Muhlenberg College professor and pollster Christopher Borick said it this way:
“I’m very confident that whoever wins the Valley will win Pennsylvania.”
The Lehigh Valley, with its cities, suburbs and rural areas, has become a bellwether for Pennsylvania politics and this proved to be true again Tuesday as President Barack Obama won both Lehigh and Northampton counties:
- Obama: 77,029 - 53%
- Romney: 66,091 - 46%
- Obama: 66,718 - 51.53%
- Romney: 60,786 - 46.95%
In 2008, both Northampton and Lehigh counties went for Barack Obama, just like the state. The Lehigh Valley went for Democrats John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000, as did Pennsylvania as well.
“Pennsylvania hasn’t been a very good predictor of elections,” said Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. But “the Lehigh Valley as a predictor of the way Pennsylvania goes is very good.”
The last time the Lehigh Valley went for a Republican candidate was in 1988, when George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis. The elder Bush took 51 percent of the vote to Dukakis’ 47 percent in Northampton County. In Lehigh, Bush trounced Dukakis, 56 percent to 42 percent.
But four years later, the elder Bush lost the presidency to Democrat Bill Clinton. Pennsylvania went for Clinton and in Lehigh County he won 40.7 percent to 37 percent in an election that saw third-party candidate Ross Perot pick up 21.6 percent of the vote. In Northampton County, Clinton beat Bush 43.4 percent to 35.3 percent with Perot netting 20.7 percent. That pattern repeated itself when Clinton beat Republican Bob Dole in 1996.
Northampton County, with its steel and iron industries, has historically had stronger ties to the Democratic Party with its labor union support.
For decades, Allentown has been a Democratic stronghold while the suburbs and rural areas of Lehigh County were traditionally more Republican. But that’s 180 degrees different from during the Civil War era, according to local historian Frank Whelan.
“From the Civil War up to the New Deal in the '30s, the country areas were Democratic,” Whelan said. “The Democrats were the old time conservative party.”
Back then the city of Allentown was solidly Republican. In fact, Allentown went for Republican Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election of 1860, while Lehigh County as a whole voted for Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, said Whelan, whose latest book is "Lehigh County: A Bicentennial Look Back at an American Community."
Even as late as the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy, Allentown was still predominantly Republican, he said. In 1960, both Allentown and Lehigh County as a whole went for Republican Richard Nixon.
As cities with their influx of immigrants identified more with Democrats, the Republican Party attracted more rural voters with its traditional values platform, Whelan said.
The shift from a Republican to a Democrat majority in Lehigh County has partly come from socially moderate Republicans changing their registration to Democrat, as well as from changes in the demographic makeup of the area. The Valley’s Latino population – which tends to vote Democratic – has risen. The influx of people from New York and New Jersey has increased the Democratic voter edge.
But Republicans have offset some of the voter registration losses by having better turnout at elections, Borick said.
The Lehigh and Northampton counties election offices have seen the results of voter registration drives in the runup to Tuesday’s election. The Lehigh County office processed registrations from a push to register Latinos in Allentown and Northampton County’s office processed many voter registrations from college campuses, according to those offices.
When it comes to demographics, Borick said, “Latinos are the least likely to vote and college age students are the least likely to vote. If you can get those voters to actually show up on Election Day, it’s a game changer.”