Pennsylvania loses status as swing state
A voter boom that helped shape the 2008 presidential race has slowed in Pennsylvania, where both major parties have lost thousands of registered voters headed into the Nov. 6 election.
State officials listed 8.41 million registered voters this week, down 4 percent from nearly 8.76 million in November 2008. Last-minute applications processed on or after the registration deadline on Tuesday this week should buoy the final tally but probably not enough to catch 2008 levels, political analysts say.
“We're not really a swing state this time around. It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that swing,” said Jeff Brauer, a professor of political science at Keystone College in Bradford County. “The attention isn't here.
“I think the whole state is kind of feeling that lack of attention,” he said, noting polls consistently show President Obama with the lead in Pennsylvania.
Voter registration typically grows from one presidential election cycle to the next, having last slumped in 1988, according to state data. Pennsylvania's longtime position as a well-populated swing state — winnable by both Republicans and Democrats — had made it a perennial focal point for campaign advertising, candidate visits and get-out-the-vote programs.
Voter registration gathered momentum particularly in the 2008 contest, in which Pennsylvania's rolls swell about 5 percent from 2004. Both sides made it a primary goal to register new voters, especially young people, said political analyst Gerald Shuster.
This year, however, “the Democrats in particular are not aggressively pursuing this as compared to 2008. It's pretty evident,” said Shuster, who lectures at the University of Pittsburgh.
Registered Democrats in Pennsylvania numbered 4.2 million as of Monday, down 264,990 from November 2008. The Republican Party counted 3.1 million voters, a decline of 128,178. The state population grew roughly 3 percent in the same period.
County election officials pull names from the rolls when voters move from Pennsylvania, die or otherwise go inactive for an extended period of years. It's unclear how many total voters that officials have pulled for inactivity.
Allegheny County reported dropping 50,000 voters in 2009 when it last completed a major purge.
President Obama's estimated lead in Pennsylvania has ranged from 2 to 10 percentage points in recent opinion polls. Two autumn surveys by Susquehanna Polling and Research — one conducted Sept. 23 for the Tribune-Review — showed Republican nominee Mitt Romney with 45 percent and Obama with 47 percent of likely voters.
Observers also point to several other factors influencing the voter numbers, now close to 2004 levels.
“I think in times of economic struggle, people are more inward-looking,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
He suggested financial stresses may depress voter interest. And given the economic downturn, would-be voters may be more jaded over political gridlock in Washington, he said.
“It's not unprecedented for an election to have fewer votes than the previous election,” he said.
The 1996 race, when then-President Bill Clinton won re-election, logged fewer votes than the prior cycle. His Republican opponent was Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.
Skelley's center expects national Election Day turnout of 60 percent among the voting-age population, down from 62 percent in November 2008.
Staff writer Jodi Weigand contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.