Pennsylvania: A Tale of Two Cities
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The presidential candidate who wins Pennsylvania usually wins the general election, and this year's race is still too close to call in the important swing state. The winner in the Keystone State has also won the overall popular vote in 10 of the last 11 elections, and this year it could well be determined by voter turnout in and around its two largest cities.
G. Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College says the election in Pennsylvania often comes down to whomever wins the suburbs around its bookend largest cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The two areas make up nearly 50 percent of the state's 12.2 million residents.
"If you win the suburbs, you win the state," says Maddona, adding that Kerry currently holds a double digit lead over Bush in the 'burbs. Voters in the north and middle of the state, which has been derisively referred to as having "two cities with Alabama in between," vote overwhelming Republican, while inhabitants of the Steel Town and City of Brotherly Love tend to vote Democratic.
With less than one month to go before the presidential election, Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes appear to be up for grabs. Polls in the state have indicated a different winner on an almost monthly basis, with October Keystone Poll numbers showing John Kerry ahead by seven percent.
The Keystone Poll, which is conducted by Franklin & Marshall College's Center for Opinion Research, had Bush ahead 47-45 percent in September, a reversal of August when Kerry led Bush by 48 to 42 percent.
Madonna, who is also director of the poll, attributes some of the recent switch to a reversal in the approval ratings of the candidates. In the October poll, Bush's unfavorable rating rose five points from the previous month to 49 percent, while Kerry's approval rating increased seven percent to 48%. The poll was taken just days after the first presidential debate, which may have given Kerry – whom most viewers agree won the debate – a temporary bounce.
"The suburbs tend to be moderate Republicans who can vote either way depending on the candidates," Madonna says. The recent poll indicates Kerry is winning in both the Philadelphia suburbs (55 to 30 percent over Bush), and in Allegheny County (58 to 34 percent), which includes Pittsburgh. According to Madonna, Democrats had a plurality of 400,000 in the state during the last presidential election.
In 2000, Pennsylvania had 5.7 million registered voters, or approximately 63 percent of those who were eligible. Pennsylvanians have registered in droves this year, with more than eight million residents expected to be eligible to vote on Nov. 2, according to the Associated Press. More than 200,000 people have registered to vote this year in Philadelphia alone, the majority of whom are Democrats, according to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. The governor recently signed a law that requires a recount if the presidential race is decided by less than one-half of one percent.
Madonna says the closeness of the 2000 race and the war in Iraq have polarized the state and have generated "the most interest in a presidential election in 30 years."The war in Iraq is one of the top three issues on the minds of Pennsylvania voters, according to the non-partisan Issues PA/Pew Charitable Trust poll, which was conducted in August. Health care and the economy are also important to voters in PA, according to Issues PA spokeswoman LeeAnne Rogers. Rogers said the state is having a medical malpractice crisis as doctors are fleeing the state because of rising premiums. "With all of the doctors leaving, it impacts their ability to have access to the medical community."
Many Pennsylvanians will vote for Kerry as the "anyone but Bush" candidate. According to the Keystone Poll, only six percent who support Kerry are doing so because they like him as a person, while 30 percent say their support stems from disliking the other candidates. Only nine percent of Bush backers say they support him as the lesser evil, and 15 percent say they like him personally.
The Philadelphia suburb of Montgomery County is seen as one of the keys to winning the election in Pennsylvania. The county was overwhelmed with new registrations before the Oct. 4 deadline, and according to the county's Department of Voter Registration, they won't have a count of newly registered voters until Oct. 22.
Rebecca Kirszner, the Pennsylvania communications director for voter registration organization America Coming Together (ACT) says the group has signed up more than 130,000 voters in the state. Voters in Montgomery and neighboring suburbs of Bucks and Delaware counties" tend to vote more on the issues than by party lines," so her group began providing education about the candidate's positions on the issues in April.
Kirszner says education is the best tool to help swing undecided and infrequent voters, so ACT has thousands of people on the ground going door to door and providing education. Bush has campaigned in the state more times – 39 – than any other, according to Kirszner.
Dave Rosenfeld, the Pennsylvania director for political action committee MoveOn.org says the group is using volunteers from within Montgomery county to help turn out the vote. "Neighbors are going door to door to help turn out the vote," Rosenfeld says. MoveOn is targeting 600 precincts across Pennsylvania and hopes to turn out 140,000 infrequent voters for John Kerry on election day. "The suburbs will be an important battleground, and we are getting a tremendous response from all kinds of neighborhoods," according to Rosenfeld.
Andrew Zasowski, a 21-year old Montgomery county resident who attends Villanova University, says the prodding of peers supporting both candidates prodded him to register to vote for the first time a few weeks ago.
Zasowski says the election is a hot topic for discussion at Villanova, with more concern on the economic state of the union than the war in Iraq. Zasowski said that since many of his peers come from privileged backgrounds, they do not have friends or family in the military, so job growth is a more pressing issue than the war. "For me, the war is a big deal because we are not there for the right reasons," he says.
Many of Kerry's supporters on campus admit that he's not the ideal candidate, but at least he's not Bush. "When Bush speaks, it sounds like he's talking to a five-year-old," says Zasowski. "But the issues are more complex than that."
John Gartner writes about environmental technology and alternative energy from his home in Philadelphia.