Pennsylvania is definitely in play for this year’s presidential election. That’s obvious from Donald Trump’s impromptu Geno’s cheesesteak run and the Pennsylvania visits from the Obamas and numerous celebrities for Hillary Clinton. The polls show it too: A once double-digit lead for Hillary Clinton now down to 2.4 percentage points, according to the Real Clear Politics average.
That Pennsylvania will likely be close this year is no surprise. Aside from 2008, Pennsylvania has routinely had one of the tightest races of any state in the last several elections. What’s surprising this year is how it’s in play. In this cray election year, many types of voters across Pennsylvania are breaking away from the party they’ve tended to favor in recent years. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall who has followed Pennsylvania elections for decades, says these changes defy what we tend to think about Pennsylvania voters.
The differences particularly became clear in a CNN Poll from earlier this week, which showed Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump by two percentage points among likely voters. The poll broke down candidate choice based on race, income level, educational attainment and gender.
Granted: It’s only one poll. But it may offer clues as to how Pennsylvania voters are leaning differently this election, and how — despite the switch in preferences for many groups — the state might end up staying blue, like it has since 1992.
The college switch
In 2012, nearly half of Pennsylvania’s electorate, some 2.7 million voters, were college graduates. Those people favored the GOP candidate, Mitt Romney. A little more than half, some 2.9 million voters, were not college graduates. Those people favored the Democrat, Barack Obama.
This is how it has usually gone in Pennsylvania elections, Obama’s dominant 2008 victory notwithstanding. But it probably won’t be the case this year.
College graduates aren’t feeling Trump. The CNN poll showed 54 percent of respondents with college degrees were planning to vote for Clinton, compared to 34 percent for Trump. For those without college degrees, 48 percent were favoring Trump and 41 percent favoring Clinton.
Trump isn’t that popular among PA whites
Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed he’ll build a wall on the Mexican Border and early in his career he was sued for discriminatory housing practices. Still, he could get more votes from minorities in Pennsylvania this year than previous Republican candidates. Why? Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama.
In 2012, Obama got about 89 percent of Pennsylvania’s nonwhite vote to 10 percent for Romney. The CNN poll showed 71 percent of nonwhite respondents favoring Clinton, with Trump getting 15 percent. Black voters especially could end up being a major difference. Madonna says he’s noticed an “enthusiasm gap” for Clinton among the black community.
But there’s another Pennsylvania surprise when it comes to race. Trump actually isn’t that popular with Pennsylvania whites. About 48 percent of white CNN poll respondents said they planned to vote for him (and 41 percent for Clinton). That percentage is less than the share of the white vote the Republican candidate got the last three elections in Pennsylvania.
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Poor people are switching to the Republican side
Higher income people tend to favor Republicans and lower income people tend to favor Democrats. The opposite could be true this November.
That CNN poll showed the race nearly in a dead heat among Pennsylvanians making less than $50K a year. Obama won two-thirds of the vote among that group in Pennsylvania in 2012.
These gains among the working class would be a huge coup for Trump if he could win over the people Republicans usually do in Pennsylvania. But he’s not. Pennsylvanians making more than $50,000 a year are favoring Clinton. The CNN poll showed the split in this category at 46 percent for Clinton and 44 percent for Trump. Romney got 56 percent of the vote of Pennsylvanians making $50K or more.
For Trump to win Pennsylvania, he needs these wealthier voters, many of whom are located in the crucial Philadelphia suburbs. In 1988, the last time Pennsylvania was a red state, voters with the highest incomes voted Republican in a landslide. As the national Republican Party started getting more and more conservative, Madonna said, many voters who had a culturally liberal bent went from Republican to Democratic.
Trump has been campaigning like he needs the vote of Pennsylvania’s wealthy. He recently visited the Union League and the Ritz Carlton for private events. He held a public rally in Delaware County.
Delaware, along with Montgomery, Chester and Bucks counties, make up the Philadelphia suburbs. What hasn’t changed in this election is their importance. Whoever wins them is pretty much guaranteed to win Pennsylvania, and since 1992 the suburbs have gone Democratic.
The CNN poll and other recent polls have Clinton leading Trump in those counties by about 20 percentage points. No matter how different this election could be with the working class, the wealthy, minorities and college graduates, it will have the same result Pennsylvania has seen since 1992 if nothing changes in the ‘burbs.