The intelligent question thrown out among strategists for both campaigns is, can John McCain really win Pennsylvania?
Really win it, not pretend to go for it, as Republicans did in 2004, all the while closing the deal in Ohio when no one was looking.
The last Republican presidential candidate to win Pennsylvania was George H.W. Bush, in 1988 — a win preceded by two Reagans but followed by two Clintons, a Gore and a Kerry. The Kerry win was narrower than the others, however.
Since this year’s Pennsylvania primaries, many people have been schooled on the mechanics of how Democrats win this state. Call it the "Rendell rule": Stack up high numbers in the Philly collar counties, hold the losses to a minimum in the other 60, and try to win Allegheny for good measure.
Can Barack Obama pull off a Rendell?
Villanova University political science professor Bob Maranto says political undercurrents are playing against him. "This is an old state, demographically, and some older white voters will be reluctant to vote for a black candidate," he explains, "but there is something more at work. Even if they call themselves independents, most voters more or less automatically vote either Democratic or Republican."
Maranto calculates that the 20 percent or so of voters who really are up for grabs will use information about a candidate’s background to make assumptions about his policy views.
Pennsylvanians don’t see McCain in the "failed Bush policies" category by which Democrats try to define him. Instead, they see a war hero, a brand that resonates in the blue-collar areas where their unions are trying to persuade them otherwise.
"He is a guy you can depend on," said Tom Miller, 54, of Lancaster, a registered Democrat who is very comfortable voting for McCain. "He has had no problem bucking his own party and he does not ask me to make sacrifices that he isn’t willing to make."
Add the stereotypes that some voters hold about black candidates and Obama dilutes the Rendell rule.
So, where can McCain offset traditional Democrat voting blocs?
In Allegheny, Bucks and Chester counties, where a large number of those voters live.
To win Allegheny, McCain must win the entire South Hills area minus Mt. Lebanon. He also must win the new suburban areas around the airport, as well as the Mon Valley, where poorer working white voters live. He can easily sweep the North Hills as well as the small river towns.
Achieve that, and McCain offsets Pittsburgh’s black and elite-liberal numbers.
McCain also must win Bucks County, where he should have Sarah Palin establish residency in the large churches in the northern half while he camps out in southern Bucks.
Chester County will be the hardest. McCain won’t win West Chester, but the rest of the county — a one-time Republican stronghold — is persuadable.
All three counties have healthy-sized veterans populaces, with lots of socially conservative labor-Catholic Democrats — all voters that professor Maranto views as weaknesses for Obama.
Democrat analyst Larry Ceisler admits problems exist for Obama in counties like Washington, Beaver and Fayette, but he is not quite sold on the idea that McCain can win Allegheny, Chester and Bucks.
The unknown factor in Obama’s favor is the latest statewide voter-registration number. Obama state director Craig Schirmer issued a statement last week touting 1 million-plus more registered Democrats than Republicans, double the lead of 2004.
Perhaps the bigger argument is that if McCain is posting Bush 2004 poll numbers in Pennsylvania in the waning days of this election, it indicates that Ohio, Indiana and Michigan are already lost to Obama. Pennsylvania is just that small percentage point more Democrat than her Rust-Belt sisters.
University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato says his tentative conclusion is that McCain should not allow the money to run in Pennsylvania unless he has unlimited resources, and instead should look west. His argument: If McCain is close in Pennsylvania, then he already is well above 300 Electoral College votes and won’t need it to win.
Salena Zito covers politics for the Trib. She can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7879.