The Philadelphia Metro Area
For over a century, the Philadelphia area was one of the strongholds of the Republican Party. In the time period between the Civil War and the New Deal, Southeastern Pennsylvania produced margins that made Pennsylvania an overwhelmingly Republican state. After the New Deal, Philadelphia's Republican machine switched to a Democratic machine, but the collar counties surrounding Philadelphia remained Republican all the way through the Reagan era.
Over the last twenty years, suburban Philadelphia has shifted from being predominately Republican to increasingly Democratic. While I have my explanations for what accounts for this change, for now I am focusing on the data, not policy recommendations. What I aim to do is to perform a detailed electoral analysis of each of the four counties outside Philadelphia.
Delaware County: Population (2000): 550,864, Bush 1988 Percentage: 59.9%, McCain 2008 Percentage: 38.8%
Delaware County is one of the smallest counties in Pennsylvania, adjoining to South and West Philadelphia. The core components of the county are a) small, first-tier boroughs near the City line, b) depressed Chester and surrounding municipalities, c) upper-middle class suburban townships, and d) wealthy Main Line communities like Radnor and Haverford Townships.
John McCain only won lighter populated townships in the western part of the county, and by small margins. McCain's best municipality in the county only gave him 56.3 percent of the vote. He defeated Barack Obama in only 9 of the county's 49 municipalities. What is worse is McCain's performance in the Delaware County portion of the Main Line. Radnor and Haverford are two of the four largest municipalities in the county and were the definition of the Republican Party for over one hundred years. No more. McCain could earn no more than 40 percent of the vote in these communities. McCain also lost slightly less prosperous suburban townships like Ridley and Nether Providence.
Not all Republicans fared as bad as McCain did. Tom Corbett, the Attorney General, ran about 10 points ahead of McCain in the Philadelphia area. I am using Corbett's performance as a comparison to show what a minimum winning Republican coalition looks like in the collar counties. Corbett was able to win the Main Line and the rest of the suburbs outside of Chester and the boroughs immediately outside Philadelphia. Corbett was able to win 30 of the 49 municipalities, including every major township except for first-tier Upper Darby Township.
Montgomery County: Population (2000): 750,097, Bush 1988 Percentage: 60.2%, McCain 2008 Percentage: 39.2%
Montgomery County is the largest of the suburban Philadelphia counties. Montgomery County features long established inner suburbs like Abington and Cheltenham Townships. The south and west axis of the county is the Schuylkill River, which runs through county seat Norristown before forming the border between Montgomery County and Chester County. A portion of the Main Line exists in Lower Merion and Narbeth. The northeastern corner of the county is exurban, developing within the past two decades.
Republicans have been pushed to the periphery in recent years: only Upper Montgomery away from the Schuylkill River is reliably Republican anymore. McCain won only 11 of 62 municipalities in Montgomery County. He lost the 23 most populated municipalities in the county, failing to win a municipality with more than 13,000 people. This was a disaster for the McCain campaign.
As with Delaware County, McCain had an abysmal performance on the Main Line. Lower Merion Township is the richest and largest municipality in the county, and McCain won a measly 29 percent of the vote there. Even Corbett could only get 39 percent of the vote, showing how far away they have drifted from the Republican Party. This produces a vote deficit so large that almost no Republican can overcome it. Even upper-middle class suburbia found in such entities as the North Penn School District are now lost to Republicans. Corbett was able to roughly split this crucial grouping of communities; McCain averaged only about 40 percent.
Bucks County: Population (2000): 597,635, Bush 1988 Percentage: 60.0%, McCain 2008 Percentage: 45.2%
Bucks County was the least traditionally Republican of these counties, possessing a strong Democratic Party post-WWII due to the presence of a Levittown in Lower Bucks. But now, Bucks County is the most Republican of the collar counties. In the past three elections, the Republican presidential candidate earned between 45-46 percent of the vote.
Lower Bucks is predominately Democratic, though not overwhelmingly so. Places like Bensalem, Bristol, and Falls Townships, which are essentially North Northeast Philadelphia, are the most Democratic areas. Middle Bucks is centered on Doylestown and the surrounding suburban townships. This is the swing area of the county and Obama's victory was earned here. Corbett was able to earn about 58 percent in the area made up of the sprawling Central Bucks School District. Upper Bucks is now the most reliably Republican area in Metro Philadelphia. McCain was able to win nearly all of the townships there, but the margins aren't enough to offset gains in the middle of the county.
There is more hope for Republicans in Bucks County than in any other of the counties mentioned here. The drop-off in the Bush years was insignificant, even as other collar counties turned away from Republican candidates in droves. One advantage with Bucks is that there is nowhere in the county that is really poor. The major town, Doylestown, is mostly middle-class, making it much more affluent than, say, Chester or Norristown. Also, not much of the county is dead set against Republicans. Only Lower Bucks (and only certain parts) provide Democrats with big margins. First-tier suburbs here are more amenable than in other counties. Middle Bucks requires a swing of a few percentage points and Upper Bucks, even in a miserable 2008, voted Republican, though the margins need to be improved.
Chester County: Population (2000): 433,501, Bush 1988 Percentage: 67.0%, McCain 2008 Percentage: 45.0%
Chester County is the most exurban part of the metro area. There are a few mid-sized towns such as West Chester, Coatesville, Downingtown, and Phoenixville. But most of the county is composed of residential suburbs. This is among the fastest growing areas in Pennsylvania and is the richest county in the state.
It was once one of the most Republican counties in the state. It gave Nixon 64, 57, and 68 percent of the vote in 1960, 1968, and 1972 respectively; 61 and 70 percent to Reagan; and 67 percent to the elder Bush. Those large margins are gone, though it was the only one of these counties to vote for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. 2008 was a historic reversal, as McCain ran 7 points behind Bush's 2004 performance, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to lose in Chester County since 1964.
In the case of Chester County, it appears there are more genuine temporary Republican defections than in other parts of the metro area, where more permanent ideological changes have occured. If any part of suburban Philadelphia was affected by the housing market crash, it was a fast growing county like Chester. Corbett was able to win the county by a near reverse of the presidential margin. McCain won only 25 of the 73 municipalities in the county. However, in another 24 municipalities McCain earned between 45 to 49.3 percent of the vote. Surely all of these municipalities were Republican in the past, and should not be too difficult to have them return to the fold.
McCain only won western townships in school districts like Octorara and Twin Valley. These are still mostly rural areas which are closer to Lancaster than Philadelphia. The most populated suburban areas were won by Obama. The Chester County component of the Main Line (Tredyffrin Twp., Easttown Twp., Willistown Twp., and Malvern) was won by Obama, though by slight margins. Obama ran up strong margins in the towns and was able to win over most of the important townships outside of West Chester, Downingtown, and Phoenixville.
The poor showing of John McCain and the national Republican Party in the Philadelphia suburbs is the top reason why Pennsylvania has increasingly become a Democratic state. In the next part however, we can see there is a different story to tell in the Pittsburgh area.