PHILADELPHIA — When President Obama attended a fundraiser here in June, the city’s Democratic chairman bragged that Philadelphia’s voters are the key to a presidential candidate winning Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.
“However Philadelphia goes, that’s how the rest of the state goes,” Rep. Robert A. Brady, Pennsylvania Democrat, told the roaring crowd. “We’ve been doing it for the last 25 years, we’re going to do it again. We’re going to be the biggest reason why we’re going to re-elect Barack Obama as the next president of the United States.”
But even as he spoke, state Republican leaders have been pushing a plan to radically change that equation. If they succeed — and the GOP now controls both the state legislature and executive branch — it could cost Mr. Obama, who carried Pennsylvania in 2008, at least half of the state’s electoral votes in 2012.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Republican from Chester, proposes to switch from the traditional winner-take-all system for electoral voters to a format that would award electoral votes based on the winner of each of the state’s 18 individual congressional districts. The winner of the statewide vote would receive two electoral votes.
“Pennsylvania is a very diverse state, and the diversity is lost in a winner-take-all system,” Mr. Pileggi said in an interview. “We want to make sure individual Pennsylvania citizens know their vote is going to matter.”
The proposal, which will be the subject of a legislative hearing in a few weeks, has raised protests from Democrats who claim Mr. Pileggi is motivated by partisanship. Former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, who argues that Pennsylvania now is the third most important swing state behind Florida and Ohio, called the move “blatantly political.”
“Democrats have carried Pennsylvania the last five times” in presidential contests, said Mr. Rendell, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “It’s unfair to Democrats.”
State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, Forest Hills Democrat, called the Republicans’ electoral vote plan “a disturbing effort to put their self-interests and party interests ahead of the people.”
One practical effect of the proposal would be to neutralize clout of Democratic-dominated Philadelphia. Democrats often joke that Pennsylvania consists of the progressive bastions of Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west, “with Alabama in between.” They sometimes refer to the state as “Pennsyltucky.”
The sparsely populated middle of the state frequently loses out in presidential elections to Philadelphia, with its powerful Democratic machine and get-out-the-vote efforts, and the city’s moderate suburbs. Democratic candidates routinely win Philadelphia’s wards by a margin of 9 to 1, attracting enough votes in the area to carry the state overall.
Pennsylvania has voted Democratic in every presidential election since Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, although the contests usually are competitive. Pennsylvanians voted for Mr. Obama by 55 percent to 44 percent for Republican John McCain in 2008.
By one calculation, Mr. Obama would have lost 10 of the state’s 21 electoral votes in 2008 if the GOP proposal had been in place. (Pennsylvania is losing one congressional seat in reapportionment this year.) The only other states that currently split their electoral votes are Maine and Nebraska, which have just four and five electoral votes, respectively.
Mr. Obama actually benefited — marginally — from the proportional plan in 2008, winning one of Nebraska’s five electoral votes despite losing the state overall to Mr. McCain by 15 percentage points.
Pennsylvania Democrats are doubly troubled because Republicans have the power to push through the proposal this year. The GOP controls the state Senate and the state House, and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has endorsed the proposal.
Some observers fear the plan would result in fewer campaign visits by presidential candidates to the state, because fewer electoral votes would be in play. Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, said Mr. Pileggi’s proposal would create only four or five congressional districts that are “legitimately competitive.”
“We basically become New Mexico,” Mr. Borick said. “It wouldn’t be the prize that it is now.”
“If the election were held today, I think Gov. [Mitt] Romney would probably carry the state,” Mr. Rendell said. “Be careful what you wish for.”
But Mr. Pileggi said the issue is one of basic fairness.
“The goal is to more closely conform our Electoral College delegation to the will of the voters,” he said.