Pennsylvania is a big, important state. Why doesn’t its primary date reflect that? Experts weigh in

By: - February 19, 2020 6:30 am

The road to the White House runs through Pennsylvania. So here’s the map (Source: U.S. Geological Survey/ Univ. of Texas libraries)

By Tom Squitieri

Spring training for baseball is approaching and it is one good way to frame the heft of the Pennsylvania’s presidential primary.

Purple State - PAFor years, the Keystone State’s late spring primary has been the equivalent of a mop-up pitcher.

Yet as state lawmakers again ponder moving the late April primary date forward, political consultants say the state should pivot now and recast this year’s primary as critical for the Democratic nominee — no matter how far along in the delegate scamper he or she is by April 28.

Keeping it in baseball parlance: Goodbye mop-up pitcher, hello important primary closer.

“’l’ve never understood why they let themselves be relatively irrelevant,” Tony Fratto, a former deputy press secretary to President George W. Bush, and a Pittsburgh native and a University of Pittsburgh graduate, told the Capital-Star. “I’ve always thought Pennsylvania’s primary was far too late.”

When Pennsylvania voters make their selections on April 28, 88 percent of the Democratic delegates will already be selected.

Fratto said he thinks the state needs to tout its unique makeup — northeast, mid-Atlantic, Great Lakes, Midwest, and Appalachian, urban and rural, heavy industry and technology — to convince candidates they can at least close out strong in a state that will be critical — if not the most critical — in November.

The current proposal would adjust the state’s Election Code in presidential election year. Primaries would move from the fourth Tuesday of April, when they are currently held, to the third Tuesday of March. Had that been in effect this year, the primary would have been March 17,  joining Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio.

The bill cleared the Republican-controlled state Senate earlier this month, but it faces opposition in the GOP-majority House where House State Government Committee Chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, told CNHI Newspapers that many of his fellow lawmakers don’t see much point to the change.

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Fratto thinks state lawmakers should do it even better for 2024. He suggests Pennsylvania join with a handful of other significant regional states and identify an earlier date for their combined contests — further elevating the state and its issues.

He’s convinced candidates would relish the chance to campaign in states that better reflect party and national makeups.

Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, agrees the state can still recast its late date and make the best of it by convincing candidates to use the three week gap between the last primaries and the Pennsylvania vote to blanket the state —perhaps as a warmup to the the fall campaign.

That happened in 2008, when candidates, the media and political junkies focused on the six-week period between the last primary or caucus and the contested Pennsylvania primary between Hillary Clinton and then-candidate Barack Obama (Clinton won then with 54.9 percent of the vote, and then again won the 2016 primary over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.).

“The Democratic primary remains something of a muddle right now, and it’s possible that the nomination will still legitimately be up for grabs by the time Pennsylvania votes,” Kondik said. “So it may end up being very important.”

He acknowledged that “Pennsylvania itself has no real control over this. The race either will still be legitimately contested, or it won’t. But it’s possible that being later in the process will make the state more important as opposed to less. This is what lawmakers need to consider: Is it better to vote earlier or later, and how disruptive is that to the down-ballot primaries? One can make good arguments both ways,” he said.

The state’s presidential primary has been important on occasion, but more so to luck than design.

President Jimmy Carter’s primary win in 1976 showed he could win a big northern industrial state and helped solidify his path to the nomination.

On the opposite side, four years later the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s narrow win over Carter in Pennsylvania kept alive his flickering hopes.

Likewise in 1980, then-candidate Ronald Reagan was leading the delegate count when Pennsylvanians voted on April 22, but George H.W. Bush beat Reagan in Pennsylvania, one of only six states he won that year. That kept Bush going— and in position to be chosen as Reagan’s running mate.

Pennsylvania’s Republican primary could have mattered in 2012, but home state candidate Rick Santorum, a former U.S. Senator, dropped out of the race two weeks before the vote (he came in second to Mitt Romney, who had it all but wrapped up by then).

The idea has been suggested before and dashed for reasons important to lawmakers but baffling to political proponents of the state, mostly that more elections would cost more money, create more work for election officials and can confuse voters.

“They should have done it a long time ago,” Jim Innocenzi, a Pittsburgh native and a founding partner of Sandler-Innocenzi, a political consulting firm, told the Capital-Star. In fact, Innocenzi said the metrics and makeup of western Pennsylvania alone make it one of the nation’s most important ground zeroes — something that should be burnished by state politicians.

“This is not a partisan issue, we are talking about making Pennsylvania as important as it should be,” Innocenzi said. “It has the same win values for both parties.”

Innocenzi said one way for Pennsylvania lawmakers to assuage others states and mitigate opposition is to resort to an earlier idea that groups of states rotate who goes first in primary voting. Innocenzi likened it to the bowl games rotating as host for the college championship game.

Otherwise, Innocenzi said Pennsylvania should follow the example set by California, whose primary was historically in the last group of presidential primaries. “California finally woke up,” Innocenzi said, and moved it earlier into the primary season. If Pennsylvania does not, “they are going to be irrelevant.”

Tom Squitieri is a Washington D.C.-based freelance journalist.

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