Pennsylvania continues to enjoy its unexpected early spring in the political spotlight, but don't expect the campaign circus to leave town for very long after the April 22 primary. As it has for the past two general elections, the Keystone State figures to play a pivotal role as a highly contested battleground this November.
After voting for Ronald Reagan and George Bush along with the nation at large during the 1980s, Pennsylvania swung Democratic and delivered solid victory margins to Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. And it has remained in Democratic hands during the last two presidential elections, albeit narrowly enough to become one of the increasingly few states in which the nominees from both parties have spent significant amounts of time and resources.
"The reality is that it's been a closely contested state for some time," said Richard Johnston, Research Director of the National Annenberg Election Study at the University of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania handed slim victories, along with its 21 Electoral Votes, to the Democrats in 2000 and 2004. Al Gore defeated George W. Bush by 4.2 percent, and John Kerry won by an even thinner 2.5 percent margin. But a Real Clear Politics average of recent polls conducted in the state suggests there is no guarantee that Pennsylvania will remain "light blue" in 2008. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are locked in tight races against John McCain in Pennsylvania, with the presumptive GOP nominee leading Obama by 1.5 percent and Clinton ahead of McCain by 3.7 percent.
While Clinton holds a huge institutional advantage over McCain among Democratic partisans, Obama would be expected to siphon off more support from independents, as he has done throughout the primary season.
"To the extent that there is a race dimension, Clinton may have a stronger appeal in parts of the state outside Philadelphia, and I guess Pittsburgh, and probably would not suffer particularly inside those places," Johnston said. "On the other hand, Obama clearly has a greater ability to reach outside the core of the Democratic coalition."
Though Democratic presidential candidates have seen their efforts in the state pay off in recent years, Republicans dominated Pennsylvania at the state level in the late 1990s and in the first half of the current decade. The GOP controlled the governorship from 1995 to 2003, and it held both U.S. Senate seats and both houses of the state legislature from 1994 to 2006.
The demographics of Pennsylvania may be more complex than James Carville's famous quip about the state being Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between, but there is no doubt that the ability to rack up huge margins of victory in the big cities is key to any Democrat's hopes for carrying the state. Kerry was able to win it in 2004, even though he won only 12 of the 67 counties.
If Pennsylvania is a swing state, the Philadelphia suburbs are its swing region.
Director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll Dr. Terry Madonna told CBSNews.com that suburbanites living near the state's largest city were the key factor in both Republican dominance at the state level and the Democratic Party's ability to carry Pennsylvania in recent presidential contests.
"The Republicans managed to fashion a coalition of voters that consisted of their core rural voters, the suburban Philadelphia voters, and they cherry-picked enough of the so-called Reagan Democrats-conservative Democrats in the southwestern part of the state-to put together a working majority," Madonna said. "When it came to presidential elections, however, the Democrats were able to win the Philadelphia suburbs with those important swing voters."
Before the 1980s, Philadelphia's working-class, largely Catholic voters trended Democratic, primarily due to economic interests. But as cultural issues became more salient, many of those voters became Reagan Democrats. In something of a 180-degree shift, Johnston said, those same social issues have led many middle-class Philadelphia suburbanites to move away from the Republican Party in recent years.
But the presumptive Republican nominee this time around may be just the kind of candidate who can reel those voters back into the GOP column.
"If any candidate has a chance to eat away at the Democratic propensities in the suburbs, it would be McCain," Madonna said. "There are aspects of his life and candidacy and voting record and all that that will help him with those voters. And if he can figure out a way to hold on to the hard conservatives … he can make this competitive."
So what effect, if any, will the protracted Pennsylvania Democratic primary have on that swing demographic and the Pennsylvania electorate in general? For one, the excitement surrounding the primary could carry over to November, benefiting whoever becomes the Democratic nominee.
"The number of new registrations in Pennsylvania is very high, particularly among those under 30-a group that has been heavily Democratic in the last two to three presidential election cycles," Eric Plutzer, a political science professor at Penn State University, said. "Related to that, the contested primary has allowed the Democratic Party to bolster its grass roots resources. If even a portion of these can be exploited in November, it gives the Democrats an additional asset it lacked in 2000 and 2004."
But there is a potential flip side to the fact that the Democrats have been campaigning against one another in the state for so many weeks. As Obama and Clinton continue to lace attacks against one another-some subtle, others not so much-into their stump speeches, the extended Pennsylvania primary battle could prove harmful to the party. The candidates have spent heavily in the run up to the primary. According to an estimate by Campaign Media Analysis, which tracks ad spending, Obama had spent $3.6 million on TV ads at the beginning of last week, compared to $1.3 million for Clinton. "If the campaigns get nasty in the next two weeks, this might harm the eventual nominee," Plutzer said.
In the lull between primary contests, the Democrats have directed as much of their criticism at Senator McCain as one another, but they have a face-to-face encounter Wednesday in Philadelphia where their focus will be aimed at one another. And while the campaign moves on after April 22, it’s a sure bet Pennsylvania will have another turn in the spotlight this fall.