Pennsylvania Primary Puts Regional Loyalties to the Test

(Photo: AP/Keith Srakocic)

Mayor John Fetterman of Braddock, a town in western Pennsylvania, announces his candidacy for U.S. Senate on September 14, 2015, in Braddock.

The statewide Democratic primary elections in Pennsylvania this year have been pitched as a knock-down, drag-out battle for regional dominance. Traditionally, the state has been split between its two principal Democratic strongholds: Pittsburgh and its suburbs, and the City of Brotherly Love. Each locus of power had its own political machines, its own power families, and its own candidates. The voters from each region were expected to turn out for the candidate from their part of the state. They could often even count on some support from voters in their region who weren’t of their party.

“The April 26 Democratic primary election for Pennsylvania attorney general is shaping up to be a classic East-versus-West political battle for the state,” wrote The Philadelphia Inquirer’s political columnist Chris Brennan. The race is between Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, son of a longstanding Pittsburgh power family, and Josh Shapiro of Philly’s suburban Montgomery County, which had been controlled by Republicans since the Civil War until he helped take control of it in 2011. The Senate race also pits two front-running candidates from the Philadelphia suburbs, but the Bernie Sanders–endorsing challenger, John Fetterman, is from a small ex-steel town in the Monongahela Valley. For him to have any chance at winning, his political consultants wrote in an early April memo to the campaign, he will have to depend on huge hometown turnout from the Pittsburgh region.

But the importance of these regional loyalties is in doubt in the age of increasingly nationalized politics, where presidential politics absorb an increasing share of media attention and local and state news sources have been dramatically pared back. Certainly, the type of loyalties described as central to these Pennsylvania races are no longer paramount in general elections. Are they dwindling in primaries as well?

Talking on a recent afternoon with a group of silver-haired union men at a bar on the western extremis of Pennsylvania, the Fetterman team’s prognostications about the importance of regional allegiances seemed ironclad. Our Gang’s Lounge is a neighborhood bar without a neighborhood in the old steel city of Sharon, which sits right on the Ohio border. The bar is an isolated outpost in a sea of commercial and residential vacancy. Although there’s actually still a fair amount of steel production based outside the city, the population declined with the industry: Sharon is about half the size of its 1950 peak.

“This used to be a bar for the working class,” said owner Gene “Pie” Rossi, a former employee of the Department of Labor and Industry. “The kind of bar crowd where you buy a drink, I buy a drink, everybody buys everybody a drink. There was just tons of money. But those days are over.”

Our Gang’s Lounge was holding a meet-and-greet with Fetterman, who is an imposing six foot, eight inches and over 300 pounds. But on this occasion, his quiet, sometimes awkward manner served him well in the tight, intimate confines of the bar, where he sampled the famous Buffalo wings and refrained from beer. Most of the people in Our Gang’s had heard of Fetterman; he’s why they were at a bar on a beautiful spring afternoon. That’s because the hulking politician has a degree of local celebrity. Sharon may be closer to Youngstown than to Pittsburgh, but Fetterman’s leadership of Braddock—home to Andrew Carnegie’s first mill and, now, the last two blast furnaces in Pennsylvania—has gained a lot of local press attention.

“Who the hell ever heard of Braddock?” laughed Rossi—until Fetterman came along. Asked if he’d vote for Braddock’s mayor, he nodded. “He’s got a union label on his sign. You don’t see that very often these days. And he’s the only one who came here. Of course I’m going to vote for him.”

But political science research seems to suggest that voters like Rossi, who pay attention to local news and are invested in local and state-level politics, are a shrinking minority. This means that in general elections, in particular, regional distinctions are less and less important, as voters allow their national political allegiances to guide their voting across the ticket.

But it is unclear exactly how powerful this effect will be on a Senate primary race, let alone an attorney general’s race. Political science is just as much a victim of the nationalization of American politics as the mass media, and both primaries and non-federal political races are too seldom studied. The University of Chicago’s Christopher Berry and William Howell found in 2007 that fully 94 percent of the articles in five top political science journals between 1980 and 2000 were about federal races.

Regional affiliation may still have a stronger effect in a primary than in a general election, but probably not to a degree that will make Fetterman a strong-enough contender to eke out a longshot win in today’s primary.

“I would certainly expect Fetterman’s strongest counties to be in the Pittsburgh area and the western part of the state, but I still think that those effects are going to be somewhat limited,” says Daniel Hopkins, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think Fetterman is certainly advantaged by being from the Pittsburgh area, but those effects are also declining over time as voters are becoming more interested in finding a candidate who matches their ideology and their sense of how to advance their politics.”

Hopkins has a forthcoming book called The Increasingly United States, which is all about the nationalization of American elections and, not unrelatedly, political media coverage. It also explores the strength of state and local affiliations vis-à-vis political ideology, and finds little connection. (He attributes this, in large part, to the decline of Southern parochialism, and to the end of white voters’ fanatical defense of the one-party rule that ensured authoritarian Jim Crow status quo.) Nationally, voters are increasingly less likely to split their tickets and vote for, say, a Republican senator and a Democratic presidential candidate. But they are also less likely to split their votes in off-cycle years by voting for a Republican mayor and a Democratic president.

Hopkins also details the decline of state and local media coverage, and of voters seeking out these sources of information. Most relevant for candidates like Fetterman, or for any of the candidates in the attorney general primary, the inclination of a voter from a particular part of a state to back a regionally similar politician is predicated on knowing who they are and where they come from. And if fewer citizens are seeking out news at all, as Markus Prior argued in his 2007 book Post-Broadcast Democracy, even fewer voters are seeking out state and local news.

The other factor, of course, is the decline of local party organizations and the labor movement, both of which could turn out voters for their candidates. Many of the older men gathered at Our Gang’s in Sharon were products of an era when the labor movement was so powerful in Pennsylvania that even the Republican senators had 100 percent approval rating from the AFL-CIO. Many of them had been involved in local or state politics, either as candidates, activists, or delegates to state conventions. These were people who paid attention to the emergence and rise of western Pennsylvania politicians like Fetterman or Zappala, and had done so for decades. They were perhaps never the norm, but today they are downright alien.

Nonetheless, there is still room for regional allegiances to influence primaries. In the general elections, not so much. Even presidential candidates can only expect a couple points or so of an advantage in their home state: Mitt Romney lost Massachusetts in a landslide, but he still did a bit better than John McCain had.

“We know from my research that people are voting more and more on party lines and less and less on local connections,” says Hopkins. “There is less of an advantage in being from the same county as a candidate. In primaries, if people actually know, hey, this is the candidate from western Pennsylvania, there is some chance that would matter. But I’ve been focused more on the general election, where the local factors and the home-state and home-county advantages have really been dwindling.”

From the latest poll numbers from Harper, released just before primary voting, it does seem that Fetterman’s regional strategy can be confirmed as a successful gambit, even if it isn’t enough to put him in range of victory. Compared with the last poll of less than a month ago, his support has increased to 15 percent overall. That jump seems to be largely based on the strength of his sudden emergence as the frontrunner in Pittsburgh and the Southwestern region that surrounds it. In the Harper poll of that region, he leads the pack with 32 percent of the vote, up from 18 percent a month earlier when he was dead last. His home region is the only part of the state where Fetterman has the lead.

Back in Our Gang’s Lounge, as Fetterman headed for the door, Rossi considered the enormous frame of the politician who had just been working his way through a plate of his bar’s delicious chicken wings. He said he may vote for Fetterman in the primary over the two candidates from the other side of the state, but isn’t completely enamored of the candidate. For one thing, the turnout at the meet-and-greet was awfully slim for a man in the midst of a heated Senate race. Rossi, shook his head, seemingly put out by the Democratic primary in general. But at least, he added, he knows who he’ll vote for in November. Anyone but the incumbent conservative senator Pat Toomey: “I wouldn’t vote for a Republican if it’s the last breath in my mouth.”

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