Why is everyone else having all the fun?
As Democrats try to choose a candidate to challenge President Donald Trump, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina are, as always, setting the pace.
But if you wanted a good measuring stick for a presidential campaign, Pennsylvania has a lot to offer. It has two big, diverse cities, populous suburbs, and vast rural areas. It’s part Acela corridor, part Rust Belt. And it’s politically balanced, with Democrats and Republicans both regularly winning statewide office.
So why shouldn’t a state that encompasses so much have a bigger say in the presidential nominating process? Especially since winning the White House will depend heavily on who carries Pennsylvania in the general election.
“I wish we could move our primary up,” said Bob Brady, chairman of Philadelphia’s Democratic Party. “I want to be viable, I want to be needed. We’re not needed.”
The state’s population is a bit older than the United States as a whole (18% of its residents are over 65, vs. 16% nationally), whiter (82% vs. 76.5%) and much less Hispanic (7.6% vs. 18.3%). But overall, it’s still a decent match for the nation, particularly when it comes to the Democratic electorate. Comparing the demographics of each state’s Democratic voters to Democratic voters nationally, Pennsylvania is the sixth closest match, according to the data-focused website FiveThirtyEight.
(New Jersey ranked second. Illinois was first. Of the current early-voting states, only Nevada, at No. 5, made the top 30.)
But aside from demographics, the many cultural and economic characteristics in Pennsylvania — from white-collar office towers in Philadelphia to farmland in Central Pennsylvania, from the growing tech sector in Pittsburgh to blue-collar manufacturing in Erie County — resemble much of the country, and especially its political battlegrounds.
And it has that whole birthplace-of-America thing going for it.
But Pennsylvanians won’t weigh in on the presidential primary until April 28, after 37 other states and territories have already voted (plus Democrats living abroad). Nevada votes Saturday and South Carolina goes a week after that.
With knives out for Iowa after its caucus-night debacle, should Pennsylvania have a bigger say early on?
According to political experts, the vastness of Pennsylvania might actually work against it.
“The RNC and DNC like having smaller states earlier, simply because that allows candidates to be on the ground doing the sorts of retail politics that put them in front of voters,” said Josh Putnam, a North Carolina-based consultant who runs the primary-focused website FrontloadingHQ, referring to the Republican and Democratic national committees. “They see that as a more valid test of what candidates can or should be able to do rather than automatically defaulting to a setup where a large state, a populous state, or a large group of states are going first.”
In a big place like Pennsylvania, with almost 13 million people to reach, TV advertising plays a major role in campaigns, automatically giving an advantage to candidates who start with the resources to go big on the air. It costs about $1 million for one week of advertising in Pennsylvania, which requires placing spots in Philadelphia, the fourth biggest media market in the country, and five other TV markets that carve up the state, said John Brabender, a Republican media consultant who advised former Sen. Rick Santorum during his Pennsylvania and presidential races.
The current early states, by contrast, are small enough (in population) that person-to-person politics can still go far, giving lesser-known candidates a chance. Pete Buttigieg illustrates the point: the former South Bend, Ind., mayor used Iowa to vault into national contention.
“Before I worked in those states, I was part of the crowd that said, ‘Why in the world do we hand these two small states this much power?'” Brabender said. “And then when you actually spend time there during the first caucuses or first primary, it’s different. It takes a state that small to really be able to kick the tires.”
Indeed, it’s common for Iowa voters to see each candidate in person multiple times before deciding. Future presidents come not just to rallies, but to living rooms and back porches. Voters often describe supporting candidates based on how much attention the contender has given their specific community.
“Once the early states are over, it all becomes tarmac to tarmac, and symbolic local stop to symbolic local stop. A lot of official-sort of speeches and carefully crafted events," said Mike Lux, a Democratic consultant who used to live in Iowa. “In the early small states, you have to actually talk to people. You have to answer questions, you have to see people in smaller groups, and I think that is such an important thing in electing a president.”
Still, as the country grows more diverse, more Democrats are criticizing the special status for Iowa and New Hampshire — two largely white, rural states.
States are free to choose when to schedule their presidential primaries, so Pennsylvania could jump ahead if state lawmakers wanted to (though the national party has punished others who have tried to get ahead of the first four states, stripping them of delegates to the convention).
But the reality is that lawmakers might not want to move, Putnam said.
Moving up Pennsylvania’s primary from the fourth Tuesday in April would mean rearranging the electoral calendar for all public officials, and state legislators “don’t like disrupting their own reelection campaigns,” he said.
The state could move only the presidential contest, but that would mean paying to run two elections, and possibly lead to voter confusion.
Pennsylvania will have the spotlight in the fall, when it is expected to be one of a handful of states that could decide who sits in the White House.