Can the Biden Coalition in Pennsylvania Hold in 2022?

Control of the Senate Could Depend Upon That......

In Pennsylvania, the Senate seat of retiring incumbent Pat Toomey is up for grabs in 2022. Capturing this seat is key to Democrats’ hopes for expanding their extremely tight margin in the Senate or at least to retain the narrow control they have.

Right now, the seat is rated a pure toss-up by election sites like the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball. It could be another squeaker statewide election, just like it was for Biden in 2020 when he carried the state by a mere 1.2 percentage points. Can the Democrats’ replicate and ideally expand Biden’s coalition in 2022 so that they can flip that Senate seat?

To assess the chances of that, it is first necessary to understand how Biden did manage to carry the state in 2020, reversing Trump’s 2016 victory. Here are the overall contours of Biden’s victory in the state.

Despite all the postelection stories that focused almost obsessively on college educated voters in the Philadelphia suburbs (where Biden did indeed make significant gains), a detailed analysis of the election results reveals just how many moving parts there were to Biden's victory. Biden competed well all across the state and built a victory from many small vote contributions, even as he held down Trump's margins in areas where the incumbent needed to overperform. Indeed, Biden benefitted from positive margin shifts in many of these heavily white working class areas that Trump was counting on.

Looking at broad geographic categories, slightly over a tenth of Pennsylvania residents are in the very heavily white working class rural areas and about a sixth of the white noncollege population. These areas had a pro-Biden margin shift of about a point. In large suburban (58 percent white noncollege) and small metro (64 percent white noncollege) areas, where over three fifths of the white noncollege population of Pennsylvania resides, there were, respectively, pro-Democratic margin shifts of 4 and 3 points. In the urban cores, the least white noncollege by far, there was no margin shift at all.

Share

These patterns can be illustrated by looking at county level results. Besides strong gains in the Philadelphia suburbs, Biden also made gains in diverse, generally more white working class, large suburban counties across the state. Examples include Luzerne in the Scranton metro (66 percent white noncollege; +5 for Biden) and Northampton in the Allentown metro (57 percent white noncollege; +4 for Biden), among many others. Northampton was also one of the two pivot (Obama-Trump) counties in Pennsylvania that flipped back to the Democrats.

Then in the smaller, heavily white working class metros of the state like Erie, Reading, Lancaster and York, Biden made gains in all counties but one. Most notably, this included Erie county, the other Obama-Trump county in the state that flipped back to the Democrats (63 percent white noncollege; +3 for Biden). In rural areas, Biden was less successful but did make margin gains in numerous counties including more populous ones like Schuylkill and Northumberland.

This sketch of the Biden coalition suggests that a successful 2022 Democratic candidate should ideally replicate Biden’s pattern of gains relative to a 2016 baseline all across the state, while improving Biden’s performance in the core urban county of Philadelphia. Of these gains, the most precarious are probably those in more white working class areas of the state, where the potential for considerable slippage may be high without Biden on the ticket. This suggests a candidate like Conor Lamb might make sense, who has a track record of running successfully in Trump-leaning areas. But whoever the Democrats pick as their candidate, it’s sure to be a tough race where Democrats will need to compete hard in every corner of the state.