Voter turnout is make or break for Democrats in Keystone State

PHILADELPHIA — Democratic volunteer Carol LaBelle appears undaunted by this fall’s headwind of GOP enthusiasm as she works her way through a call list of fellow senior citizens at a phone bank in Center City.

Along with about a dozen other volunteers at this Philadelphia office, staffed and run by Organizing for America, LaBelle is trying to drum up support for the Democrats that top Pennsylvania's ticket this fall: gubernatorial nominee Dan Onorato and Rep. Joe Sestak, who with Republican Pat Toomey is locked in one of the tightest Senate battles in the country in 2010.

“They seem enthusiastic,” LaBelle said of her targets. “They're concerned about their Social Security just like I am."

LaBelle is phoning Democrats who backed President Obama in 2008, urging them to return to the polls this fall. Stumbling upon a wavering voter, LaBelle launches into her pitch, at the center of which is the president.

“We need to keep Democrats in there to support him,” LaBelle told the caller.

Turnout in Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs is likely to make or break Sestak this fall, and could offer the Democrat some cover in a year where the environment is very much working against him.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Pennsylvania by some 1.1 million voters, a surge from registration efforts undertaken by the campaign of both Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) during the 2008 Democratic primary.

Across the state, some 225,000 Republicans switched their party affiliation to Democrat in the run-up to the 2008 presidential race, with a majority of those switches coming in Philadelphia's crucial suburbs, which are comprised of four key counties — Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware.

Both candidates have been making a play for centrist voters in the suburbs, with Sestak painting Toomey as too far right for Pennsylvania's electorate. The Democrat has also used Toomey's endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin against him, and tried to tie the former congressman to Delaware Republican candidate for Senate, Christine O'Donnell.

Toomey has focused on spending and the deficit, labeling Sestak a pawn of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The Republican brought in former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to rally voters in Montgomery County last week.

Maximizing turnout in Philadelphia is a top priority for Democrats — and for good reason, said Franklin and Marshall pollster Terry Madonna, who noted that Democratic turnout in Philadelphia during the primary this past year was about 5 percent lower than the rest of the state.

“Democrats are working hard in this state, I'll give them that,” said Madonna. “But our data hasn't picked up anything that suggests a real turnout surge for Democrats.”

The low primary turnout worked in Sestak’s favor in his primary fight with Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), but Madonna said that won't cut it Nov. 2, when the Democrat needs to run up the margin in Philadelphia to counter energized Republicans in the Philly suburbs and throughout the heart of the state.

The GOP enthusiasm is reflected in the early voting numbers. Republicans are outpacing Democrats in early ballots 56-34 percent, according to statistics compiled by George Mason University's Michael McDonald.

Over the weekend, Sestak focused on turnout with a series of get-out-the-vote rallies across the state. The Democrat has a slew of others planned in the Philly suburbs from now through Election Day.

President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden underlined the importance of turnout during a rally for Sestak in Philadelphia earlier this month.

“We need to fight their millions of dollars with our millions of voices,” Obama said at the mid-October event with Sestak and Onorato. He warned the GOP opposition is “counting on your apathy.”

Madonna attributes Sestak's recent surge in the polls to Democratic voters coming home to their candidate and finally tuning into the contest. But he remains unconvinced it will be enough to motivate those new Democrats, many of whom are minorities and younger voters who cast ballots for the first time two years ago.

“We hit a wave of Democratic ads and the typical late rise in intensity among Democrats, yet Toomey's still ahead,” argued Madonna. For Sestak to win on Election Day, he needs to carry three of the four key countries surrounding Philadelphia, a tall task given the outsized concern over government spending and deficits in that region.

Madonna’s numbers show independents in the suburbs disapproving of the president by a solid margin, citing deficits and spending among their top concerns.

“The problem for Democrats is that these independents are about a third of all voters there,” he said.

The problem for Democrats in Pennsylvania reflects the similarly tough battleground they face with suburban independents across the country. The party is at risk of going in reverse from 2006 and 2008, when Democrats broke through with voters in Republican-leaning suburban and ex-urban counties in key states like Pennsylvania, Virginia and Colorado. Obama put the later two states in the Democratic column for the first time in years.

In 2008, Obama won the suburbs by a two-point margin, where Al Gore and John Kerry both failed. He also shrunk the GOP's advantage significantly with white male voters.

After 2008, Brookings scholar and political demographer Ruy Teixeira pointed to Obama's strength in the suburbs of Philadelphia and the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., as indicative of a trend with the potential to give serious staying power to Democratic majorities in Congress.

“Cities and suburbs also played an important role in slow-growing battleground states such as metro Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, metro Columbus in Ohio, and metro Detroit in Michigan,” Teixeira wrote shortly after the 2008 presidential race. “Here, new generations of voters, again driven by the mix of young people, white college graduates and minorities, are finding the Democratic message more palatable.”