic counties willing to stick with the party in 2018 compared to 2006, Wolf received a similar reelection share of the vote as Rendell had in his own.
While the historical record indicates that Pennsylvania’s Governor’s mansion usually flips after two terms of single party rule, in this case by the Democrats, there is a compelling case to be made for the incumbent party’s 2022 candidate: Attorney General Josh Shapiro. He has a proven record of overperforming the top of the ticket, which will be explored in the next section, and faces a far-right opponent: Republican state senator Doug Mastriano. Current polling and fundraising data suggest that Shapiro is the favorite.
Down Ballot Lag – Example Politicians
Pennsylvania’s 50th state house district is located in the heart of the ancestrally-Democratic southwest, an area lying amid bituminous coal fields. Since the days of Bill DeWeese, this seat has been predominantly composed of Greene and Fayette counties. Because down ballot lag grows more pronounced as one moves down the office chain, the old coalitions tend to be more visible in legislative races than in their congressional counterparts. One of those regional contests involved 50th district Democrat Pam Snyder, who won reelection by 6.5 points in 2020 while President Trump carried her seat by 35.
Down ballot lag can also take place in federal Senate races occurring during presidential cycles. In 2016, both Trump and Senator Toomey won the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. But Toomey impressively outran the top of the ticket in the Philly Collar, hearkening back to Romney’s 2012 presidential margins. In addition to getting above 40% in Montgomery and Delaware counties, the incumbent overcame Clinton’s headwinds to carry Chester and Bucks outright.
In 2020, Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro proved that ticket-splitting is still a valuable asset in Pennsylvania’s northeastern anthracite coalfields. He won by more than any other statewide Democratic candidate that year. Down ballot appeal allowed him to carry Trump +14 Luzerne County, which had not backed a Democrat for President since Obama in 2012.
Regional Breakdown (Change & Consistency)
The Wyoming Valley
This part of northeastern Pennsylvania generally refers to the counties of Luzerne (Wilkes-Barre), Lackawanna (Scranton), and Wyoming. All three are located in the heart of the state’s anthracite coal fields. This region’s Democratic ancestry was visible in its 2018 returns for Governor and Attorney General, but it tends to lean Republican in modern presidential races.
Wyoming County is the reddest in the seat at Trump +35, though it voted for McCain by just 7.5 in 2008. National Democratic nominees only carried it twice in the entire 20th century: 1912 and 1964. Luzerne and Lackawanna counties have a much bluer recent historical record, though both have moved visibly rightward as of late.
Luzerne, home to the Wilkes-Barre metro, voted for presidential Democrats in every contest between 1992 and 2012 before backing Trump by double-digits on two occasions. Nearby Lackawanna remains out of the Republicans’ grasp because of the City of Scranton, but backed native son Joe Biden by just 8 compared to Obama’s 27 point margin of victory in 2012. In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was her party’s first nominee since Michael Dukakis in 1988 to carry this county by single digits.
Three Democratic state representatives (districts 114, 118, 119) relied on ticket-splitting to win seats in this region in 2020, while it backed Trump federally. The 14th senate district, represented by Democrat-turned-Independent John Yudichak is also centered in this part of the state.
The Philadelphia Collar
The Philadelphia Collar denotes the following counties in the vicinity of Pennsylvania’s largest city: Bucks, Delaware, Montgomery, and Chester. Unlike the Wyoming Valley, this part of the Commonwealth has strong, but fading, Republican traditions. The GOP’s presidential advantage here wore off across the board in 1992, earlier than in similar suburbs like NOVA and the Chicago Collar. Despite those inauspicious developments, the party maintained a decent down ballot foothold throughout the region until the end of the Trump era.
Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had a unique appeal to suburbanites that manifested itself well in certain parts of the collar and can be used as a past comparison point for shift examination. The best example county for his performance was Chester, which narrowly voted Republican in 2012 but backed Biden by 17 points in 2020.
It is unclear just how much room national Republicans have left to fall in this part of the state, but recent presidential swings suggest that they do indeed have space. That said, just like Democrats do in their own ancestral counterpart regions, the GOP continues to compete down ballot in the collar, even in its solidly-blue parts like Montgomery and Delaware counties.
While all of the Republican state senators in those sections of the collar lost in 2020, multiple Biden-district state representatives held on to their seats. Two of these districts (160 & 168) extend into Delaware County. Regional GOP strength also remains visible in state house seats located in Bucks, Montgomery, and Chester counties.
Southwest & Mon Valley
Much of Pennsylvania’s southwest is coterminous with the Monongahela Valley. This part of the state encompasses the greater Pittsburgh metropolitan area along with ancestrally-Democratic counties located at the heart of the Commonwealth’s bituminous coal fields. To an even greater extent than in the Wyoming Valley, the Democratic advantage at the presidential level in the coal counties of Fayette, Greene, and Washington has basically evaporated.
Greene, for instance, almost voted for Obama in 2008 despite voting for Trump by 43 points in 2020. Al Gore, the Democrats’ 2000 nominee, carried all three of these aforementioned counties back when they were an assured element of Team Blue’s statewide coalition. Democrats like Wolf and Shapiro overperformed fundamentals in this part of the state in their last elections.
While Democrats like Pam Snyder proved that Republicans could still be beaten here at the legislative level during the Trump-era, the writing is ultimately on the wall for her party. Most of these voters are now more than willing to abandon tradition in favor of a GOP led by Trump, his acolytes, and populist policy.
Much like in New Jersey, the overarching national trends of the last decade have begun to manifest and cement themselves in Pennsylvania’s electoral coalition. WWC communities with Democratic heritages, particularly those lying in the coal fields, have become reliably-Republican in presidential races. In the Philadelphia Collar, the Democratic presidential advantage that has persisted since 1992 has deepened and solidified, a result of the Trump-era that was felt in many similar wealthy, well-educated suburbs.
Perhaps most importantly, the long-standing and opposing shifts that have hit these disparate communities at the federal level have finally begun to impact down ballot races for local offices and legislative seats. Certain regional electoral benefits engendered by residual good will and tradition will likely hold up for the foreseeable future, but it is unclear if they will last forever should national trends continue their current seepage over the forthcoming decades.