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Swing counties offer lesson of Republicans’ defeat

When it comes to Pennsylvania’s presidential politics, Republicans are like the cartoon character Charlie Brown, who every time he prepares to kick a football, it gets pulled back by his pal Lucy.

This time, it was Mitt Romney who was tempted to go for the prize, as his camp poured $10 million into Pennsylvania in the closing weeks of the campaign. He lost by more than five points, suffering the same fate as every one of his party’s nominees in the previous five elections.

To understand why, look at two Philadelphia suburban counties: Delaware, a middle-class enclave, and Montgomery, a more affluent home along the blue-blood Main Line. Republicans win many of the local offices in Montgomery and Delaware, and until a few decades ago, so did the party’s presidential nominees. This November, President Barack Obama carried both counties by about 60,000 votes.

Montgomery is Pennsylvania’s third-most-populated county and Delaware its fifth, both are growing and becoming more diverse. The residents aren’t Romney’s 47 percent — those he called takers who rely on government largesse — they just don’t like the current brand of national Republicanism.

Staying blue

Pennsylvania will remain relatively blue in presidential politics until Republicans can compete in these counties.

This state of affairs is replicated in venues that really were swing states, Virginia and Colorado for starters.

In Virginia, Prince William and Loudon counties are Washington exurbs that Obama carried in 2008, but had gone for George W. Bush in 2004, and were won decisively by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell three years ago. Four days before the election, McDonnell predicted that Romney would win the counties this year.

Instead, Obama carried Prince William, the third-most-populous county in the state, by 16 percent, or 28,873 votes. He won a narrower, but clear, victory in Loudoun, which before 2008 hadn’t voted for a Democratic president since 1964 and where 20 years earlier George H.W. Bush won more than two to one.

These two counties, although different, share important political characteristics. They are fast-growing — Prince William’s population has quadrupled over the past 40 years and Loudoun’s has grown 10-fold — affluent and diversifying with a mix of Latinos, blacks and Asians. In local races, they favor Republicans; the national patterns are going the other way.

The picture is similar in Colorado, particularly in Arapahoe County, to the east of Denver, the state’s third-most populous, and to the west, Jefferson County, which casts more votes than any other. Like their Virginia counterparts, these counties are fast-growing and comparatively well off. They shape close elections.

Arapahoe is more diverse, with more minorities, and tilts more Democratic. Obama carried it Nov. 6 by 10 points, more than a tilt.

Jefferson is typical of large, growing suburbs with a range of voters from upper income to working class. “It mirrors in every election, Colorado,” says Craig Hughes, a top Democratic consultant there. “If you want to carry the state, you carry Jefferson.” Obama won it by almost five points.

It’s also instructive, in a slightly different way, to look at a few big counties in Florida and Ohio, the mothers of all battleground states.

Florida bellwether

In Florida, it’s Hillsborough County, consisting of Tampa and environs. It’s the fourth-most-populous county in the state and the best bellwether: It has voted the same as the rest of the state in every presidential contest since Jack Kennedy won in 1960.

Before 2008, Hillsborough had gone Republican in six of the seven preceding presidential elections. It went for Obama by about seven points last time and by a similar margin this year.

“The Democrats’ grass-roots organization bringing minorities and young college students to vote was the difference,” says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

In Ohio, it was Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati and suburbs. Ohio is a diverse state, and the political race touched all corners; Hamilton County is a microcosm of that diversity: old-line Republicans, who used to dominate, plus young professionals and racial minorities. It was carried by George W. Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008 and 2012.

There was no place where the ground game or infrastructure battle was joined more forcefully, on both sides. Obama almost matched his 2008 margin, carrying the county by about 20,000 votes. In such a pitched battle, there are lots of explanations.

Alex Triantafilou, the energetic Republican chairman for Hamilton County, worries that among the “independent swing voter, the 35- to 45-year-old female whose dad was a Republican” and among young professionals, “we just didn’t do as well as we should have.”

In 2012, Obama was a stronger candidate with a superior organization. Republicans are in dangerous disfavor with minorities and young voters. The party’s problems run deeper, as these eight bellwether counties across the United States illustrate.

Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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