State Analysis: Pennsylvania



Pennsylvania elasticity by county
Perhaps no state encapsulates the 2020 election better than Pennsylvania does. With a solid lead in the Presidential race, an ever-shifting electorate that is getting increasingly bluer in the suburbs, and a massive reversion to the mean expected in favor of Democrats in the rural and working-class areas, the Keystone State appears primed to flip back to Joe Biden on November 3.

Once part of the famed "Blue Wall" that served as an electoral bulwark for Democrats, Pennsylvania flipped Republican by a whisker for the first time in decades in 2016, with Trump winning the state by a mere 45,000 votes. However, Obama's 2012 performance and Tom Wolf's dominance in the 2018 gubernatorial election, combined with the heavily Democratic environment of 2020, is indicative of a strong swing left in the upcoming election. This is an assumption borne out by the FiveThirtyEight polling averages, which show Pennsylvania as D +5.1 at the Presidential level and well outside the traditional window of uncertainty.

To examine the Democratic gains expected in 2020, however, we must first understand just what went wrong for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Here, perhaps nothing illustrates it better than the maps made by Zach Adams (@PVIGuy) reflecting the Partisan Voting Index (PVI) of the state's counties, in which it is immediately obvious how the working-class electoral rebellion doomed her chances of the Presidency.


Pennsylvania's PVI by county in 2012 (left) and 2016 (right). Maps made by Zach Adams (@PVIGuy)

Examining Pennsylvania's elasticity can help us understand more about where any potential Biden gains would come from. As in Michigan and Wisconsin, 2016 represented the absolute nadir for Democratic performance in the state, as Hillary Clinton was blown out of the water when it came to white working-class voters all over the map. This was best manifested in the electoral slippage shown in highly elastic counties like Fayette (E 66.1) and Washington (E 57.8), which Clinton lost by 30 and 25, respectively, just four years after Obama lost them by 8 and 14 points.

Despite all of this, however, Clinton only lost the state by three-fourths of a percentage point, as suburban gains in highly elastic counties like Chester (E 60.9) and Montgomery (E 54.0) kept her afloat and competitive in the state; Obama lost the former by under a percent and won the latter by 14, but Clinton won them by 9 and 21, respectively. Alarmingly for the GOP, the suburban swing accelerated in 2018, with Tom Wolf winning Chester by 24 and Montgomery by 36, and there is little polling-based evidence to believe that this is reverting to even 2016 levels anytime soon -- an internal poll of Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, containing the moderately elastic suburban county Lehigh (E 44.1), showed Biden up by 15 points in a district Clinton won by only 1.1.

With suburban swings like these, if Biden was just to hold Clinton's abysmal 2016 margins with the white working-class counties while performing at 2018 levels with suburban voters, he would easily carry the state. And yet, the elasticity of counties like Lackawanna (E 60.6) suggest that Biden may gain significantly in these areas as compared to 2016, especially given the significantly more Democratic environment of 2020. Congressional district internals validate this assumption, as these polls, conducted privately for political strategists and candidates, show that Biden has clawed back an astounding amount of ground in the aforementioned areas. For instance, an internal poll of Pennsylvania's heavily white working-class and ancestrally Democratic 8th Congressional District found Biden leading the district by 2 points, just four years after Clinton lost it by nearly ten. 

With that in mind, Zach Adams' county PVI map of Bob Casey's win in 2018 may not be too far off from what a potential Biden victory may resemble. Although Biden would almost certainly not carry the state by Casey's 13 point margin, the combination of suburban gains and a significant stemming of the bleeding out in the rural west and in the working-class areas of the state looks to be the ticket to victory for him.

Pennsylvania's PVI by county in the 2018 Senate race. Map made by Zach Adams (@PVIGuy)

If Biden continues the suburban swings observed over the last four years, the state is extremely likely to find itself back in the Democratic column come 2020 by a fairly large margin. The President is playing whack-a-mole in trying to prevent suburban bleeding while avoiding losses in white working-class areas, and there's no evidence to believe he's succeeding. At this point, a Biden loss in the state would be more shocking than Trump's victory in it was in 2016.

Questions over the validity of mail-in ballots and the late counts prevent me from moving this state to the safe column, but Donald Trump needs more than a normal polling error to win against the man once dubbed as "Pennsylvania's third senator". It may be a long time before we know the results in this state, thanks to mail-in ballots, but when we do, it would be a serious surprise if it was to come in as anything other than a Biden victory.

Rating: Likely Democratic

A special thanks to Zach Adams (@PVIGuy) for his help with this piece with both his maps and his excellent analysis. If you liked this piece, you can find more analysis like this here and on my twitter (@LXEagle17).

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