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The New Class

A close analysis of Pennsylvania's new Democrats, and why they could mean trouble for Hillary Clinton--and John McCain.

Amidst all the statistics clamoring for attention during the last six weeks of 24/7 Pennsylvania primary coverage, there's one key number that hasn't gotten the attention it deserves: 306,918. That's the number of new Democrats added to the voter rolls in Pennsylvania between January 1 and the voter registration deadline on March 24. 146,166 first-time voters joined the party and 160,752 switched their registration from Republican or Independent to Democrat. (A mere 39,019 first-time voters joined the Republicans.) The new Democrats have pushed the party’s total past the four million mark--a historic first for any party in the state's history. Those voters have the potential to change the results from Pennsylvania dramatically--both tomorrow, and in the general election in November.

At this point, any prediction about which candidate the new Democrats will support in the primary (which is closed; only registered Democrats can participate) is circumstantial. As a group, there's no polling data of their preferences, and newly registered voters aren't identified as such in any statewide poll. But evidence strongly suggests that most of the newly registered voters will support Barack Obama. Both campaigns led efforts to draw in supporters. The Clinton campaign dispatched about 200 volunteers to solicit the state’s already registered Democrats, but Obama’s campaign was more aggressive in targeting both unregistered Pennsylvanians and the Republican swing voters that he’s had success picking off in other primaries.

The highest concentration of newly registered Democrats is in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties--Montgomery, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lehigh, and Berks--an area that has become increasingly important in determining the state’s elections in recent years. Those counties' registrants make up about half of the 300,000 new Democrats. Though there’s no saying for certain just where those voters will go, the region is fertile ground for Obama--Philadelphia is home to a large African American electorate and the fast-growing suburbs, though less diverse, are experiencing a surge in affluent, college-educated voters. “They tend to be fiscally conservative but socially moderate,” explained G. Terry Madonna, professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College. “They’re not much enamored of unions, but they’re pro-choice and they’re relatively tolerant of diversity and they tend to be concerned about taxes.” Both Madonna and Jim Hoefler, a professor of political science at Dickinson College, likened the crossover voters to “Rendell Republicans”--the 19,000 Republican voters who switched parties to help Governor Ed Rendell defeat Casey in their 2002 gubernatorial primary battle. And the fact that most of the new Democrats are coming from Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs offsets the reports from more conservative mid-state counties that voters might be switching as a result of Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos," in which his "Dittoheads" register as Democrats to mess with the primary results. In those counties--Limbaugh country--the number of new Democrats is markedly lower.

And despite reports downplaying the likelihood that Obama can count on overwhelming support from college campuses, he’s likely to get a significant boost there, too. The state has more than 680,000 students, most of whom come from in-state. Madonna noted that a record number of students signed up through one of the several voter registration efforts on college campuses across the state, an observation that fits well with the data: In addition to Philadelphia and its neighbors, other counties with the highest number of newly registered Democrats are Allegheny (home to the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, and several other post-secondary institutions) and Luzerne (home to two Penn State satellite campuses, Wilkes University, and three other colleges).

Madonna cautioned that it would be difficult to estimate how many voters will show up on primary day--the last competitive Democratic primary in Pennsylvania was Mondale-Hart--but if half of the state’s 4.1 million Democrats vote in the primary, that would be in line with the kind of massive turnout seen in primaries thus far. And the new Democrats, seven percent of the state's total, can be expected to vote in higher numbers than people who didn't make the effort to register in the last few months. When I asked Madonna and Hoefler how many of the newly registered voters would go for Obama, both gave a rough hypothetical that has been floating around the state: 80 percent. The new voters won’t be enough to overcome Hillary’s strong lead, nor can Obama simply replicate Rendell’s strategy from 2002--he’d have to swing the precincts around Philadelphia dramatically to pull off that kind of victory, and he hasn't spent years as the city’s popular mayor. But if he can keep the race within single digits, his campaign’s strategy of targeting new voters will be considered a success. On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported, "Anything less than a double-digit victory could ... spark a flow of superdelegates to [Obama's] side." If Clinton fails to beat that margin, the new Democrats can be considered critical to Obama's relative success. “I think this is a very shrewd and important calculation on the part of the Obama people to pick up a couple of percentage points among these voters,” said Madonna.

Still, the recent "bitter" controversy emphasizes the uphill battle Obama continues to face--his remarks can’t have gone over well in a fiercely religious state. As significant as the minority and college-educated white voting blocs have become over recent years, the white working-class demographic still makes up 49 percent of the state’s population.

But looking beyond the primary, Pennsylvania’s new Democrats are the latest manifestation of a shift in the state’s demographics that make it look more promising for the party each year. A recent study shows the populations of white working-class voters and voters over 65 shrinking. Meanwhile, Philadelphia and its suburbs are continuing the growth spurt that has been bringing in more minorities and college-educated voters--the southeast corridor of the state now closely resembles the rest of the metropolitan northeast. Large margins of victory in the southeastern part of the state and in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have helped Democrats win the last four presidential elections. It isn't often mentioned, but John Kerry actually fared better in Pennsylvania with white working class voters in 2004 than he did on the national average. Today, the state has over a million more Democrats than Republicans. A few of them will surely vote for John McCain, no matter who the Democrats nominate, but he or she will still have an even stronger support base for the nominee than there has been in recent presidential elections--which suggests that the Clinton strategy of claiming Obama can’t win big states is unlikely to apply to Pennsylvania.

Marin Cogan is a writer in Pittsburgh.