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Pennsylvania’s Presidential Primary: Day Late and a Dollar Short

By G. Terry Madonna & Michael L. Young

Pennsylvania’s Presidential Primary: Day Late and a Dollar Short

It’s the day Pennsylvania renews its quadrennial quest for national political irrelevancy–better known as the 2020 Pennsylvania presidential primary- an election scheduled to be held promptly after some 37 other states and territories have already selected the presidential nominees in both major parties.

One of the battleground states in recent decades that decides the fall election in the Electoral College, Pennsylvania almost never has a meaningful spring presidential primary. It helps decide who wins the presidency, but not who gets nominated for the presidency: bizarrely a state pivotal to the general election outcome is inconsequential in the nomination process.

This sad state of affairs now runs back decades to the early days of presidential primaries. As usual, Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential primary will be a day late and a dollar short. Once again Pennsylvania is going to have a presidential primary election that doesn’t matter.

Politicians, especially state legislators, like the late date which makes their own re-election tasks easier – and late primaries mean lower turnout – which makes it harder for pesky challengers to run against entrenched incumbents. Past efforts to move it earlier have met consistent legislative indifference.

This year, however, despite the best efforts by some of the state’s politicos, some observers think the late PA primary could matter after all for Democratic voters. Joe Biden’s surprising resurgence since Super Tuesday on March 3rd, has dramatically reshaped the contest from a multi-candidate free for all to a two man race.

If the contest is actually close in late April, Pennsylvania will be poised to give either candidate a commanding delegate lead, perhaps even to clinch the nomination.

But this is not likely. Biden’s impressive post Super Tuesday victories in Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi squeeze Sanders into a rapidly closing window of opportunity. Nor do the primaries scheduled next in Florida, Illinois, Arizona, and Ohio offer Sanders much encouragement. Sanders is staying in the race, but Biden almost certainly will have an insurmountable lead by the end of March, if indeed he does not already have one.

Nor is there much history to suggest it will be close by the time it gets to Pennsylvania. Since primaries became the de facto route to the nomination in the 1960’s, Pennsylvania has not had more than a few brief whiffs of a real contest–the most interesting one occurred back in the 1976 GOP primary.

But more than Biden’s string of successes and the long arc of history will bring the contest to a close well before Pennsylvania votes. Democrats are desperate to avoid a “contested convention,” one that goes beyond the first ballot to select the nominee. Consensus among professional politicians assumes a truly contentious convention might well doom the ticket to certain defeat in November. Indeed, this belief helps explain why there has not been multiple ballots conventions since 1952.

Pennsylvania’s present insignificance in influencing presidential nominations contrasts starkly with earlier times. In the nineteenth century into the early twentieth, state political power brokers played major roles in selecting the nominees of both parties prior to a convention. But in modern times, Pennsylvania’s role in party nominations has been trivial, despite being a key battleground state in the Electoral College .

Some state lawmakers have certainly shown an interest in making a change. At the end of January, the state Senate passed unanimously a bill moving the date of the primary from the fourth week in April to the third week in March, effective for the 2024 election. At this writing, however, the House has not taken up the bill.  No legislation at this point, of course, will change the trajectory of the 2020 contest.

But assent by the House to the Senate bill moving the 2024 primary to March could make 2020 the last presidential primary Pennsylvania voters are deprived of any influence on the nomination. The urgency of doing so seems compelling as Pennsylvania stands poised to lose yet another congressional seat in the upcoming decennial census,  For decades Pennsylvania has been slowly losing national political influence along with congressional representation as each succeeding census results in a decline of congressional seats. This loss of influence from a slow growth population is something we can’t do much to prevent. But making our presidential primary relevant is a source of national influence we can restore. It’s time for the state legislature to do that.