As Democrats in Philadelphia prepare to nominate Hillary Clinton for president, Pennsylvania has turned into a battleground again for the first time in a dozen years.
Not since Republican President George W. Bush lost Pennsylvania by less than 3 percentage points to Democrat John F. Kerry in 2004 has the state seen a competitive presidential race. Democrat Barack Obama won Pennsylvania easily in 2008 and 2012, and the president is likely to be a familiar face in Philadelphia again this fall as he tries to help Mrs. Clinton turn out black voters.
“They’re going to need the president to play a key role,” said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “His popularity remains very high in the city. He’s going to have to do a lot of the ground work for her there to make sure that turnout level is the same.”
From a historical perspective, Mrs. Clinton should win the state. She and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have never lost in Pennsylvania. He carried the state in 1992 and 1996; she defeated Mr. Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary and then beat Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont in this year’s presidential primary.
Still, Democrats sense a lack of passion for Mrs. Clinton this year that could provide an opening for Republican nominee Donald Trump.
“She just does not invoke enthusiasm in people,” said Larry Ceisler, a Democratic consultant in Philadelphia who supports Mrs. Clinton. “The whole email controversy has certainly taken its toll, and there’s a bit of a fatigue. Sanders spoke to [voters’] hearts. Elizabeth Warren speaks to their hearts. Hillary Clinton’s not there.”
Mr. Ceisler, who grew up in western Pennsylvania, where his school granted students a day off annually for the first day of deer hunting season, said Mr. Trump is “playing very well with rural Pennsylvanians and blue-collar Democrats.”
“We are a gun-toting state,” he said. “Trump has an appeal here.”
Polling shows Mrs. Clinton with a slight advantage in Pennsylvania, by an average of 3.2 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics aggregate of polls. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey released July 10 showed Mrs. Clinton leading by 9 points, 45 percent to 36 percent. But a Quinnipiac University poll released July 11 showed Mr. Trump ahead by 2 points, 43 percent to 41 percent.
Mr. Borick said Pennsylvania is, for Mr. Trump, “promising, but with lots of caveats.”
“As a state that has a large, working-class, white population that is a little older than the national average, Trump has some built-in advantages,” Mr. Borick said.
Mr. Trump gave a preview Saturday of the coming battle in Pennsylvania, commenting on Twitter: “Crooked Hillary Clinton has destroyed jobs and manufacturing in Pennsylvania. Against steelworkers and miners. Husband signed NAFTA.”
Thirteen of the state’s 18 U.S. House lawmakers are Republican, and the party controls the state House and Senate. The state’s delegates at the Republican National Convention roared Thursday when vice presidential nominee Mike Pence urged them, “Make Pennsylvania red again!”
The bad news for Mr. Trump is that the state has nearly 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Many analysts believe the key to the presidential election in Pennsylvania will once again be Philadelphia and its ring of suburban counties, home to the types of moderate Republican voters who sent Arlen Specter to the U.S. Senate for a state-record five terms.
To win Pennsylvania, Mrs. Clinton will need to build up a lead of more than 500,000 votes in Philadelphia and its suburbs to offset Mr. Trump’s expected gains in the rest of the state. Mr. Borick said turnout among black voters in Philadelphia for Mrs. Clinton is “less certain and extremely important.”
“If Philadelphians turn out in the same numbers that they did for Barack Obama or close to it, it makes the math really hard for Republicans,” Mr. Borick said. “The question is, will voters in Philadelphia show up in the same way, especially African-American voters? She will need them. It’ll be an area where she’s going to have to do lots of work.”
As part of her outreach to black voters, the Clinton campaign has arranged to feature speakers at the convention Tuesday night who are relatives of black men killed by police in high-profile cases around the country. The move has angered Philadelphia’s police union, whose president accused Mrs. Clinton of pandering for votes and ignoring the families of slain police officers “who were victims of explicit and not implied racism.”
Mr. Ceisler predicted that Mrs. Clinton will perform well overall in southeastern Pennsylvania.
“I have a lot of Republicans as friends who tell me they’re going to vote for Hillary Clinton,” he said. “You have a lot of registered Democrats in the suburbs who are really moderate Republicans. It’s going to be very difficult for them to pull a lever for Donald Trump.”
Some question whether the state’s Democratic Party is up to the task of getting out the vote this year. Democrats are battling corruption scandals in the city and statewide.
Rep. Chakah Fattah, a Democrat representing Philadelphia and the longest-serving black congressman in state history, was convicted last month of running a criminal organization and resigned his seat.
State Attorney General Kathleen Kane, another Democrat, is facing a criminal trial next month. She is accused of leaking secret grand jury materials to embarrass her political rivals in a long-running “porngate” scandal, involving the sharing of pornographic emails among various state officials. Ms. Kane, the first female elected attorney general in the state, received strong backing from Mr. Clinton in her 2012 campaign as a reward for her support of Mrs. Clinton in the 2008 presidential primary.
The porngate scandal has even prompted two state Supreme Court justices, one Republican and one Democrat, to resign after being accused of exchanging sexually and racially offensive emails with colleagues on state computers.
Philadelphia’s status as a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants also is playing a role in the election, primarily in the campaign between Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey and his Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty.
Senate Democrats two weeks ago blocked a move by Mr. Toomey to strip millions of dollars in funding from sanctuary cities, including Philadelphia. The incumbent Republican said such cities “refuse to cooperate with the federal government in locating suspected terrorists who are in their custody and are in the country illegally.”
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who supports the sanctuary policy, accused Mr. Toomey of fearmongering and said the lawmaker’s proposal was “pulled straight from Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant playbook.” He said the city does cooperate with federal officials on immigration cases linked to suspected terrorism.
The Obama administration also stepped into a controversy in the Philadelphia suburbs last week when the Justice Department accused Bensalem Township, the largest municipality in Buck County, of religious discrimination for rejecting a permit for a mosque in 2014.
The government’s lawsuit seeks to force the township to grant the Bensalem Masjid congregation of about 200 families approval to build the mosque, provide training for township employees on religious land-use laws and pay damages.
“Our Constitution protects the rights of religious communities to build places of worship free from unlawful interference and unnecessary barriers,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division.
The township’s attorney said Bensalem has no bias “against Muslims or any other religious groups.”