Obama FDR

How and when Philadelphia turned blue: Our Democratic majority, explained

Here’s Philadelphia’s choices in presidential elections, its turnout through the decades and its shift to a Democratic city.

Correction appended.

City Commissioner Al Schmidt unloaded a massive report this morning, covering voter turnout and Philadelphia’s selections in presidential, gubernatorial and mayoral elections dating back to 1936. A couple of thoughts quickly arose after receiving this report:

  1. Wow, Schmidt appears to be doing plenty of work. Compare that to his counterpart Anthony Clark. Clark’s the guy who didn’t vote in several consecutive elections and is practically never seen in his office, in case you forgot.  
  2. There’s some cool insight here. Thanks to this data, we can see who Philadelphia voted for in every presidential general election dating back to 1936, and how many people voted for each candidate. We can also see how Philadelphia became a blue city.  

So here’s Philadelphia’s choices in presidential elections, its turnout through the decades and its shift to a Democratic city. All of the information and graphs come from Schmidt’s report.

Philadelphia’s quick blue shift

The move from a majority Republican city to an overwhelmingly Democratic city seemed to happen almost overnight. In 1950, the Republicans didn’t just hold a majority of registered voters, they were dominating. By 1960, Democrats took over as the majority party in Philadelphia.

Turnout graph vote mayor
Al Schmidt's office

This other graph shows how the number of Democrats increased every couple years in the 1950s while the number of Republicans decreased.

Voter registration by year
Al Schmidt's office

Philadelphia’s long-ago Presidential picks

In recent years, Philadelphia voted for exactly the people you’d expect: the Democrats. Barack Obama, John Kerry and Bill Clinton all received the large majority of Philadelphia’s votes. Even some of the Democratic Party’s worst presidential choices, like Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, earned about 75 percent of Philadelphia’s votes.

Philadelphia’s votes in presidential elections from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s is more interesting. Here’s how that looked:

  • 1936: FDR, 539,757 votes vs. Alfred Landon, 329,881 votes
  • 1940: FDR, 532,548 vs. Wendell Wilkie, 354,784
  • 1944: FDR, 496,373 vs. Thomas Dewey, 356,380
  • 1948: Harry Truman, 432,669 vs. Dewey, 425,962
  • 1952: Adlai Stevenson, 557,352 vs. Dwight Eisenhower, 396,874
  • 1956: Stevenson, 507,289 vs. Eisenhower, 383,987
  • 1960: JFK, 622,524 vs. Richard Nixon, 291,000

The choice of FDR in 1936, 1940 and 1944 goes to show how much America trusted him. At that time, Republicans accounted for about 60 percent of Philadelphia’s registered voters. And in each of those years, Democratic FDR won Philadelphia’s majority comfortably. 

It also was the start of an interesting streak: Philadelphians voting Democrats even though the city was majority Republican at the time. Truman, also a Democrat, received more votes than the Republican Dewey at a time when the registration of Republicans to Democrats was nearing 80 percent to 20 percent. Stevenson was also a Democrat, and he beat out Eisenhower in Philly two straight elections.

In 1960, Democrats were barely outnumbering Republicans, but the city favored JFK big time.

Philadelphia’s favorite presidential candidates, in order

Going by highest number of votes received in Philadelphia general elections, here are the five most popular presidential candidates of the city.

  1. Lyndon B. Johnson: 670,645 in 1964
  2. JFK: 622,544 in 1960
  3. Barack Obama: 595,980 in 2008 (he’d also rank third for his 2012 total)
  4. John Kerry: 542,205 in 2004
  5. FDR: 539,757 in 1936

The really big drop in turnout

Yesterday, we published an article about how Philadelphia’s low mayoral race voter turnout compared to other big cities. It featured this graph, illustrating the decline in turnout from the 1980s to present.  

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 10.58.11 PM
Governing

Schmidt has explored just a little deeper. From the 40s through the 70s, over 70 percent turnout was common. We now hold 1991 as a good showing for turnout but even that year was actually much worse than Philly had become used to in the previous decades.

Turnout graph mayor
Al Schmidt's office

This article has been updated to reflect the correct party of presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. 

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