On June 30, 2011, an enthusiastic Mitt Romney arrived here in the heart of the Lehigh Valley determined to make Pennsylvania a presidential battleground state.
Standing before the closed Allentown Metal Works, Romney told reporters: “The president is a nice guy and I know he’s trying, but he doesn’t understand how the economy works” — a line that Romney later observed had resonated with focus groups.
A key assumption underpinned Romney’s appearance in Allentown — that the working class whites
who once dominated this great industrial center would back the Republican nominee.
suggested that the state was fair game for Republicans. Seniors are a key source of support for Romney, and the state has a higher percentage of voters over the age of 65, 15.6 percent, than the country as a whole (13.3 percent). Pennsylvania is substantially whiter, at 79.2 percent, than the rest of the nation (63.4 percent). And unemployment in Pennsylvania matches the national rate at 8.1 percent.
Both the Obama and Romney campaigns made significant investments
in advertising in Pennsylvania. The pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, and two conservative PACs, Crossroads GPS and Americans For Prosperity, have together spent a total of $9.7 million; the Obama campaign and its allied super PAC, Priorities USA Action, have spent $8 million.
By the end of August, however, ad buying stopped. The Romney campaign effectively conceded the state.
In yielding Pennsylvania to President Obama, Romney has raised the stakes in Ohio and Florida, almost certainly making both states must win contests if he is to reach 270 Electoral College votes. Real Clear Politics has Obama ahead by a 1.9 point average in the eight most recent Florida polls
and by an average of 4.1 percent in the seven most recent Ohio polls.
Romney’s failure to gain traction in Pennsylvania sheds light on his struggles in other states with similar demographics, including Michigan and Ohio. The rapidly changing composition of the electorate here in Lehigh County, 60 miles north of Philadelphia — an area described by the Census as the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, PA-NJ Metropolitan Statistical Area
— parallels similar shifts taking place in other regions of the country.
Lehigh Valley is a case study in the rapidly multiplying problems of the Republican Party, its successes in 2010 notwithstanding. From 1968 to 1988, Lehigh County was solidly Republican
, voting for Richard Nixon over Hubert Humphrey 50-46 (with 4 percent for the segregationist George C. Wallace); for Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter, 53-36; and for George H. W. Bush over Michael Dukakis, 56-43.
In every presidential election since 1988, however, the Democratic nominee has carried Lehigh County, culminating in Obama’s 2008 57-42 victory.
There are conservatives and Romney supporters here, but they are no longer plentiful and they are not optimistic about Romney’s presidential chances.
When I met Kevin Balzer, a Romney supporter who is a Mack Truck supervisor, I asked him why his state looks likely to back Obama. “People are stupid,” he said.
City and state officials, he went on,
eliminated civics from our curriculum. The students don’t know about civics, they don’t know about our history, our government, our constitution. Politicians say they are going to give people things for free to get elected. That is what’s happening in Pennsylvania, especially in Lehigh Valley.
Balzer added that “the white guys got pushed out” of Allentown and neighboring communities, in part by a wave of Hispanic immigration. Balzer, who joined the exodus to areas outside of Allentown, said he and others want to “get away from the whole erosion of the country.”
From 1998 to 2011, the number of registered Republicans
in Lehigh County fell from 75,099 to 73,857, while Democrats shot up from 78,002 to 107,594.
From 2000 to 2010
, Lehigh County went from 83.2 percent non-Hispanic white to 70.7; from 3.6 percent African American to 7.7 percent; and, most significantly, from 10.2 percent Hispanic to 19.5 percent. In addition to the Latino immigrants, many relatively affluent whites have moved into the immediate area from New York, New Jersey and the Philadelphia suburbs, bringing with them Democratic voting habits.
Much of the Hispanic growth has been concentrated in Allentown, the county seat. From 2000 to 2010, the white population of Allentown fell, shrinking to 43.2 percent in 2010 from 64.4 percent a decade earlier. During the same period, the Hispanic population nearly doubled, growing from 24.4 percent in 2000 to 42.8 percent in 2010.
The political consequences of recent population trends have been dramatic.
William L. Heydt, a Republican, held the mayor’s office in Allentown from 1990 to 2002, when he retired. He decided to run again in 2005. He only got 41 percent of the vote. Allentown voters, he told me, came to the polls “by the busload, pulled the D lever, and had no idea who they were voting for.” Many, Heydt said, “were Hispanic, a lot African American.”
Even if there were a higher percentage of working class whites in the region, Romney would have faced an uphill struggle. A new survey of 2,501 adults, “Beyond Guns and God: Understanding the Complexities of the White Working Class in America,” published on Sept. 20 by the Public Religion Research Institute
, reveals clearly that the white working class (broadly defined) cannot, at present, be described as a secure Republican constituency.
The P.R.R.I. study focuses on a group it defines as non-Hispanic whites without a four-year college degrees who are paid by the hour or by the job. That’s roughly one-third (36%) of all Americans. The study shows that Romney’s nationwide 48-35 advantage among these voters masks crucial regional differences.
The reason Romney has a strong, 13-point edge among all white working class voters, according to the P.R.R.I. findings, is that in the South his margin is huge. In the rest of the country, the white working class is much more closely divided.
Among southern working class whites, Romney leads by 40 points, 62-22, an extraordinary gap.
The story in the rest of the country is different. In the West, where Colorado and Nevada are battleground states, Romney leads by a modest 5 points, 46-41. In the Northeast, which Obama is expected to sweep, except perhaps for New Hampshire, Romney holds a 4-point advantage among working class whites, 42-38. In the Midwest, where Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin are in play, Obama actually leads among working class whites by 8 points (44-36).
There is a noticeable lack of zeal for either Romney or Obama among these voters. Only 66 percent of white working-class Americans said they are certain to vote, compared to 87 percent of college-educated whites and 74 percent of African Americans.