Barack Obama easily won Pennsylvania four years ago but, as polls have shown, though the president retains a clear lead, the Keystone State may be reverting to the pattern of 2000 and 2004 when Democrats won it but only by small margins. Whether or not the state’s 20 electoral votes are really in play is yet to be determined, but Republicans are talking as if they mean to fight hard for Pennsylvania this fall.
While much of the attention in the state has been devoted to the impact of the voter ID law that State House of Representative Majority Leader Mike Turzai claimed would allow Mitt Romney to win there, some changes in voter registration figures may also make Pennsylvania more competitive. As Charles Mahtesian points out at Politico, the Democrats’ overwhelming party registration advantage has declined in the past four years. Though there are still a million more registered Democrats than Republicans, their edge went down by 168,000 (4,143,939 Democrats to 3,075,935 Republicans). That’s not much, but in a close race and with the voter ID law acting as a deterrent against attempts by the Philadelphia Democratic machine to manufacture huge and somewhat questionable majorities, Romney can be said to have a fighting chance of taking a state the president must have if he is to be re-elected.
The registration figures are interesting because they show the rapid and historic shift of the Philadelphia suburbs from the GOP to the Democrats may have slowed a bit. Montgomery County is seen as the ultimate swing vote that can determine the outcome of state elections. It was once a GOP stronghold and as late as 2004, Republicans still had a registration advantage there. But in November 2008, that had changed, with the Dems taking a 24,000 edge (a swing of 78,000 voters during just four years). That has grown in the last four years, as there are now 35,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the county. But the GOP can at least take some solace from the fact that the rate of increase has slowed. Obama must carry Montgomery County and probably will, but given the decline in Democratic registration elsewhere in the state he’s going to have to do so by an even larger majority than he did in 2008.
The same is true of Philadelphia County, but here the problem is not registration shifts (the GOP barely exists in large sections of the city), but the ability of the Democrats to conjure up results in some precincts that show a turnout of more than 100 percent of registered voters may be inhibited by the voter ID law. While the law may not be vigorously enforced — and attempts to do so will, no doubt, be decried as “voter suppression” on the part of the Republicans — city Democrats may not feel as free to play games with the vote totals as they have in the past.
All of this does not necessarily point to a Romney win in Pennsylvania, as the president must still be considered to be a clear favorite in the state. But it does mean that unless the economy improves, the Democrats are going to have to work hard and spend heavily there to win.