Election 2012
5:09 pm
Thu May 24, 2012

GOP Hopes Pennsylvania's Still Got That Swing

Originally published on Thu May 24, 2012 9:37 pm

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was talking about education policy Thursday in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes, is a frequent stop for presidential candidates. But, amid a campaign likely to focus on a handful of battleground states, some are starting to wonder if Pennsylvania is still a swing state.

At the Universal Bluford Charter School in a largely African-American neighborhood in West Philadelphia, Romney toured a computer lab, helped students with an assignment in language arts class and listened to the kids sing.

Standing in an inner-city schoolroom of swaying kids, Romney looked a little out of place. But as a former governor and CEO, he seemed comfortable leading a panel of educators.

"Education and the gap in the educational opportunity and achievement of people of color in this society, I believe, is the civil rights issue of our time," Romney told the panel.

Romney repeated his view that class size is not the biggest factor in a school's success. He says it is good teachers, good leaders and two-parent families who get involved in their child's education.

At one point, he turned the conversation to an issue on the minds of a lot of Pennsylvania's swing voters.

"Right now with so many people out of work — and particularly in the minority communities — this is devastating," Romney said.

Swinging Suburbia

Winning voters in Philadelphia is a long shot for Romney. The city voted for President Obama by a 5-to-1 margin in 2008. Still, television cameras will send out pictures of this event across the state, and in some of those areas, voters are more open to Republican candidates.

"I think if there's any place in the state that's going to make or break a presidential campaign, it's suburban Philadelphia," says Chris Borick, a professor of political science and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pa.

Borick says there are legions of swing voters north of Philadelphia, into the Lehigh Valley. He says some of them changed their party affiliation from Republican to Democrat in recent years.

They did it "because of dissatisfaction with some of the movement of the Republican Party to the right," Borick says, but, he adds, they are "by no means totally sold on Barack Obama or the Democrats."

Winning Over Voters

It's easy to find these voters on the streets of Allentown, Pa.

Patricia Terreros was a Republican, then switched parties and voted for Obama in 2008. Now she's a registered Republican again.

"I have three master's degrees, and I have to work 70, 80 hours a week just to make it," Terreros says.

The economy is also a concern for Bob Wise of Conshohocken, Pa. He voted for Obama in 2008, despite being a longtime Republican. He's just the kind of voter that Borick says Romney has a chance to attract.

But Wise says Romney's comments in February that his wife has a couple of Cadillacs and that he has friends who own NASCAR teams still bother him.

"I think that Romney has the challenge of trying to acclimate himself with ... John Q. Public," Wise says.

A Blue State?

In the past few elections, Pennsylvania has been considered a swing state. Voters here did elect a Republican governor and U.S. senator in 2010. But when it comes to the presidential race, Pennsylvania has voted Democratic in every election since the state narrowly backed Republican George H.W. Bush in 1988.

"Pennsylvania has gone Democrat five times in a row, so it's hard to claim swing status if you're, literally, not swinging," Borick says.

But Borick says past races have been so close that Republican candidates believe they still have a chance, if they can convince just enough of those suburban voters to swing their way.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Mitt Romney was in Philadelphia today talking about education policy. Pennsylvania is a common stop on the presidential campaign trail, one of a collection of battleground states. But in 2012, is Pennsylvania actually a swing state where Romney has a chance? Or is it a safe bet for President Obama?

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: At the Universal Bluford Charter School in a largely African-American neighborhood, elementary students greeted Mitt Romney with a song.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) I smile. Even though it hurts me, I smile.

BRADY: Standing in an inner-city school room of swaying kids, Romney looked a little out of place. But as a former governor and CEO, he seemed comfortable leading a panel.

MITT ROMNEY: Education and the gap in the educational opportunity and achievement of people of color in this society, I believe, is the civil rights issue of our time.

BRADY: Outside the school, a few dozen people protested Romney's visit. And inside, his contention that class size is not the biggest factor in a school's success also wasn't well-received by some of the teachers there. Romney said a school succeeds when it has good teachers, good leaders and two-parent families who get involved in their child's education. At one point, he turned the conversation to an issue on the minds of a lot of Pennsylvania's swing voters.

ROMNEY: Having good jobs, I mean, right now, with so many people out of work - and particularly in the minority communities - this is devastating not just for the people who are out of work, but for their kids.

BRADY: Winning voters in Philadelphia is a long shot for Romney. The city voted for Barack Obama by a five to one margin in 2008. Still, television cameras will send out pictures of this event across the state tonight.

In those areas, voters are more open to Republican candidates, says Muhlenberg College Political Science Professor Chris Borick.

CHRIS BORICK: I think if there's any place in the state that's going to make or break a presidential campaign, it's suburban Philadelphia and the whole southeast region in the state.

BRADY: Borick says all the way north of Philadelphia into the Lehigh Valley, there are legions of swing voters. Some of them changed their party affiliation from Republican to Democratic in recent years.

BORICK: Because of dissatisfaction with some of the movement of the Republican Party to the right, but are by no means totally sold on Barack Obama or the Democrats. It's easy to find these voters in the suburbs, exurbs and cities outside Philadelphia.

PATRICIA TERREROS: My name is Patricia Terreros and I live in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

BRADY: Terreros says she was a Republican, then switched to the Democratic Party and voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

TERREROS: During the last few years, I decided to switch back to Republican.

BRADY: Terreros says she has three master's degrees and is working 70 to 80 hours a week to get by. The economy is a big issue for her. But in November, she has no idea yet how she will vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRAIN)

BRADY: An hour away, a commuter train is coming into the Norristown Station, northwest of Philadelphia. Bob Wise says the economy is an important issue for him too.

BOB WISE: It's been improving slowly. It still has a long way to go.

BRADY: Wise voted for Barack Obama in 2008, despite being a lifelong Republican. He's just the kind of voter Professor Borick says Romney has a chance to attract. But Wise says Romney's comments in February - that his wife has a couple of Cadillacs and that he has friends who own NASCAR teams - still bother him.

WISE: I think that Romney has the challenge of trying to acclimate himself with the common - with the John Q public.

BRADY: Pennsylvania has been considered a swing state in the last few elections. Voters here did elect a Republican governor and a U.S. senator in 2010. But when it comes to the presidential race, Professor Chris Borick questions the swing state label.

BORICK: Pennsylvania has gone Democrat five times in a row. So it's hard to claim swing status if you're literally not swinging.

BRADY: But Borick says past races have been so close that Republican candidates believe they still have a chance if they can convince just enough of those suburban voters to swing their way.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.