Analyzing Swing States: Pennsylvania, Part 4

This is the fourth part of an analysis of the swing state Pennsylvania. It focuses on the industrial southwest, a once deep-blue region rapidly trending Republican. Part five can be found here.

Pittsburgh and the Southwest

Pennsylvania’s southwest has much in common with West Virginia and Southeast Ohio, the northern end of Appalachia. Electoral change in the region is best understood by grouping these three areas together as a whole.

Socially conservative (the region is famously supportive of the NRA) but economically liberal, the industrial southwest voters typify white working-class Democrats. These voters can be found in unexpected places: Catholics in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, loggers along the Washington coast, rust-belt workers in Duluth, Minnesota and Buffalo, New York.

It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal that brought the working-class to the Democratic Party; before his time, the party constituted a regional force confined mainly to the South. In Pennsylvania, a Republican stronghold that had voted for President Herbert Hoover, Mr. Roosevelt laid the foundations for a lasting Democratic coalition.

For decades, voters in southwest Pennsylvania constituted this coalition’s foundation. Take, for instance, Democratic nominee Walter Mondale:

Pennsylvania 1984 double-digit county wins

In 1984, the industrial southwest, badly hurting from a receding recession, cast a strong ballot for Mr. Mondale. It did so again for Governor Mike Dukakis, and twice for President Bill Clinton.

Ironically, it was during the presidency of Mr. Clinton – a man much liked by Appalachia – that the Democrats became regarded as the party of the coasts and the elite. Ever since his time, Pennsylvania’s industrial southwest has been in a bad way for Democrats.

Thus, whilst metropolitan Philadelphia has been moving steadily left, Pittsburgh and the industrial southwest have been marching in the opposite direction.

To get a sense of the movement in this region, compare these two maps:

Pennsylvania Pittsburgh Comparison

Modified NYT Image

In less than a generation’s span, one sees Democratic strength in northern Appalachia utterly vanish.

In a state where things have been going badly for Republicans, southwest Pennsylvania provides some consolation. Were it not for the southwest’s rightward trend, Pennsylvania would today be a fairly solid Democratic state.

Nevertheless, if I were to choose between Pittsburgh and the industrial southwest or Philadelphia and the suburban southeast, I would much prefer the latter. While Philadelphia itself is in declining, its metropolitan area as a whole has experienced rapid growth. The southwest’s population, on the other hand, remains basically stagnant, suffering the effects of economic decline.

In absolute terms, moreover, eastern Pennsylvania holds far more votes:

Pennsylvania Votes CastRepublicans might take comfort in Allegheny County’s vote reservoir – were it not consistently blue. Indeed, Democratic strength in Pittsburgh ensures that, as a whole, the southwest will still vote Democratic for some time yet. Although – unique to practically every other major city – Republicans have been improving in Pittsburgh, its substantial black population limits their potential.

The puzzling thing, however, is why Appalachian working-class whites are moving so rapidly right. It cannot be simply race: both Vice President Al Gore and Senator John Kerry were white, after all, yet they still did progressively worse. It cannot be simply elitism, either: Governor Mike Dukakis and Governor Adlai Stevenson were intellectual technocrats, yet they won what Mr. Kerry and Mr. Gore could not.

Finally, it is not as if all the white working-class has suddenly turned Republican: voters in Michigan, northeast Ohio, upstate New York, and Silver Bow and Deer Lodge Montana, amongst other regions, still retain the Democratic habit. In Pennsylvania, working-class strongholds such as Scranton and Erie, surrounded by a sea of Republican counties, also continue to vote deep blue. They will be the topics of the next post.

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4 Responses to Analyzing Swing States: Pennsylvania, Part 4

  1. Aaron V. says:

    Another reason why southwestern Pennsylvania is turning red is that so many young people moved out in the 1980s and 1990s – myself included.

    Allegheny County is the second-oldest large county in the United States, primarily because of older residents staying put while younger ones moved away in search of opportunities elsewhere.

    North Carolina seems to be a popular place for young Pittsburghers to go; the reddening of southwestern Pennsylvania corresponds to the bluing of North Carolina.

    • inoljt says:

      Interesting; I didn’t know that, although it doesn’t sound to surprising.

      On the other hand, I’m not sure how strong the correlation between youth and Democratic strength is; for instance, I think places like Vermont and Maine are some of the oldest states in the union. At the same time they’re some of the most Democratic. Then, of course, there is Palm Beach County, the oldest large county in the United States (according to your article), and a Democratic stronghold in Florida.

  2. Joe from NC says:

    I think SW Pennsylvania has swung to the right for several reasons. The most reasons are probably environmentalism and the guns/religion issues. Environmentalism is very unpopular in the rust belt and anywhere there is coal. People in these areas often blame environmental laws for the job losses. This is especially true in central appalachia where the coal contains a large amount of sulfur compounds and is thus most affected by environmental laws. Al Gore had a lot to do with fusing Environmentalism and the Democratic Party.

    Also it has to do with guns and religion as then Senator Obama put it. The people in appalachia have always been pro-gun and socially conservative, but the fact that their region’s economy has not improved even with Dems in office damages their faith in their economy improving and thus they “cling” to the party that claims to support their views on guns and religion.

    By the way inoljt, thanks for doing these analyses of swing states. I enjoy your commentary although I strongly disagree with your views regardin same sex marriage.

    • inoljt says:

      Thanks for commenting; I really appreciate your response.

      I guess you can put some of their movement to environmentalism; I know they’re some less populated places out west that used to vote Democratic but no longer do b/c of that (e.g. northwestern CA, the Idaho panhandle). But Democrats probably gained votes in places like Long Island and Philly’s suburbs in return.

      Guns and religion could have something to do with it also – though Democrats really don’t focus on those issues nowadays.

      It’s probably a cultural thing, which is kind of a truism. Meh…

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