Friday, April 18, 2008

Keystone State Tour--Stop 4

Just north of Montgomery County is our next destination, Bucks County. Politically, Bucks and Montgomery have had a very similar recent history and trajectory. While traditionally Republican in orientation, the county has become not only competitive but has begun siding with Democratic candidates at the national and statewide level in recent cycles. Kerry won Bucks County in 2004 with just over 51% of the vote. Gore got just less, 50.5%, in 2000. Bucks was part of Governor Ed Rendell’s southeastern Pennsylvania sweep, garnering 70% here.

At the congressional level, Bucks county is essentially all of the 8th district. For the past few House elections, the 8th has been decided on a razor’s edge and it has alternated between Democratic and Republican control. The last iteration was a flip to the Democratic side in 2006 with Patrick Murphy’s defeat of Michael Fitzpatrick with just over 50%. Fitzpatrick had served just one term after taking over for Republican Rep. James Greenwood who had held the seat with relatively substantial margins since 1992. Prior to Greenwood, the district was held by Democrat Peter Kostmayer.

Demographically, Bucks County is a bit different from its southern neighbor, Montgomery. Most observers have bisected the county into “upper Bucks” and “lower Bucks.” Drawing on an old “Almanac of American Politics,” the authors write:

“Bucks County is one of those place names that have entered our literary imagination. The northwestern or upper part of the county is rolling farmland, easily reached by train from New York and Philadelphia. It has long been the residence of well-known writers and artists, who live in stone Quaker farmhouses near such villages as New Hope and Lumberville. These neighbors are sometimes Pennsylvania Dutch farmers or, more often, comfortably-off people with jobs somewhere closer-in in the Philadelphia area. But this is not the whole story of Bucks County; Upper Bucks has only about half the district’s population. Lower Bucks County is an entirely different place—predominantly industrial and blue collar.”

The county was the home to the second Levittown built in the U.S. and this part of the county acted as a repository for blue collar migrants leaving Philadelphia proper in the 50’s and 60’s. It is this rural/blue collar divide that made the district so competitive for so long. While much of the industrial base, including U.S. Steel, has seen drastic cutbacks in recent years, Democratic fortunes have been helped by the leftward drift of much of the traditional Republican voting base. Unlike Montgomery county, there is not a large university presence in the county.

Both Obama and Clinton have made numerous visits to the county. If endorsements matter, Obama is positioned well. He has the support of Congressman Murphy and recently received the nod by the Bucks County Courier Times. Like with Montgomery, though, this is Governor Rendell’s backyard and he has been working tirelessly for Clinton. Working against Obama in the county is its small African American population, only 4%. On the plus side for Obama is the economic profile. We’ve seen a correlation between county wealth and support for Obama (see earlier post). Bucks County is the state’s third wealthiest in terms of per capita and median household income and has a low unemployment rate compared to the state average. For Obama to be close or win, he's going to have to run up large margins in these suburbs to offset losses in the rural parts of the state.

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