Why John McCain Continues to Trail Barack Obama in Pennsylvania

Well-heeled voters in the Philadelphia area are angry about their declining wealth.

By SHARE

One of the mysteries of this campaign year has been why John McCain keeps campaigning in Pennsylvania when the polls show him far behind Barack Obama there—51 percent to 41 percent in the RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polls as I write. A clue comes from the most recent poll there by SurveyUSA, which helpfully provides a regional breakdown of results. SurveyUSA, as it has consistently done, shows McCain running within the margin of error in the southwest (metro Pittsburgh and surroundings) and in the Northeast (Scranton and the anthracite country), which historically are very Democratic areas. Joe Biden's Scranton roots and the support of Scranton-based Bob Casey don't seem to be doing Obama much good there. McCain carries the west-central and south-central areas, as most Republicans do. But he is incredibly weak—behind Obama 64 percent to 32 percent in the southeast, which includes about 40 percent of the state's voters. Most of this area is metropolitan Philadelphia, which George W. Bush lost in 2004 by a 62 percent to 37 percent margin; the remainder is presumably Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, and Lancaster counties, where Bush ran better. The regional breakdown in the most recent Quinnipiac poll tells exactly the same story.

In other words, McCain is running even with or better than Bush in most of Pennsylvania but is running far behind in metro Philly. My sense is that the McCain campaign just can't believe this is true. Metro Philly, after all, in 1988 split evenly between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis; the four suburban counties' Republican margins matched the Democratic margins in the city of Philadelphia (conveniently coterminous with Philadelphia County). As I've noted over the years, affluent suburban territory like the Philly suburbs trended Democratic in the 1990s on cultural issues and stayed there up through 2004. (Ethnic change played a minor role. There are more blacks in the suburban counties than in 1988, but metro Philadelphia has not had huge population change in the last 20 years.) Now, if SurveyUSA is to be trusted, the Philly suburbs are about to give Obama a significantly larger percentage than the 53 percent John Kerry won there in 2004.

Why? My hypothesis is that that is because places like the Philly suburbs are places where the recent decline in household wealth has been most conspicuous. Housing prices mean a lot more to you when your house started off at $400,000 and declined to $290,000 than they did when you started off (as may be typical of Scranton or a blue-collar town in metro Pittsburgh) at $140,000 and declined to $110,000. Newspaper coverage of our current economic distress focuses on the very poor (like a recent Washington Post story on North Carolina, which focused on an ex-convict in a cheap motel in Charlotte), but the people who are getting hurt most visibly in their lifelong project of accumulating wealth are the more affluent. They're the ones whose house values have most visibly and spectacularly declined, and whose 401(k) accounts and stock portfolios have tanked in the last few months as well. Folks in Scranton or in the cheap motel in Charlotte didn't expect to live comfortably ever after off their increased house values, 401(k)'s, and Merrill Lynch accounts; a $700 monthly check from Social Security is about what they have long expected and that's not in danger (yet). Folks in the Philly suburbs did expect to live comfortably off such assets.

I noted long ago in the introduction to my 1994 Almanac of American Politics that George H. W. Bush's percentages declined between 1988 and 1992 by the greatest amount in southern California and New Hampshire—places that had "a spectacular collapse of residential real estate values" between those two years. You couldn't go to New Hampshire in the run-up to the 1992 presidential primary without hearing people tell you how the house that used to be worth $350,000 was worth only $210,000 now. I concluded that the economic factor most important in voting behavior was switching from short-term income to long-term wealth. These Pennsylvania numbers tell me that I was on the right track but that the explanation is a little more complex. High-income, high-education voters in the suburbs of big metro areas, my hypothesis goes, are preoccupied with long-term wealth accumulation—and react sharply against the Republican Party when their wealth is suddenly sharply diminished when there is a Republican president. Modest-income, modest-education voters in less affluent surroundings, it seems judging from McCain's relatively good showing in Pennsylvania outside the heavily populated southeast, react much less sharply, because they have never expected to accumulate all that much in the way of wealth anyhow, consider themselves reasonably well protected by the existing safety net and feel free to vote (as more affluent Philly suburbanites have done in better times) on the basis of their opinions (conservative in their case) on cultural issues. The affluent are less afraid of the tax increases that Obama promises them than they are shocked by the negative effect on their wealth from the collapse of the housing bubble and the sharp decline in stock prices.

One interesting political effect is that two Pennsylvania Democratic congressmen well outside the Philadelphia orbit—Paul Kanjorski from the northeast, John Murtha from the southwest—are in varying degrees of political trouble, while Obama remains well ahead in the state as a whole. But he doesn't help them in their districts because he isn't running that well there.

More important, if Obama ends up running better in Bucks County (affluent Philly suburbs) than in Beaver County (closed steel mills outside Pittsburgh), we have something of a historic reversal and a different Democratic Party coalition than we are used to. Obama's Pennsylvania win—it seems almost certain it turns out to be that—will look like John V. Lindsay's win in the 1969 New York mayoral race. Lindsay, though then still a nominal Republican, carried low-income blacks and Puerto Ricans and upper-income Manhattanites. He lost the four outer boroughs, taken as a whole, but won Manhattan by a larger number of popular votes. Obama's appeal to upscale whites, magnified or amplified by both their long-standing views on cultural issues and by their visceral backlash against Republicans as they see their wealth eroded, means that he is the candidate of something like the top and the bottom of society, while the white, noncollege class, the working men and women to whom almost all the rhetoric at the Democratic National Convention was directed, on balance favor John McCain. This is perhaps an exaggerated description but not one without some considerable basis in fact. Democrats like to pose as the party of the ordinary guy, but the Obama candidacy appeals most strongly to the racially distinctive and the educational elite.

John Lindsay's utter failure as mayor (see Vincent Cannato's definitive The Ungovernable City) suggests that there are policy dangers for a leader elected by such a top-and-bottom electoral coalition. The cases of Lindsay and Obama are not entirely on point: Lindsay vastly expanded welfare and pioneered soft-on-crime policies, which together resulted in municipal bankruptcy and a 1 million population loss for New York City in the 1970s). Obama is not, on the surface anyway, interested in policies that will result in reversing the 1990s policy successes in reducing welfare dependency and crime. But he is interested in advancing policies that could have serious wealth-destroying effects: higher taxes on high earners, protectionism, government-controlled health insurance, the card check bill abolishing secret ballots in union elections, which could have the effects on much of the private sector that United Auto Worker contracts have had on what used to be called, quaintly, the Big Three U.S. automakers. Will voters in the Philly suburbs, and their equivalents in target and nontarget states, like the consequences? Bill Clinton kept their votes when, after the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, tax rates were no longer raised and capital gains tax rates were cuts, when local and state officials reversed the disastrous Lindsay policies on crime and welfare. But such a scenario seems unlikely from where we sit now. And while Clinton took office when the economy was in recovery, Obama, if he wins, seems likely to give his inauguration speech (as already drafted by John Podesta, or as later drafted or revised by his own hand) when we are headed down toward the trough of a recession of unknown duration.

The irony here is that voters motivated by anger at the decline in their wealth seem about to elect a president who has promised to embark on wealth-destroying policies.