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Pa. primary election set voter turnout records. Here’s what else the data show.

More Democrats and Republicans voted than in any midterm primary election in the last 25 years. The voter turnout data show how the state’s political geography is shifting.

A man arrives to vote at Rydal West Elementary School, in Rydal, Pa., last month for the May 17 Pennsylvania primary election.
Voters turned out in record numbers for a midterm primary for both parties.
A man arrives to vote at Rydal West Elementary School, in Rydal, Pa., last month for the May 17 Pennsylvania primary election. Voters turned out in record numbers for a midterm primary for both parties.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The 2022 Pennsylvania primary election — finally filed away in the history books after a recount — wasn’t just a wild political saga. It also set vote records.

More Democrats and Republicans voted than in any midterm election primary in the last 25 years. Who those voters are, where they live, and which candidates they supported for Senate and governor show how the state’s political geography is shifting.

The Inquirer dug into decades of election data and found that this year is a high-water mark — for now — of several trends that have transformed Pennsylvania politics in recent years.

In sharp contrast to preceding decades, voters in both parties remain energetic even during midterm election years, a dynamic that started after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Republicans saw particularly sharp turnout increases this year.

The state’s urban-suburban-rural divides are also growing between — and within — the parties. Pennsylvania Republicans are increasingly relying on rural areas, while Democrats are becoming a party of city dwellers and suburbanites. Those shifting coalitions have far-reaching effects.

Primary turnout usually doesn’t predict much about general election outcomes. The candidates are different. So are the voters, especially since independents can’t vote in Pennsylvania’s closed party primaries.

Our analysis bears this out: In presidential and midterm election years, high turnout in a primary doesn’t predict general election turnout.

But primary turnout does show how and where the parties are growing.

Here’s what we learned:

Turnout was very high for both parties

Democrats still outnumber Republicans by about 550,000 registered voters, but that’s down from more than one million a decade ago. And Republicans have been far outpacing Democrats in registrations in recent years.

But turnout is up in both parties.

Political observers attribute that to competitive primaries and voters feeling that the stakes are high.

“To grow turnout, you have to have really ripe conditions, and it’s here right now in Pennsylvania,” said Chris Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

The May 17 primary saw the highest number of votes cast in both parties for a midterm primary over the last few decades. For Democrats, it was the fourth-highest primary turnout in the last 25 years, lagging only the presidential races of 2020, 2016, and 2008.

For Republicans, it was the second-highest primary turnout, after only the 2016 presidential race. More Pennsylvania Republicans voted in this year’s primary than in the crowded 2012 presidential primary.

Republicans had more than a dozen candidates on the ballot in two close races. Anytime there’s a primary with so many candidates and no clear front-runner, people feel more as if their vote can make a difference, said Charles Stewart, an MIT political scientist who uses data to study elections.

“When I try to understand primary turnout, I look at the closeness of the top-of-the-ticket race,” Stewart said.

That makes it all the more surprising that Democrats also saw record-high turnout for a midterm primary. State Attorney General Josh Shapiro ran unopposed in the gubernatorial race, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman had a 30-point lead in the polls heading into election day.

It could be that Democrats are fighting against a sense it will be a tough year for them, said Sarah Niebler, a political science professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, noting the historical pattern in which a new president’s party loses ground in the midterm elections. “There could be a little bit of that in Pennsylvania Democrats’ minds,” she said, “being a bulwark against that narrative.”

And the stakes feel heightened on both sides, Niebler said, given that Pennsylvania’s Senate race could determine control of the chamber, and the governor’s race will have big implications for abortion, voting rights, and more.

But whose base is more motivated in what’s expected to be a high-turnout general election is what matters, Democratic strategist J.J. Balaban said. He pointed to the New Jersey and Virginia general elections last year, when Democratic turnout surged, but the GOP’s soared even higher.

“That election is a cautionary tale for my party,” he said.

Geographic sorting between the parties is continuing

The parties’ long pattern of geographic self-segregation continues: Republicans are increasingly a rural and exurban party, while Democrats rely on urban and suburban voters.

What’s less obvious, but equally important, is that there are also important geographic divides within the parties.

Consider rural counties. They’ve always been more important in Republican primaries than in Democratic ones. But Democratic primary votes from rural counties now make up just one-sixth of the statewide total — half the share they did 20 years ago.

By contrast, rural votes have consistently made up a third of the Republican primary electorate, even as overall turnout has increased and the rural population has significantly declined.

Many of these voters were mobilized by Trump’s 2016 campaign and have stayed engaged.

Philadelphia has long anchored the Democratic primary electorate, being between 15% and 20% of the vote. Republicans get less than 5% of their primary vote from Philly.

But city turnout has been stagnating for both parties.

For Republicans, Philly barely cracked the top 15 counties for primary votes this year. And while Democratic turnout set records, the proportion of statewide votes that came out of Philly was at a 10-year low.

A repeat of that in November could be trouble for the party.

“If you have a crash in Philadelphia, it makes the math really hard for Democrats,” Borick said. “It’s an absolute must for Democrats to be able to win.”

Democratic growth continues in the suburbs. For decades, the four Philadelphia collar counties were a more significant source of primary votes for Republicans than for Democrats. But over the last decade, that pattern has reversed.

In 2000, Democrats got only 10% of their primary vote from these suburbs. Now, it’s almost 25%. Since Trump’s election, that’s been a bigger share than Republicans get from the suburbs.

Oz and McCormick had no home base

The Republican Senate nominee, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, grew up in Delaware, lived for years in North Jersey, and has been living with his in-laws in Montgomery County since 2020. David McCormick, who narrowly lost to Oz, grew up in Bloomsburg but only recently moved back from Connecticut, where he ran a hedge fund.

In a parochial state where long-standing loyalties and regional pride count for a lot, both received an onslaught of criticism for being out-of-state opportunists — or “political tourists,” as some rivals called them.

“When these carpetbaggers lose, you will never see them again,” GOP Senate candidate Kathy Barnette said in April. “And if they should win, you will never see them again.”

Oz and McCormick were the top vote-getters, surely thanks in part to the millions they spent from their own fortunes, piping their messages into TVs across the state. But they got that support without the regional hometown boost candidates usually have.

Neither candidate was particularly dominant in any region of the state — especially against Barnette, who shares Oz’s current home county of Montgomery and won strong support there.

Compare that pattern with the GOP governor’s race, where there were strong hometown effects.

Although State Sen. Doug Mastriano won that race handily statewide, he lost by large margins in places where his opponents had long-standing bases of support. Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta ran up the score throughout northeastern Pennsylvania, where he was Hazleton’s mayor for a decade. Bill McSwain and David White won their respective homes of Chester and Delaware Counties.

And Mastriano performed best in his home region of south-central Pennsylvania.

The Democratic Senate race also had regional dimensions.

Although Fetterman carried every county, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb did his best in the Southwest, where he is a sitting congressman, and the Philly suburbs, where his brand of moderate politics plays well. And State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta was by far his strongest in Philadelphia. He represents part of North Philly in the state House.

Rural Republicans vote differently from urban and suburban ones

It’s clear rural Republicans aren’t just becoming more reliable voters — they also tend to vote for different candidates.

While Oz and McCormick performed almost equally well in all regions of the state, smaller counties had a special affinity for far-right candidates Barnette and Mastriano.

What’s more, rural voters — as well as supporters of Barnette and Mastriano more broadly — also voted heavily in person, shunning mail voting even more than other Republicans, who already generally avoid it.

The three candidates with the lowest share of mail votes were Mastriano, Oz, and Barnette. The first two were endorsed by Trump, who has railed against mail voting. The third claimed Trump’s mantle all the same.

Doug Mastriano and Mehmet Oz relied on different supporters

Although both candidates endorsed by Trump won their races, they did so with very different coalitions.

In fact, counties with higher Mastriano support tended to have slightly lower Oz support. They also had fewer McCormick voters.

Support for Mastriano was most strongly associated with support for Barnette. Smaller rural counties disproportionately supported both Mastriano and Barnette.

Barnette and Mastriano endorsed each other and campaigned together. They both embraced far-right views and election denial, and amassed large grassroots followings.

“True patriots,” Rich Hohenshilt called Mastriano and Barnette, standing outside a Barnette rally days before the primary.

Hohenshilt, 55, a long-haul truck driver from Bucks County, distributed lawn signs for Barnette in his travels across the state and was unimpressed by the other candidates, including Oz. “I believe she’s the only real conservative left that’s running,” he said.

Oz’s and Mastriano’s different coalitions could help Republicans in a general election, said Niebler, the Dickinson political scientist.

“If both candidates turn out their own constituencies and can make the argument that those voters vote for the other [candidate] … that’s good for Republicans,” Niebler said. “You’re getting different folks demographically, geographically out to the polls.”

To win the general election, candidates won’t just be looking at their primary voters. Given how closely divided the state is, they’ll be looking for every vote they can peel off, including from the 15% of Pennsylvania voters not registered with either party.

Oz’s general election campaign has started with events in Montgomery County, northeastern Pennsylvania, and Erie. Fetterman, sidelined from physical campaigning as he recovers from a stroke, has a slogan that spells out his strategy: “Every county, every vote.”