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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

How Pennsylvania Will Vote

Chris Brennan, Columnist, Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia, PA
July 27, 2016

Date: 07/27/2016 Location: Philadelphia, PA Description: Chris Brennan, a columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, briefs journalists on how Pennsylvania might vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. - State Dept Image

11:00 A.M. EDT


MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us today. Welcome back to the Foreign Press Center. We are halfway through the week of the convention and we’re very excited to see you all here. It’s my honor this morning to welcome our next briefer, who will be discussing the role of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in the upcoming elections, Mr. Chris Brennan of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Mr. Brennan covers people, power, and, of course, politics – very relevant today. He was previously the political editor for the Daily News. Since 1999, Mr. Brennan has covered elections for president, the U.S. Senate, and the House; the governor of Pennsylvania, the mayor of Philadelphia, and other public offices. He’s an original Philadelphian, so uniquely qualified to discuss these topics.

Before we begin, I’d like to remind everybody to put their mobile devices on vibrate or silent, and again, I will point out that, as with all of our briefers, Mr. Brennan’s views are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Government. So without further ado, I’ll turn it over to you, Mr. Brennan. Thank you very much.

MR BRENNAN: Good morning. That’s the first time anybody has ever had to clarify that my views do not reflect the U.S. Government’s, so put that in the book.

I’m Chris Brennan. I’m from Philadelphia originally. I’ve worked here for 17 years; I’ve also worked for publications in New Jersey, Florida, and Hawaii, and I grew up on politics. I like it. My grandfather was a Philadelphia cop; my dad worked for the city of Philadelphia. It was the stuff of our dinner room – our dinner table. Everybody talked about it.

So I’ve got a couple of points to make and then I’m going to open it up to questions. I encourage you to hit me with your questions now. I can stick around for a little bit afterwards, but I’ve got another deadline to hit. What I want to tell you first is RealClear Politics, which is in this tent, does a pretty good job of averaging national and state polls in this presidential race, and right now their average of Pennsylvania polls gives Hillary Clinton a 3.2 percent lead. That’s pretty much within the margin of error, so I would say that we’re looking at a race in Pennsylvania today too close to call. A Quinnipiac University poll – and Quinnipiac is in Hamden, Connecticut – two weeks ago found that Donald Trump had a lead of 43 to 41 percent in Pennsylvania. These – Quinnipiac tends to be a very reliable poll for this state. They also do other states and national polls.

The poll shows that – and this has been pretty well documented – that the Democratic and Republican nominees are historically unpopular. And that has helped put forth some contradictory conclusions, as in Quinnipiac found two weeks ago that 56 percent of the registered voters in Pennsylvania – that included Democrats, Republicans, independents, and members of smaller parties – found Hillary Clinton better prepared to be president, but 72 percent said that the old ways don’t work and it is time for radical change. One other surprise: The results changed significantly when Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, was added in. He got 9 percent, Trump went up to 40 percent, and Clinton went down to 34 percent. That’s unusual because Libertarian candidates traditionally draw more from Republicans – more votes from Republicans – than from Democrats.

That said, the poll is two weeks old, and we’re in the middle of a convention. And Trump got a little bit of a convention – what we call a convention bounce, a little jump in the polls after Cleveland last week, and it’s probably likely that Hillary Clinton will get one as we conclude here with her speech on Thursday and the big rally on Independence Mall on Friday.

You’ve probably heard some about this state’s history. We last voted Republican in 1988 – that’s 28 years ago – and that was for George Herbert Walker Bush, who at the time was vice president. We were a significant factor in denying Bush a second term in 1992, when Pennsylvania voted for Bill Clinton for his first term. The state has gone for Democrats in the last five presidential elections since then. Three times we’ve supported the winner – Bill Clinton for a second term and Barack Obama for two terms – and twice we didn’t, and that was George W. Bush and his two terms.

Still, Republicans keep trying to win Pennsylvania. We are considered a purple state in many ways – not red for Republican, not blue for Democrats – because we are bookended by two major cities – Philadelphia to the east, Pittsburgh to the west – but we have a very rural and very conservative center of the state. And that helps elect regularly a Republican-controlled state general assembly. And we also do a fairly routine switchoff of power in the governor’s office. It has historically been for decades now eight years of Republican, eight years of Democrat, then eight years of Republican again. This governor now, Tom Wolf, is a Democrat, and he’s an unusual one in that he knocked off our last governor, Tom Corbett, who was a Republican who only got one term. That makes Corbett unusual.

Mitt Romney waffled a bit in 2012. He wasn’t sure whether he was going to devote resources to Pennsylvania, but eventually decided to come back in and compete here. He won – he lost the state by 5.4 percent. Obama won this state by 10 percent in 2008 and won it by 5.4 percent in 2012, and I think it’s an open question of whether that was a result of economic factors that were depressing the economy of Pennsylvania or Mitt Romney’s dedication of resources to try to win this state that so often goes to Democrats – more likely some combination of the two.

I looked at the Quinnipiac poll from this time four years ago and eight years ago in Pennsylvania to get a sense of where those races were. Obama was ahead of Romney by 11 points this week four years ago, and that put him over. He was at 53 percent. Politicians love to be over 50 percent. That was an incumbent Obama with no primary challenger. Eight years ago at this week, Obama led U.S. Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, by seven points, and he was just under – he was – Obama at the time was at 49 percent, and that was after a long and tough primary with Hillary Clinton, who is now the Democratic nominee.

This looks like a very different year from those years. I was at an event yesterday with former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who is also a former mayor of Philadelphia, and he has been – he’s a Democrat and he’s been essentially ringing alarm bells about Donald Trump. It seems to me Governor Rendell’s impression that the Democrats in Pennsylvania are underestimating Donald Trump and how he’d perform here, so he said that. He said yesterday this state is in play. He thinks it’s up for grabs. He specifically cited Donald Trump’s rhetoric on free trade agreements, currency manipulation, things – economic factors like that that tend to play, Governor Rendell said, with white, blue collar voters who are feeling economic uncertainty. It was clear that Governor Rendell felt a certain level of frustration with that sentiment amongst those voters, because, as it’s been well documented, Donald Trump outsources his Donald J. Trump collection of suits, shirts, and ties to manufacturers in places like China. So he essentially attacks the economic policies that he benefits from.

And Rendell said it doesn’t make any sense, but – to him, but he – as a Democrat, he sees the threat as in our immediate area and just to the north of us. So Philadelphia is a reliably Democratic town. We’ve got a seven to one voter registration over Republicans. And – but in the – what we call the collar counties – that is Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester counties – those are more in play regularly. Montgomery county has been trending Democratic, Delaware is heading that way, Bucks is getting there a little slower, and Chester is still pretty reliably a Republican county. But these voters tend to be a little bit more metropolitan than the center of the state, so they can go either way sometimes. A lot of those voters elected Ed Rendell governor twice. So in Rendell’s mind, if Donald Trump can win the four counties surrounding Philadelphia and the three counties to the north that we call the Lehigh Valley, then he thinks he locks up the state, and that would be the first time in 28 years that that’s happened.

A little bit about Pennsylvania: There are 8.3 million registered voters in this state: 916,000 more Democrats than Republicans, though Republicans tend to be more reliable voters, especially in what we call off-year elections, and those are years when big-ticket races like president are not on the ballot. There are also 1.1 million voters who are registered as Independents or members of smaller political parties.

And with that, I’m happy to take your questions. Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Hello. There we go.


QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. I’m Kris Ronneberg with the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. Can you say something about demographic change in Pennsylvania and how that’s affecting the election?

MR BRENNAN: Yeah. I think Pennsylvania reflects the country in that we have a growing trend of Latino voters; we have, I believe, minorities that used to be more centrally located in urban areas that are spreading out. But we still have very much what we call in Pennsylvania the T – think of Pennsylvania like a rectangle and the T goes up the middle and across the northern tier, and that is a reliably conservative, Republican kind of country. The southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh, is usually very reliable. And these are generally white, rural, middle-class voters.

You find in those small cities – Lancaster, Redding, Harrisburg – places like that, you find more diversity, but the thing about – the thing – Governor Ed Rendell’s winning strategy has always been to do so well in urban areas and their suburban counties that the smaller portion of conservative voters in these rural areas get washed out.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Yeah. Good morning. My name is Stefan Grobe with Euronews. We know that if Hillary Clinton wins all states that have always voted Democratic since 1992, she will be 28 electoral votes short of the magic number, and if we add Florida, she’ll be over the top. Now, one of the states that is among those Democratic states is Pennsylvania. It’s hard for me to see a reason why she should not win it. Can you talk about Hillary Clinton’s popularity in the state or unpopularity? Is Pennsylvania – does Pennsylvania have higher un-favorability ratings for her or lower? Talk a little about her image in the state, please.

MR BRENNAN: I think that unpopularity is a problem for both candidates. As of now, Donald Trump is, by the polling, less popular in Pennsylvania than Hillary Clinton is. But there is a – this is a very unusual year in that there’s a level of frustration for the way things have traditionally worked that is much more vocal, much more out there. And so it is possible that, even though Donald Trump is more unpopular than Hillary Clinton, that there’s an element of a protest vote, of a “let’s try anything else” kind of approach.

So it’s – as of right now, I think – we often get cast as a battleground state. Very rarely do we wind up really living up to that. I think this year, we do, and I think it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump does win this state, but he could still lose the presidency. I mean, if something like – if Ohio or Florida flip – there’s a collection of battleground states, and you only have to get so many of them. So I really think it’s a tossup as of right now.

It will be interesting to see how – one of the things I’m waiting for is for President Obama and Vice President Biden to be deployed as campaign surrogates because they’re both excellent speech deliverers. Biden can be sometimes a little eclectic and off-script, but they both really can deliver a fine speech and they both seem to have a knack for particularly targeting Trump. The Republicans have no shortage of people that are willing to go after Hillary Clinton too.

Anybody else? (No response.) All right.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Our next briefing will be at 1:00 p.m.

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