G. Terry Madonna. Pivotal Pennsylvania: Presidential Politics from FDR to the Twenty-first Century. Pennsylvania History Studies Series. Mansfield: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2008. Illustrations. 126 pp. $14.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-932304-40-4.
Reviewed by John McCarthy (Robert Morris University)
Published on H-Pennsylvania (February, 2016)
Commissioned by Allen J. Dieterich-Ward
Any political junkie in Pennsylvania likely has heard of political science scholar G. Terry Madonna, who has run the Franklin & Marshall College Poll since 1992, keeping a finger on the pulse of the political habits of the Keystone State’s diverse citizens. In Pivotal Pennsylvania, Madonna usefully narrates the state’s history of presidential elections since the Great Depression. The central question he seeks to answer revolves around how Pennsylvania came to be widely seen as a “pivotal” swing state in these elections. In answering this, Madonna walks the reader through every presidential contest since 1932, providing a wonderfully coherent and readable reference of the state’s national voting habits.
Readers may be surprised to learn that Pennsylvania was anything but a swing state for over six decades after the Civil War, as the Republican Party dominated in national contests, mainly due to strong political machines in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The Republican hold on the state was so strong that even wildly unpopular Herbert Hoover managed to carry Pennsylvania during his failed reelection campaign in 1932. But Hoover’s decline and Franklin Roosevelt’s emergence ushered in the first major sea change in Pennsylvania politics, as the state flipped to FDR in the 1936 election and stayed firmly in his camp through World War II. As Madonna notes, Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition of voters included large numbers of newly organized labor unions, and these voters—voluminous in the state’s two largest cities—increased the Democrats’ power in Pennsylvania.
Since the New Deal, however, Democrats and Republicans have engaged in a tug-of-war for Pennsylvanians’ loyalties that neither side definitively won for long. After Roosevelt’s victories, Republicans won the state outright in three straight elections from 1948 through 1956, each by larger majorities than the last. But in 1960, John F. Kennedy took advantage of the state’s large plurality of Catholic voters to eke out a win over Richard Nixon, providing Kennedy with a crucial margin of electoral votes. Democrats won Pennsylvania’s electoral votes for the remainder of the 1960s, but Republicans then won the state in four of the next five elections through the 1980s. Along the way, a second major change in the state’s voting habits took place, as registered Democrats—now making up a majority over GOP voters—demonstrated a repeated willingness to split their tickets and vote for Republican presidential candidates. This allowed Nixon an easy victory in 1972 and disenchanted Democrats even supported conservative Ronald Reagan twice. The state’s blue-collar voters, so crucial to swinging Pennsylvania to Roosevelt in the 1930s, had thus in many cases transformed to so-called Reagan Democrats by the 1980s. The unpredictable nature of Pennsylvania’s presidential voting habits reemerged, however, as Democrat Bill Clinton carried the state twice in the 1990s (without ever reaching 50 percent), and Al Gore and John Kerry squeaked out tiny majorities in their losing efforts as well.
So why was Pennsylvania so consistently inconsistent? Madonna provides hints along the way. Diversity within the two parties was a Keystone hallmark; many political leaders in the state were willing to buck their party on key issues without losing popularity among Pennsylvanians themselves. For example, in 1964, as the Republican Party was about to nominate the jarringly conservative Barry Goldwater, moderate Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton threw his hat in the ring as a center-right alternative to Goldwater, who lost the state badly. In the early 1990s, another governor, this time Democrat Bob Casey, challenged party orthodoxy by supporting abortion restrictions, arguing Democrats needed to make more room for “pro-life” voices. Casey’s vocal criticism of abortion rights hurt him with the national party, but not with Keystone State voters. Ironically (or perhaps befitting the state’s political diversity), Pennsylvanians subsequently elected a pro-choice Republican—Tom Ridge—to the governorship twice. Madonna also demonstrates that the geography responsible for Pennsylvania swing-state reputation shifted over time. In the 1930s, the great migration to the Democrats took place in the urban centers of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and among black voters. By the 1980s, the swing back toward the GOP was found mainly in western Pennsylvania, where previously loyal Democrats were hardest hit by deindustrialization. Then, in 2000 and 2004, Democrats eked out narrow victories thanks in large part to Philadelphia’s suburban counties (historically as loyal to the GOP as any region of the country) moving toward the left on cultural and social issues. Thus while Pennsylvania remained in play in most presidential elections during this time period, different regions moved the political needle.
Madonna’s book is eminently readable and suitable for a very wide audience, but its thesis may work better as a historical marker of an era and less as an argument that Pennsylvania remains a battleground state. Published in 2008, the book cannot easily account for Barack Obama’s two straight victories, meaning that Pennsylvania has now given its electoral votes to Democrats in six consecutive presidential elections. Perhaps equally telling, Pennsylvania’s population has grown far slower than states in the West and South. Indeed, the state started losing electoral votes (which are apportioned according to population) in 1932, the first year Madonna’s analysis begins. That year, the winner of the state took home thirty-eight electoral votes, second most in America. By 2008, the number had dwindled to twenty-one, still significant, but clearly symbolic of demographic losses. The state’s current political situation remains anything but one-sided; Republicans hold a majority of House seats and control the General Assembly, while a liberal Democrat is now governor. But in terms of presidential politics, the state has become more reliably blue.
This is not a criticism of Madonna’s work, just an acknowledgment that we may have entered a new era of presidential politics that might perhaps form the basis of a revised edition. Regardless, students of both political science and Pennsylvania history will find much of value here, and non-academics will find Madonna to be an engaging and accessible writer. For these reasons, Pivotal Pennsylvania deserves a wide readership.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-pennsylvania.
John McCarthy. Review of Madonna, G. Terry, Pivotal Pennsylvania: Presidential Politics from FDR to the Twenty-first Century.
H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews.
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