Pennsylvania Polls: Obama Holds On to Lead, Thanks to Republican Extremism

There are two quotes that best sum up Pennsylvania's role in American democracy today. One comes from legendary political consultant James Carville: "Pennsylvania is Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle."

This adage will be useful when following Tuesday's election returns in the Keystone State, although it's a little oversimplified. In addition to the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metropolitan areas, one can reasonably expect the Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, and Erie regions of the state to also go blue. During especially fortuitous years for the Democrats, a handful of the central counties in the "Alabama" part of the state will surprise experts by supporting someone like Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 or Barack Obama in 2008. Since this election is likely to be much closer, however, the odds are that few if any of those polities will surrender their traditionally red colors.

In the end, though, the precise county-by-county breakdown in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania matters a lot less than the state's value as a barometer of national political conditions. Because of its historic reputation for ideological moderation, it is ostensibly a "swing state;" in reality, however, the increasingly radical character of the national Republican Party has kept the state's electoral votes solidly Democratic since 1992. That's why Obama has held a consistent lead in polls over Romney throughout the year, as well as why the center-left Bob Casey, Jr. remains comfortably ahead of Tea Party darling Tom Smith in the Senate election. Indeed, Pennsylvania's most prominent politicians tend to be centrists like the late Arlen Specter and Bob Casey, Sr. When extreme conservatives do win statewide contests, it is usually during years of great GOP national sweeps, such as Rick Santorum in 1994 and Pat Toomey in 2010.

Of course, Pennsylvania has had a greater significance this year due to the chicanery of Republican politicians who wish to offset its value as an increasingly reliable Democratic bloc. To understand the tragedy here, I turn to one of my favorite historians, Henry Adams: "Had New England, New York, and Virginia been swept out of existence in 1800, democracy could have better spared them all than have lost Pennsylvania."

When Adams wrote this sentence in the opening chapters of his nine-volume History of the United States of America (1801-1817), his goal wasn't to disparage the other states he had just mentioned (one of which had been home to his family for eight generations), but to introduce his readers to a time when Pennsylvania had been "the model democratic society of the world." Unfortunately, Republican lawmakers have spent this election cycle doing their damnedest to make that claim truly anachronistic. 

Last year, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi tried to neutralize Pennsylvania's ability to swing presidential elections by proposing a bill that would have replaced our winner-take-all electoral vote system to one in which they were awarded based on our 18 congressional districts (the winner of the statewide vote would get two electoral votes). While such measures have already been passed in smaller states like Maine and Nebraska, Pennsylvania would have been the first large state to implement such a measure.

Although Rick Santorum's improved presidential prospects eventually rendered this idea unpalatable to state Republicans, they still had another trick this year — voter suppression. Under the guise of attempting to prevent election fraud, the GOP-dominated legislature passed a Voter ID law that would have required voters to have a state-approved ID to vote in November. While seemingly reasonable at the surface level, the law would have unfairly discriminated against lower income and minority groups who are less likely to possess such IDs or the means of obtaining them. Given that these groups tend to vote Democratic and conservative lawmakers have not offered meaningful suggestions on how to facilitate access to IDs for affected people, it hardly seems coincidental that they are proposing a measure that would work to the Republicans' advantage.

In short, Pennsylvania's political legacy this year will be that of a centrist state that is being driven into the arms of the Democratic Party by the increasing extremism of their Republican counterparts — and which has a GOP that, aware of this trend, is doing everything in its power to reverse it (besides moderating its views, of course). While progressives can take comfort in the fact that Obama and Casey are likely to win this year — the Voter ID law may not have been overturned by the courts but it has been significantly weakened this time around — this reality isn't going to change. The story being written in Pennsylvania right now will definitely continue well after the 2012 election has faded into history.