Independence, Pragmatism & Normalcy

Member Group : Reflections

The new Franklin and Marshall College Poll released on June 6 contains a number of interesting nuggets about where things stand in the Keystone State today. Items from this survey receiving the most press attention thus far have been President Barack Obama’s 12 point lead over Mitt Romney and U.S. Senator Bob Casey’s 21 point lead over entrepreneur Tom Smith.

It is important to remember that these polls tell us what the voters are thinking today not necessarily what they may do in November. It seems obvious that both the presidential and U.S. Senate races will tighten as voters being paying closer attention. Although Romney and Smith trail by double digits at the moment, it is difficult to imagine that Obama, facing high unemployment levels and a pessimistic voting public and Casey, who has been invisible since his election six years ago will coast to victory.

Counting Tom Smith and Mitt Romney out at this early stage of the campaign, especially given the state’s contemporary electoral history would be a terrible mistake. Pennsylvania voters have a unique way of trying to achieve balance. They regularly exercise a practical, thoughtful independence by splitting their tickets between Democrats and Republicans for different statewide offices. In 1976, 1992, 2000, and 2004 Pennsylvanians chose Democrats for president but opted for Republican U.S. Senate candidates. In 1974 and 1986 they elected Democratic governors but again sent Republicans to the U.S. Senate.

While the presidential and senatorial elections are still six months away, Harrisburg is tackling the state budget as you read this, making the state issues covered in this poll much more salient for voters at the moment. Chances are that if any single poll is going to successfully capture voter attitudes about the budget and related issues it will be this one. Here are some of the key findings:

First, rather than completely rejecting taxation as a means of balancing the budget, Pennsylvanians wisely prefer increasing sales taxes (51%) that are broad-based and far reaching while ending the ludicrous tax exemption for smokeless tobacco (79%). Support for these options far outpaces increasing income taxes (just 36% favor this) on those who are fortunate enough to have jobs in this rough economy. In short, Pennsylvanians favor ensuring that as many citizens as possible share in the sacrifice of expanded taxation through sales taxes while ending special interest exemptions instead of raising income taxes on the backs of hardworking families.

Second, the poll tells us that Pennsylvanians deeply honor their obligations as conservators of God’s creation. The great political philosopher Russell Kirk once noted that "Nothing is more conservative than conservation." Pennsylvanians agree. Just 34% support reducing environmental protection or conservation and only 21% favor cutting money from parks, recreation, and conservation. Pennsylvanians again seek a balance by recommending a way to finance these programs through taxing companies that extract and sell natural gas, a proposal that 73% favor in this survey.

Third, on questions pertaining to gay rights, Pennsylvanians again display their willingness to seek a third way. Rather than permitting same sex marriage, a proposal supported by 48% and opposed by 49%, a significant majority (63%) would back legislation allowing same sex couples to form civil unions and enjoy the same benefits afforded to married heterosexual couples. Instead of opting for a choice which may lead to animosity in certain political quarters, Pennsylvanians seek the middle ground.

Fourth, while Pennsylvanians are slowly beginning to sour on Governor Corbett, they seem willing to wait beyond just a year and a half into his four year term to pass judgment on his administration. This shows that Corbett has an opportunity to win back some of his support that has eroded over the last year (his approval rating is up eight points while his disapproval rating has shot up 29% in the last 13 months) as a majority of Pennsylvanians neither approve or disapprove of his tenure as governor.

This poll conveys the message that Pennsylvanians continue to behave as pragmatic realists. Just as they split their tickets between Democrats and Republicans at the ballot box, they seek to balance their desires for maintaining certain programs with an understanding of the need to pay for these things.

They are realistic about the scope and magnitude of the problems facing the Commonwealth, yet they are pragmatic in thinking of how to address these challenges. Pennsylvanians are unwilling to embrace radical policy changes and instead favor the continued state investment in public education, higher education, parks, recreation, and conservation while simultaneously favoring responsible methods for ensuring the viability of these entities. This isn’t abnormal; it’s just the Pennsylvania way.

So what do these findings tell us about what to expect in the 2012 presidential and senatorial races? I advise taking a trip back in time to the 1920 presidential contest. In that race the somewhat obscure Republican nominee, U.S. Senator Warren Harding of Ohio campaigned on a platform of practicality and moderation similar to what Pennsylvanians expressed in this most recent poll.

In a speech given in May 1920 in Boston he declared that "America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality." It should come as no surprise that Harding won a remarkable 66% of the vote in Pennsylvania.

The details of Franklin and Marshall’s newest poll indicate to this observer that Pennsylvanians—through their commitment to pragmatic realism—are seeking a similar return to normalcy in both the persons elected to hold office and the policies they pursue at the state and national levels. My hunch is that the voters will reward the candidates—be it Romney or Obama in the presidential race or Smith or Casey in the senatorial race—who they believe can deliver it.

Nathan R. Shrader is a PhD student in Temple University’s Department of Political Science. He is a native of Westmoreland County and is a Republican Committeeman in Philadelphia. Reach him at [email protected]