Look Back on Pennsylvania’s Election History


George H.W. Bush at a Pennsylvania High School in September 1992. (via National Archives and Records Administration)

Garrett Gess, Writer

The 2022 midterms after finally here! Before debates are waged between Fetterman vs. Oz, Mastriano vs. Shapiro, and the local elections, it’s important to take a look back on the election history of the great state of Pennsylvania.

Political correspondent James Carville once described Pennsylvania as “Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west and Alabama in the middle.” There’s definitely some truth to that. Often times the political map of Pennsylvania is shaped like a “T” because of democrat support in the Pittsburgh region and in the Philadelphia region, while much of Central and Northern Pennsylvania supports Republican.

After the 2022 elections conclude, full focus will be centered towards the Presidential Election of 2024. Pennsylvania is an important battleground state. PA holds 19 electoral votes and was decided by one percent in the last two presidential elections. Republican Donald Trump carrying the state in 2016, and Democrat Joe Biden in 2020. Pennsylvania has an important role in American politics throughout history.

Pre Republican-Democrat Rivalry (Before 1860)

In the early days of American history, Pennsylvania was very mainstream. Pennsylvania didn’t quite fit with the elite Federalists of the North, and they didn’t quite fit with the pro-slavery Democratic-Republicans of the South. Pennsylvania was mainly represented by middle class workers, who were ready to challenge the power of the local elites. For most of the United States elections until after the Civil War, Pennsylvania and America voted for the same person. The only exceptions were in 1796 when PA voted for Thomas Jefferson during John Adams’ win, and in 1824 when PA voted for Andrew Jackson during John Quincy Adams’ win. Both the 1796 and 1824 election were very tightly contested across America. Pennsylvania’s only president was James Buchanan who was sent to the White House in 1856 as the 15th U.S. president. Buchanan typically ranks as one of the worst presidents, mainly for the Panic of 1857 and his failure to stop the South from seceding before the Civil War.

Republican Beginnings (1860-1928)

At the start of the two-party system, Pennsylvania was a stronghold for the Republican Party. From 1860 through 1932, PA never voted for the Democratic Party. During that time, Pennsylvania voted Republican eighteen times, and voted for Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Party once in 1912. During the rise of the steel, coal, and oil industry, Pennsylvania’s population rose drastically. In the 1910s and 1920s elections, Pennsylvania held a commanding 38 electoral votes. From 1812 until 1964, only New York had more electoral votes than Pennsylvania. PA was always a big lift for the Republican Party during the presidential elections. But after the decline in manufacturing jobs across parts of Western PA and Eastern PA, Pennsylvania’s electoral votes continued to go down.

Rise of the Democrats (1932-1964)

The Democratic Party started to gain some attention in Pennsylvania in the early 1930s. The Republican Party could no longer consider Pennsylvania as a “safe” state. Throughout the early 20th century, the Republicans usually won Pennsylvania by double-digit percentage points or more. In 1932, FDR nearly took Pennsylvania over Republican Herbert Hoover, only losing by five percent. Americans in rural towns, farming towns, and steel towns, were most affected by the Great Depression and many levitated to FDR. Herbert Hoover still had the support from Philadelphia and all of its surrounding, more “well-to-do” counties of the Main Line to get the victory. In 1936, Pennsylvanians gained more trust of FDR and there was more widespread support of him. Through the rest of the mid-20th century, Pennsylvania kept similar voting demographics. During the 1960s, the Republicans began their “Southern Strategy.” Instead of relying on Republican voters in the Northeast, the GOP sought the approval of formerly democrat states in the Sun Belt. Pennsylvania didn’t agree with some of the new conservative policies and thus swayed democrat. In 1960, Pennsylvania, with a large Protestant population voted for Catholic Democrat John F. Kennedy. In 1964, Republican Barry Goldwater’s conservative ideology was utterly denied in Pennsylvania as Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson won the state by more than 30 percent.

Return of Conservatism (1968-1988)

In 1968, Nixon was also denied in Pennsylvania like Goldwater, but by a much thinner margin. Nixon ended up winning the U.S. election with only 43.4% of the popular vote as George Wallace took a lot of the Southern states in his pro-segregation platform. The Democratic streak of the 1960s didn’t last long as Nixon carried every PA county except for Philadelphia in the 1972 election. After the Watergate scandal which inflamed the unpopularity of Republicans, Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter took down Gerald Ford in the 1976 election that was tight, both nationally and in Pennsylvania. Even during Reagan’s near sweep of America in 1984, Pennsylvania still voted for the Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in many rural Southwestern counties. In the 1988 election, George H. W. Bush narrowly edged out Michael Dukakis in Pennsylvania, despite a near-landslide win for Bush across America.

Democrats hold Strong (1992-2008)

Bill Clinton’s election success of the 1990s included being able to win the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs, but also many of the rural counties of Pennsylvania. In 1992 and 1996,  Independent candidate Ross Perot had strong support in the rural counties and took votes from both the Republicans and Democrats. In the 1990s, many of the Northwestern PA counties were Democrat and many of the South Central PA counties were Republican. Both were rural and had similar economic ties, but varied in party support. The 2000s saw many of the rural counties float to the Republican Party, while the Philadelphia suburb counties began to strengthen their support for the Democratic party. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, which George W. Bush won, Bush had nearly widespread support in the Central regions of Pennsylvania, but the Democratic nominees in those years (Al Gore: 2000 and John Kerry: 2004) ran up the numbers in the popular metro regions to get the victory in Pennsylvania. In 2008, Barack Obama’s “Change” movement ushered in a victory, winning Pennsylvania over John McCain by over 10-percentage points.

Modern Pennsylvania (2012-)

The affluent Philadelphia suburbs began to levitate to the Anti-Trumpist faction after a long streak of strong Republican support before 2016. For example, Chester County voted for moderate Republican candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. In 2020, Chester County was won by Joe Biden by nearly 20 percentage points. The Philadelphia suburbs like Chester County viewed Trump as too socially conservative for an evolving country. At the same time, working-class regions of Pennsylvania are becoming increasingly accustomed to right-wing populism, even with deep roots to the Democratic Party. In 2012, Luzerne County voted for Obama over Romney. In 2020, Trump won Luzerne county by close to 15 percentage points. The working-class regions like Luzerne County viewed Biden as too “elitist” to run middle America. In 2016, Trump took down Hillary Clinton during a red wave across the Rust Belt. In 2020, Biden took back three of the four Rust Belt states (including Pennsylvania) that Trump flipped in 2016. Often times elections are won and lost by how the suburbs vote. Here in the 2020s, the cities will likely vote Democrat and the rural areas will likely vote Republican. It can be up to the suburbs to determine who wins.