Pennsylvania doesn’t usually play a pivotal role in the presidential primary process. Because of its late primary, ordinarily, the nominations are sewn up before the campaign trail winds into the Keystone State.
Every so often, however, Pennsylvania is “in play” and when it is, it’s epic.
In 2008, as Hillary Clinton battled Barrack Obama for the Democratic nomination, for a couple of weeks Pennsylvania was the focus of the political world.
This year, it's the Republican nomination that is hotly contested. With the increasing likelihood that no candidate will arrive in Cleveland with a majority of delegates in hand, delegate-rich Pennsylvania, and its huge “unbound” delegation, could easily be the tipping point.
Pennsylvania has played that role from the first contested Republican Convention to the most recent. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln arrived in Chicago trailing badly in the delegate count. His wheelings and dealings with Pennsylvania’s Simon Cameron led the Pennsylvania delegation to swing its votes to him on the second ballot, wetting the stage for him to win the nomination on the third.
In 1976, Ronald Reagan had a huge lead over Gerald Ford in the popular vote but trailed narrowly in the delegate math. Before heading to Kansas City, Reagan made a bold move by selecting Pennsylvania Sen. Dick Schweiker, a moderate to liberal, as his running mate in an effort to pry away some of Pennsylvania’s unbound delegates who were leaning to Ford. Ultimately the ploy failed, but it was a certain indicator of the importance of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania Republicans have a unique method of selecting delegates. The delegate primary here is separate from the presidential preferential primary. Historically, the Pennsylvania Republican presidential primary was merely a “beauty contest.” Delegates were all selected separately and unbound by the results of the primary.
A recent rule change now pledges or binds 17 “at large” delegates on the Republican side to the winner of the statewide primary. Fifty-four delegates elected on Tuesday remain technically unbound although many candidates have expressed personal preferences.
Donald Trump leads the polls in Pennsylvania and his impressive performance in neighboring New York this week enhances his standing. Trump’s support is spread across the state, while Cruz and Kasich look to have deeper local pockets of strength. Cruz should do well in “the T,” the central Pennsylvania corridor and northern tier, while Kasich should do well in the suburban rim around Philadelphia — the “Collar Counties” — and in southwestern Pennsylvania where he was born and spent his early years.
Trump should win the popular vote here (he has a double-digit edge, but how well he does in the delegate contests may be a very different story). As in other states, Trump’s campaign didn’t focus on a delegate strategy here until very late in the game and it could cost him dearly.
How well delegate candidates recruited by presidential candidates who have left the race (Marco Rubio, for example) fare and how they now line up could be the ultimate key to the Quaker State delegation. Republican delegate candidates in Pennsylvania, run without any indication on the ballot as to their allegiance or preference. It's simply the candidate's name alone that's listed. The Rubio supporters, few of whom are Trump fans, remain on the ballot. Many have good name identification and good ballot position, the two most important indicators of success historically.
One thing is for certain: interest in the various delegate races is at an all-time high. In contests that merited little more than a yawn in years past, there are signs and mail, poll cards and robo calls. In some districts there are 15 candidates vying for three seats on the bus to Cleveland.
The overwhelming enthusiasm and energy on the Republican side has been in full view in every state. Look for Pennsylvania to continue this trend with a record turnout on Tuesday.
Charlie Gerow is a political analyst for Harrisburg's CBS affiliate, appearing weekly on its Sunday morning show, "Face the State," which is syndicated statewide. He serves as the first vice chair on the board of directors of the American Conservative Union. He is the CEO of Quantum Communications, a strategic communications and issue advocacy firm. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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