The Obama-Biden campaign bus tour rolling through Pennsylvania this week, about four months before Election Day, illustrates that the road to re-election runs through the Keystone State.
Many political analysts believe that President Barack Obama cannot win without Pennsylvania, so it would seem self-evident that the state should get considerable attention from both campaigns in the upcoming election. Instead, Pennsylvania has been downgraded by some pundits and may have been dropped from the list of top-priority swing states by the Romney campaign.
We believe that's a mistake, and that Pennsylvania instead is poised to become the Ohio or Florida of 2012 -- the battlefield that decides the outcome of the presidential race.
A recently released Quinni- piac poll found Mr. Obama leading by a comfortable 6 points in a head-to-head matchup in Pennsylvania, while also showing that he has only a 46 percent job-approval rating. That's in the danger zone for any president seeking re-election, and the fact that it's exactly the same number as his support base suggests that he may not have much upward room in which to move.
Historically for presidents seeking a second term, the Gallup Presidential Approval Rating is more predictive than early head-to-head polling numbers, and not a single president has been reelected with an approval rating of less than 49 percent since Gallup began reporting that number in 1948 (Truman vs. Dewey). If that number gets any lower in Pennsylvania than its current 46 percent, Mr. Obama's vulnerability will be clearly documented, and Pennsylvania will fit any definition of a full-fledged swing state.
Those who suggest the GOP should cede the Keystone State to Mr. Obama are turning their backs on a real opportunity. In addition to the national political salience of the floundering economy, persistent unemployment and the startling erosion of middle-class financial assets, the local Pennsylvania impact of the president's ill-considered war on coal and booming shale gas development, the perception that he's weak on the Second Amendment and his attacks on religious rights and the traditional family all spell trouble for the Obama campaign in the Keystone State.
The Quinnipiac poll documents that in Pennsylvania, as in the rest of the country, unemployment is Issue No. 1, and it's taking a toll on the president: 49 percent believe Mitt Romney would do a better job on the economy, compared to only 41 percent for Mr. Obama. Among independents -- who are more significant in Pennsylvania than in many other states -- Mr. Romney holds a 17-point lead over Mr. Obama on stewardship of the economy.
With regard to Pennsylvania's largest cache of swing voters, former Gov. Ed Rendell, also a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told a Bloomberg News roundtable in June: "Mitt Romney is the only [Republican] candidate who has a chance to do well enough in the Philadelphia suburbs to carry the state."
If Ed Rendell thinks Pennsylvania could be in play, then Republicans should pay attention.
It's not just in the areas around Philadelphia that Mr. Obama has problems. His ultra-liberal, anti-jobs agenda has him in trouble all across the Pennsylvania -- a state which is much more conservative than its recent presidential-election results would lead one to believe.
The twin economic realities of persistently high unemployment and slow growth especially worry Pennsylvania voters in the "T" -- the normally more conservative mid-state and northern tier of the commonwealth. That's why Pennsylvania may now be falling into the "fear" column for Mr. Obama, and why his campaign felt the necessity to engage a multi-state advertising blitz that spent approximately $852,000 in Pennsylvania from June 12 through July 2.
It's not just the economy that haunts Mr. Obama in Pennsylvania; it's also his incessant attacks on energy development, which is a personal issue for thousands of families in the generally Democratic coal and gas regions of the state.
Likewise, the president's arrogant challenge to those of faith -- Democrats and independents alike ---- who resist the mandate to provide health plans covering sterilization and contraceptives may cost him even more. This vital voting bloc recoils at the idea that the president would force them and their church to violate their religious convictions as the price of continuing to receive government assistance. Pennsylvania's electorate is roughly 30 percent Catholic, and the Catholic bishops have been stalwart and vocal in their opposition to the mandate.
Pennsylvania's heritage of religious freedom goes all the way back to William Penn. Pennsylvania's independent spirit, strong work ethic and unswerving commitment to the right to keep and bear arms are well documented. Pennsylvania's tremendous natural resources, including coal, natural gas, oil and timber, hold the key to future economic prosperity.
The citizens of our state remember our better days and see our hope for their return increasingly threatened as Mr. Obama directly or indirectly threatens the foundations of that future. The political ground is shifting across the commonwealth. Once a sure win for the Obama campaign, Pennsylvania may now be what Florida was in 2000, 2004 and 2008: a "must win" for both sides.
Sam Rohrer, president of the Pennsylvania Pastors' Network, is a former state representative and candidate for governor and U.S. senator (firstname.lastname@example.org). Colin Hanna is president of Let Freedom Ring, a public policy nonprofit organization based in Pennsylvania (email@example.com).