Could disaffected Pennsylvania voters win the state for Trump?

After going to the Democratic contender for more than 20 years, some analysts wonder if Pennsylvania could swing back to the GOP for a Donald Trump victory. Are they giving enough credit to the state's Democratic strongholds?

Mark Makela/Reuters/File
Hillary Clinton holds a rally at West Philadelphia High School on August 16.

Pennsylvania is a big prize in the electoral college that has belonged to Democrats for more than two decades, but some analysts and local politicians are wondering if the odd circumstances surrounding the 2016 election could shift the state into the red. 

As Pennsylvania has consistently picked Democrats for president since electing Bill Clinton in 1992, many considered Hillary Clinton a shoe-in to win the state. President Obama's former campaign manager, David Plouffe, confidently called a Clinton victory back in July and cautioned candidates from pouring too much money campaigning in the region. Such statements gained credibility following the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, when polls showed Mrs. Clinton holding an average of an eight-point lead over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. 

But some say disenchanted Democratic voters could spell her demise in the general election by failing to turn out at the voting booth. Polls show Clinton's dropping, down to just an average of a six-point lead as of the first week in September. 

This is an unusual election year, with Republicans looking at a similar scenario in Georgia and Arizona, traditionally red states, where Clinton has closed to within two percentage points of Donald Trump. 

To combat voter apathy in Pennsylvania, high-profile Democrats have been flocking to the state to stump for Clinton, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts, who spoke at the University of Pennsylvania last week; Mr. Clinton, who attended a music festival in Philadelphia in an attempt to register voters; and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, who plans to speak at Carnegie Mellon University this week. On Tuesday, Mr. Obama made his own trip to Philadelphia to voice his support for Clinton. 

Despite what looks like a shakeup, Pennsylvania's presidential politics might not be so up in the air in the unconventional election where both candidates face high unfavorability ratings and some voters have struggled to make a decision

"Pennsylvania goes through this every time," Robin Kolodny, professor and chair of the political science department at Temple University in Philadelphia, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "The reality in the state is that the two cities [Philadelphia and Pittsburgh] are so big population wise that a strong showing in those two cities makes a huge advantage for Democratic candidates. Any party's operative [in the state], if they were stopped on the street, would say Clinton is going to win the state."

Still, some analysts have said enthusiasm among the state's voters is lacking, and even though Obama carried Pennsylvania twice, residents may not feel the same excitement to rally.

"I don't share David Plouffe's supreme confidence that Pennsylvania is guaranteed to be blue," Braddock Mayor John Fetterman and former candidate in the state's Democratic primary for Senate this year, told The Washington Post. "Without a doubt, it is one that's going to be close." 

While Clinton's performance in the polls is down, Dr. Kolodny said those numbers might not be a good predictor of the poor, urban communities, which, in Philadelphia, often turn out at the polls at a rate of 80 percent, thanks to strong union ties and on-the-ground mobilization efforts from state campaigns that pair-up with Clinton's.

"I think everybody is expecting turnout to be less [than in 2012]," Kolodny says. "But it might not be nearly as less as some people fear."

Polls try to gauge voter turnout but often fail to connect with those living in poorer parts of the state's cities because of logistical conflicts. What should be considered, Kolodny says, is the strong campaign Clinton has run in partnership with Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty and the power of the organizations such as the Service Employees International Union, which endorsed Clinton last November.

While a majority of rural voters concentrated in the state's center will likely pick a candidate who walks the conservative party line, some of these voters are harder to mobilize, and Mr. Trump's lack of a solid campaign base in the state could hurt him when it comes to getting his less passionate supporters into the voting booth. For now, 59 percent of those in rural areas plan to vote for Trump, according to a poll from Franklin and Marshall College, but a further breakdown shows that Clinton has the support of 83 percent of Philadelphia residents and 56 percent in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located.

Even with those numbers, Kolodny says the polls will remain an imperfect predictor of who makes it to the booth on election day.

"There's a difference about who do they prefer, and how strongly do they feel about voting," she says.

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