The Political Geography of Pennsylvania: Not Another Rust Belt State

William H. Frey and Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira Nonresident Senior Fellow - American Enterprise Institute, Former Brookings Expert

April 15, 2008

This is the first in a series of reports on the demographic and political dynamics under way in 10 “battleground” states, deemed to be crucial in deciding the 2008 election. As part of the Metropolitan Policy Program’s Blueprint for American Prosperity, this series will provide an electoral component to the initiative’s analysis of and prescriptions for bolstering the health and vitality of America’s metropolitan areas, the engines of the U.S economy. This report focuses on Pennsylvania. Among its specific findings are:

  • Pennsylvania is becoming a demographic “bridge” between Midwestern states like Ohio and other Northeastern states like New Jersey, as its new growth is tied to urban coastal regions. While often classed as a so-called “Rust Belt” state, its eastern and south central regions are increasingly becoming part of the nation’s Northeast Corridor, with new growth and demographic profiles that warrant attention in upcoming elections.
  • Eligible voter populations indicate a state in transition, where minorities, especially Hispanics, and white college graduates are increasingly important, but where white working class voters continue to play a central role. While white working class voters continue to decline as a share of voters and are less likely to work in manufacturing and goods production, they are still a critical segment of voters, including in the fast-growing Harrisburg and Allentown regions where their absolute numbers are actually increasing.
  • Recent Democratic victories in Pennsylvania have featured strong support from groups like minorities, single women, and the young but have also benefited from relatively strong support among the white working class, especially among its upwardly mobile segment that has some college education. Compared to 1988, both the latter group and white college graduates have increased their support for Democrats. And both groups have increased their share of voters over the time period.
  • Political shifts in Pennsylvania since 1988 have seen the growing eastern part of the state swing toward the Democrats, producing four straight presidential victories for that party. The swing has been sharpest in the Philadelphia suburbs, but has also been strong in the Allentown region and even affected the pro-Republican Harrisburg region. Countering this swing, the declining western part of the state has been moving toward the GOP.
  • Key trends and groups to watch in 2008 include the white working class, especially whites with some college, who, unlike the rest of this group, are growing; white college graduates; and Hispanics, who have been driving the growth of the minority vote.

These trends could have their strongest impact in the fast-growing Allentown region, which may move solidly into the Democratic column in 2008 and beyond, following the trajectory of the Philadelphia suburbs. The even-faster-growing Harrisburg region remains a GOP firewall, but the same trends could make that region more closely contested in 2008.