Analyzing Swing States: Pennsylvania, Part 5

This is the fifth part of an analysis of the swing state Pennsylvania. It focuses on the traditionally Republican region between the Democratic strongholds in the southeast and southwest. The last part can be found here.


Outside the Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia metropolis, Pennsylvania is a very different place. Political analysts often label this area “the T,” while others call it Pennsyltucky.

Popular culture mythologizes Pennsyltucky as red-neck capital – a rural region dominated by NASCAR-loving red-necks. Politically, James Carville compared Pennsyltucky to Alabama without the blacks.

In fact, this stereotype is inaccurate on two accounts. Firstly, Pennsyltucky contains far more than so-called rural red-necks; most of its counties are fairly populated (they are far more densely peopled than, say, rural Arkansas). Secondly, many of these supposedly NASCAR-loving red-necks also belong to the local union and vote Democratic on economic issues. The majority may support Republicans, but that majority certainly is below the 88% of Alabama whites that voted for John McCain.

Nevertheless, the “T” does constitute the Republican base in Pennsylvania. Former president George W. Bush pulled 48.42% of the state’s vote in 2004, and he had to get those votes somewhere.

(Note: This statistic, and all the ones mentioned afterwards, come from

Pennsylvania’s 2006 Senate election provides a geographic illustration of this base. In that election, former Senator Rick Santorum lost by a landslide 17.36% margin; only the reddest counties supported him:

Although they cover a lot of land, not all these counties are rural enclaves of Pennsyltucky (if they were all rural, Senator John Kerry would have won by double-digits in the state). In fact, fast-growing exurbs constitute a substantial source of Republican votes. Located west of the Philadelphia metropolis, these are somewhat wealthy and mostly white. They include Lancaster County (where Bush won 65.80% of the vote) and York County (where he won 63.74%); the former president came out of these two counties with a 121,832 margin, enough to offset Pittsburgh, Erie, and Scranton.

Erie and Scranton both constitute solidly blue areas belonging to “the T.” They give lie to the myth that all Pennsyltucky votes loyally Republican. Like the southwest, Erie and Scranton contain a number of working-class Democrats; unlike the southwest, however, cultural appeals have not swayed these folk into voting Republican.

Indeed, Democrats do respectably in many parts of Pennsyltucky. Here is President Barack Obama’s performance:

Modified NYT Image


Mr. Obama did not just win Erie and Scranton; he took several other counties and ran closely elsewhere. These included Centre County, home to Pennsylvania State University, and Dauphin County, which has a relatively high black population. All the Lehigh Valley – somewhat an extension of Philadelphia’s suburbs – voted for the president. More surprisingly, Obama ran very closely in several rural, lily-white regions of the T; one such county (Elk) even gave the president a 4% margin of victory.

Obama was not the only Democrat to do well in parts of Pennsyltucky. Here is how former president Bill Clinton performed:

Modified NYT Image


Mr. Clinton, of course, was a fellow with immense appeal to so-called “red-necks.” Since his time, much of Pennsyltucky has moved to the right. Yet not all of it is deep-red: while some counties gave Mr. McCain more than 70% of the vote, others – demographically identical – gave him barely more than 50%. These are substantial and curious variations.

While Pennsyltucky as a whole votes strongly Republican, it is wrong to generalize the area. Its most populous regions – the exurbs – constitute a vital part of the Republican coalition, while some rural counties have a fairly weak Republican habit. Finally, a number of places dependent upon industry routinely support Democrats. To stereotype the “T” as a composed solely of Republican-voting red-necks would do injustice to the region’s complexities.

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10 Responses to Analyzing Swing States: Pennsylvania, Part 5

  1. Brett Heffner says:

    You mentioned Lancaster and York Counties as being populous Republican counties and identified them as “east of the Philadelphia metropolis” when you probably meant “west.” Here’s the type of error that no spell checker will catch.

    • inoljt says:

      Thanks and corrected.

      • Brett Heffner says:

        Also, it’s easy to forget that the concept of a “Bos-Wash megalopolis” including all metro areas of southeast and south-central PA has to be taken with a grain of salt and your being from California makes it difficult to understand. I had a grandmother who lived in southern CA for almost two decades until she returned to eastern PA.

  2. Brett Heffner says:

    If there are four counties that don’t belong to this geopolitical entity of “Pennsyltucky,” they are Berks, Lehigh, Monroe, and Northampton. Obama carried all by at least 9% margins and the demographic changes show that Philadelphia has no right to claim them, yet nor did they belong to such a political invention as “Pennsyltucky.” It seems like these counties (other than Monroe) can be owned or disowned as aligned according to the whims of political expediency by the Philadelphia machine political bosses (such as Marcel Groen and Bob Brady.)

  3. Brett Heffner says:

    I am a lifelong resident of Lehigh County and the Lehigh Valley is a distinct region of its own as well as the third-largest metro area in the Commonwealth. Actually, more people are moving west into it from northern New Jersey and NYC than north from the Philadelphia region. When Bill Clinton carried Lehigh County in 1992, it was the first time since LBJ for a Democrat and Lehigh hasn’t looked back. Obama carried it by over a 15% margin. The four counties going for Obama for the first time since LBJ are Berks, Chester, Dauphin, and Monroe (which Kerry only lost by four votes.) If Obama wins re-election, he carries Lehigh, Monroe, and Northampton by significant margins and at least comes very close in Berks and Carbon.

    • inoljt says:

      Yeah, I do think the Lehigh Valley constitutes an important part of the Democratic coalition – and I’m confident Obama will carry it in 2012 (provided the economy recovers).

      I somewhat neglected it here; its importance is certainly more than the brief mention implied in my posts.

      Thanks for commentating!

  4. You need think about it. Despite the emails, the overwhelming evidence showing global warming is happening hasn’t changed.
    “The e-mails do nothing to undermine the very strong scientific consensus . . . that tells us the Earth is warming, that warming is largely a result of human activity,” Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told a House committee. She said that the e-mails don’t cover data from NOAA and NASA, whose independent climate records show dramatic warming.

  5. Many of the residents of “Pennsyltucky” are Fundamentalists that believe in the “Rapture”. These “fundies” would rather sacrifice their first born than vote for a Democrat. And Obama was correct when he said that they “cling to their guns and bibles”. It is all they have.

    • inoljt says:

      Thanks for commentating!

      As for Pennsyltucky – even if your comments are true (I don’t think they are), I don’t think insulting Republican voters is a good way to get their votes. We Democrats ought to appeal to everybody; that’s how we win elections and can carry out things like health care reform.

      • Ron Thompson says:

        That’s a noble and praiseworthy sentiment.
        But if you look at what has actually succeeded in American politics in the last 40 years, it isn’t a party that appeals to everybody. The Republicans have dominated American politics by building a cohesive party that sometimes gets a small majority, and then they ram through their program while some Democrats, who try to appeal to everybody, give them crucial support. By attempting to appeal to everybody, we’ve made a mess of health care reform. I find the modern Republican Party uteerly repugnant, but I’ll say this for them–they understand power: how to get it and how to use it. I wish the Democrats could learn to do the same. But it’s hard, because we want so desperately to appeal to everybody.

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