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As South Carolina looms, Democrats need to keep an eye on Pennsylvania
John Micek

After a commanding performance in Nevada last weekend, the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination sure does seem to be swinging Bernie Sanders‘ way.

With South Carolina and Super Tuesday now beckoning, there’s also a chance for the Independent senator from Vermont to further consolidate those gains. But some recent polling data suggests that both he and the Democratic primary pack still have a hill to climb in the three battleground states that will more than likely determine the election.

The good news is Sanders topped his rivals in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, according to a recent University of Wisconsin poll.

But the poll also shows the general election contest between President Donald Trump and the top-tier Democratic contenders - including Sanders - all within the margin of error.

Trump carried Pennsylvania by a scant 44,000 votes in 2016, or less than a percentage point, by converting working class Democrats and former Obama voters in the blue-collar southwestern and northeastern section of the state. And if you’ve been to Trump rallies in those parts of the state in the intervening three years, and I have, then you know that the support remains as seemingly unshakable as ever. 

A Quinnipiac University poll of swing state voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin released late last week suggests Democrats once again may need to sweat the Keystone State in 2020.

If it’s a political truism (and it is) that a strong economy makes it tough to defeat an incumbent president, then the Quinnipiac poll is replete with warning signs in Pennsylvania. Clear majorities of registered voter respondents said they approved of Trump’s handling of the economy and believe the state’s economy is either improving or staying about the same.

“If GDP growth is positive above about a percentage point, the incumbent party is, more likely than not, going to win the election,” Lynn Vavreck, a UCLA political science professor, told PBS NewHour earlier this month.

That’s not great news for Democrats, but the new poll also offers three reasons why party loyalists should be encouraged they can swing the state back to their column this fall.

On a more positive note for Sanders and his Democratic rivals, Trump remains deeply unpopular in the Keystone State, where a majority of voters (52-44 percent) disapprove of his job performance. 

Second, the poll also found that the White House’s ongoing trade wars with, well, everyone has eaten into Trump’s popularity. While the economy tends to be Trump’s wheelhouse, Pennsylvanians were equally split (47-49 percent approve) of Trump’s handling of trade issues.

And third, there’s the mounting evidence suggesting that Trump’s tax cuts and and his economic policies haven’t been the boon to blue-collar workers that the administration claims it has.

As University of Maryland/Baltimore County economist David Salkever wrote in a Feb. 11 op-Ed “total real compensation slipped 0.22% from the end of 2016 to September 2019.”

“So the next time you read a story about a rise in pay, try to see if it reports the wage data in nominal or real terms, and if it includes fringe benefits too. If it’s only nominal wages, the numbers may mean a lot less than they seem,” Salkever wrote.

The trick for Democrats in Pennsylvania - and the rest of the battleground states - will be figuring out how to convince voters the prosperity they currently enjoy is not the result of Trump’s stewardship, but rather the steady gains built during the Obama era. And there is clear and compelling evidence to prove that case.

Sanders, with his own brand of blue-collar populism, has the opportunity to show that he’s the logical steward of that legacy. But there’s a good chance that cautious Keystone State voters could get turned off by some of his more radical proposals, such as one requiring large companies to surrender a 20 percent ownership share to their employees.

It will fall to the centrist wing - Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar - to counter Sanders’ momentum and make the case for their economic bona fides. And Elizabeth Warren, the avowed capitalist who wants to reform the system from within, will have to make a similar argument.

Whether that’s enough to counter Trump is anyone’s guess.

But the slender margins in Pennsylvania suggest that Democrats don’t have to convince all voters, they just have to convince enough of them. 

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.