updated 7/15/2008 7:20:05 PM ET 2008-07-15T23:20:05

Pennsylvania started off as the center of America: Philadelphia was the 13 colonies’ largest city when it hosted the Continental Congress in 1776 and the Constitutional Convention in 1787. This was one of the newer colonies, founded 52 years after Massachusetts and 75 years after Virginia. Under the benevolent rule of the early Penns and with its Quaker traditions, Pennsylvania soon became the major settlement in the Middle Colonies. Its tolerance attracted Englishmen of all religious sects and thousands of Germans as well: bordermen from Scotland, Yorkshire and Northern Ireland crossed the corduroy-like ridges of the Appalachians and settled the mountainous interior where General Braddock had been beaten by the French and Indians not long before, and where a decade later George Washington would again lead troops when the Whiskey Rebellion flared up. Pennsylvania, in the geometric lines William Penn had obtained from King Charles II, connected two major river systems—the golden triangle where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers joined to form the Ohio, George Washington’s goal in 1754 and later, and the wide Delaware estuary, with its thriving commerce and rich hinterland. Philadelphia was, after London and Dublin, the largest Georgian city in the late 18th century, seemingly destined to be the London of America, the metropolis of government and commerce and culture; Pittsburgh was the frontier metropolis, the key to the great interior of North America, the fulcrum point of American expansion.

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But Philadelphia—and Pennsylvania—failed to hold the central position the Founders had expected. The nation’s capital was put on the Potomac rather than the Delaware as part of a political deal, and the Erie Canal and the water-level railroad from the Hudson to Lake Erie channeled trade away from Philadelphia to New York. Philadelphia lost its chance to be the nation’s financial capital when Andrew Jackson in righteous rage vetoed the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States. Philadelphia’s Quaker tradition, tolerant of diversity and indifferent to others’ behavior, was overshadowed in intellectual life by New England’s Puritan tradition, angrily intolerant and ready to use the state to impose cultural values from abolition to prohibition. Instead, Pennsylvania became America’s energy and heavy industry capital. The key was coal. Northeast Pennsylvania was the nation’s primary source of anthracite, the hard coal used for home heating, and western Pennsylvania was laced with bituminous coal, the soft coal used in steel production. Connected with Philadelphia by the Pennsylvania Railroad, Pittsburgh was the center of the nation’s steel industry by 1890. Immigrants poured in from Europe and from the surrounding hills to work in western Pennsylvania’s mines and factories. Pittsburgh became synonymous with industrial prosperity, the inspiration behind the civic pride that celebrated huffing smokestacks. In 1900, Pennsylvania was the nation’s second-largest state and growing rapidly. But the boom ended conclusively with the Depression of the 1930s, and in parts of Pennsylvania it has never returned. After World War II, both home heating and industry switched away from coal. John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers traded higher pay and benefits for payroll cuts. Even when coal prices boomed in the 1970s, strip mining created relatively few new jobs. Similarly, Pennsylvania steel began its decline three decades ago, when management decided not to keep up with new technology and agreed to big wage and benefit increases with the mistaken confidence they could pass the costs along. Big steel got import quotas as long ago as 1969—Pennsylvania has been the nation’s most protectionist state since the first Bessemer converter furnaces were lit—but they didn’t create jobs. By the time quotas lapsed in the 1990s, the industry had modernized, but mostly in huge new Indiana mills and small mini-mills scattered far from the factories that once lined the Monongahela.

The result has been the slowest population growth of any major state: There were 9.5 million Pennsylvanians in 1930, 12.4 million in 2006. Pennsylvania cast 36 electoral votes for Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and 21 for John Kerry in 2004; it had 30 congressmen, as many as California, in 1960, but now has 19 to California’s 53. People growing up here are as likely to leave the state as stay, and few out-of-staters move in. Pennsylvania looks and sounds today more like it did in the 1940s than any other major state. With the significant difference that Pennsylvania in 1940 had lots of young people, while the Pennsylvania of 2006 has the second largest elderly population (after Florida) of any state. Although Pennsylvania started off as our center of government, government has not been central to Pennsylvania for most of its history. During the Civil War, Pennsylvania was the site of the northernmost advance of the Confederate Army, at Carlisle, just north of Gettysburg; for generations after, it was the most Republican of the large states—for Lincoln and the Union, for the steel industry and the high tariff. Its malodorous Republican machines built parties which were not representative of one ethnic segment but had a place for just about everyone: in Philadelphia’s huge City Hall, a knockoff of Paris’ Hotel de Ville; in Pittsburgh’s massive, Roman-columned City-County Building; in Harrisburg’s grandiose Capitol with its rotunda modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome and staircase modeled after the Paris Opera. In 1932, Pennsylvania was the only big state that stuck with Herbert Hoover and voted against Franklin Roosevelt. But the New Deal, John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers and the CIO industrial union movement, and a series of bloody strikes made industrial Pennsylvania almost as Democratic in the 1930s and 1940s as it had been Republican from the 1860s to the 1920s. Even then, parts of Pennsylvania not heavy with big steel factories and coal mines—the northern tier of counties along the New York border, the central part of the state around the Welsh railroad town of Altoona, and the Pennsylvania Dutch country around Lancaster, an area referred to by political consultants as the “T”—remained the strongest Republican voting bloc in the East. Philadelphia became a heavily Democratic city, but in the suburban counties, the antique Republican machines stayed in control. The result was a key marginal state in presidential elections from the 1950s to the 1990s.

In the 1980s, prosperous eastern Pennsylvania trended Republican and ailing western Pennsylvania trended Democratic. In the 1990s, culturally liberal eastern Pennsylvania trended Democratic and culturally conservative western Pennsylvania trended Republican. The east is larger—metro Philadelphia cast 33% of the state’s votes in 2004 and metro Pittsburgh 20%—and the state has mostly gone its way: Pennsylvania voted Republican for president in 1980, 1984 and 1988 and Democratic in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004. Metro Philadelphia, which voted 50%-49% for Michael Dukakis in 1988, voted 59%-41% for John Kerry in 2004. Metro Pittsburgh, which voted 59%-40% for Dukakis, gave Kerry only a 52%-48% margin. In 1988, the senior George Bush carried Pennsylvania east of the first mountain ridge by 53%-46%, but lost the state west of the first ridge 48%-51%. In 2004, the regions were the other way around. George W. Bush lost Pennsylvania east of the first mountain ridge 44%-56% but carried west of the first ridge 53%-46%. These countervailing trends can best be explained by attitudes on cultural issues. Metro Philadelphia and eastern Pennsylvania are like the rest of the Northeast, liberal on issues like gun control and abortion; content with the economy, voters here moved toward Clinton-Gore Democrats in the 1990s. Pennsylvania west of the first mountain ridge, however, is full of strong-belief Catholics and Protestants and hunters who do not want their guns taken away. Relieved of economic stress, voters here moved toward Republicans in the 1990s.

In Pennsylvania, there is an unusually fine balance on cultural positions. Abortion is not political death here: The late Governor Bob Casey, a strong opponent of abortion, was reelected by a wide margin in 1990. And when Governor Tom Ridge first ran for the office in 1994, an anti-abortion independent got 13% of the vote, and Ridge won with only 45%. Republicans through 2006 held both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and, thanks to a partisan districting plan, a 12–7 edge in the House delegation. But for 2006 Governor Ed Rendell and Senate Democratic campaign committee head Charles Schumer had another strategy. To run against Republican Senator Rick Santorum they recruited state Treasurer Bob Casey, Jr., as solid an opponent of abortion as his father but on other issues content to identify with national Democrats. Santorum had taken his pro-life position to un-Pennsylvania-like theoretic extremes, leading the fight to provide a legislative reprieve for Terri Schiavo and interpreting the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas overturning a state anti-sodomy law as blocking any restrictions on polygamy or bestiality. This insistence on pressing cultural conservatism farther than voters would prefer was matched by the insistence of the Dover Area School District’s anti-evolutionary “intelligent design” program, which was scornfully struck down by a Republican-appointed federal judge. Democrats were helped also by reaction against the Republican legislature’s voting itself a pay raise—a decision which resulted in the primary defeats of 17 incumbents, including the two veteran leaders of the state Senate—and by the personal difficulties of some Republican congressmen. All of this puts Democrats in a good position going into the 2008 presidential election.

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