Are Pennsylvania Population Changes Working Against Corbett?

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BY TONY WEST/ Time is not kind to Gov. Tom Corbett’s reelection hopes. The Pennsylvania that harbors his political base is not growing. His opposition’s stronghold, on the other hand, is growing. Yikes!

Although the Governor rightfully boasts he is the first Governor of Pennsylvania who was born in Philadelphia, he built his career as a District Attorney at the other end of the Commonwealth, in Pittsburgh. Southwestern Pennsylvania made him what he is today. He replaced a popular former Philadelphia Mayor, Ed Rendell, who also began as a DA and went on to become Governor.

Pennsylvania statewide politics is classically a struggle between East and West, with the West taking most rounds in the last 50 years despite being outnumbered in both money and votes. Western Pennsylvanians are known for dogged, practical teamwork. They have earned every win in Harrisburg.

But the trends are not in their favor, or Corbett’s. Since Corbett launched his campaign in 2010, Pennsylvania had gained 72,000 people by Jul. 1, 2013, according to the US Census Bureau, a sluggish 0.6% increase. That’s normal for Pennsylvania, which has long been a slow grower.

PA county mapBut growth is not sluggish everywhere in Pennsylvania. In fact, the County of Philadelphia, which had suffered a loss of 500,000 residents from 1950 to 2000, ticked up a bit in 2010. Three years later, Philadelphia has become the Keystone State’s growth hotspot, adding 27,000 new residents – one-third of all new population in the state! Tom Wolf, Corbett’s opponent in this fall election, is hoping for big support from Philly Democrats to whip up their public.

But wait, it gets worse – for Corbett and for the West.

Philadelphia’s four suburban Pennsylvania counties also gained 27,000 residents. No Republican statewide candidates can win unless they sway these legendary swing voters. Corbett took all except Montgomery last time. He won’t be so lucky this time.

Education is a huge issue for suburban Philadelphians. Their careers often depend on high-education industries like law and medicine. Corbett has picked up an anti-education aura that may be unfair, judging by the dollars and cents of it – but will be hard to shake in three months.

Third nail in Corbett’s coffin is the Dutch Country. This has been Pennsylvania’s “Sunbelt” for many years. No longer just a quaint patch of farmland, its small cities are sizzling. The entire corner of the state that lies on I-81 and southeastward (but not in the five-county area) – from Easton to Allentown to Reading to Lebanon to Harrisburg to Carlisle to Chambersburg – has added 39,000 people since 2010. Closely linked to the New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington corridor, it thrives on highway transit and backroom operations for big-city customers.

Add it all up – and greater Southeastern Pennsylvania, increasingly linked by strong business and transportation ties, has added 93,000 new bodies. The rest of the state is a loser.

Pittsburgh itself is doing all right. Its county, Allegheny, gained 8,000 according to the 2013 estimate. (Not nearly as impressive as Philadelphia’s gain, though.) But no other county northwest of Blue Mountain has shown vibrant growth since Corbett took office. Their economies are slowly wilting, following a long-term trend.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale, which all lies northwest of Blue Mountain, was to be Corbett’s rocket to the stars for Pennsylvania. It was a good bet in 2010. But it may not have created any votes for 2014.

It turned out that only seven of the state’s 66 counties have exploitable quantities of natural gas in this deposit. Instructively, five of them have lost population since 2010. Drilling may lead to pleasant new royalties for landowners and short-term receipts for motels and bars, but it doesn’t build long-term jobs around the wellheads.

In 2010, Corbett rode a wave of hope in the gas patch. Today, the mood is more sober there. Most people will have noticed they aren’t getting rich off it. Corbett took Gas Country with 73-54% majorities in his first race. He won’t do so well this November.

That’s not to say Marcellus Shale isn’t working for Pennsylvania. But it may not be helping Corbett. The beneficiaries of cheaper energy may largely lie along the Eastern Seaboard, along the I-95 and I-81 corridors. Many should be grateful to Corbett, who has undeniably gone to bat for Eastern Pennsylvania industries. But it is less clear how many realize this and will be loyal to him.

New money tends to go hand in hand with new population growth. So Corbett  – and other statewide Republican campaigns and candidates  – will find fundraising becoming steadily harder if they ignore the rich Southeastern counties.

New voters are always a challenge for politicians. The population boom in the Dutch Country raises concerns.

No Republican candidate can win statewide if the “T” between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia is disaffected. But the energy-patch parts of the “T” are already grumpy. That leaves the non-Marcellus “T”.

Mostly that is Dutch Country, which traditionally provided a bedrock Republican vote in places like York Co., where in 2010 Corbett got 54,000 votes more than his foe Dan Onorato, also from Allegheny Co., a 71% win. But Wolf hails from York Co. He could carry it. Dutch Country voters gave Obama good numbers in 2008 (although not in 2012). They are increasingly flippable. Wolf’s cultural roots and his small-business style will detach many other Dutch Country voters from Corbett.

Corbett is left with a western heartland of voters who are, unfortunately, losing heart. They are dying out or leaving.

That’s no way to keep winning elections.

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