What Tuesday's Election Could Tell Us About Philadelphia's Political Future
The most recent presidential election found Philadelphia at the center of the American political universe. For days after the election, the nation's attention was glued to the vote-counting at the Pennsylvania Convention Center as the election hung in the balance, and along the way, an ordinary landscaping business became an internationally recognized landmark.
The 2022 midterm elections will renew national attention on Philadelphia, with competitive races for open Senate and Governor seats set to decide the nation's balance of power heading into the 2024 Presidential election. The city has often been at the center of statewide election debates during this campaign season — in Pennsylvania and across the nation, urban crime has been raised as a campaign issue to an extent not seen in many years, although data shows a complicated story regarding overall crime trends.
As a swing state, Pennsylvania often plays a critical role in determining the winner of the electoral college, and the upcoming Senate election is crucial for both parties, each hoping to control the chamber.
Not only are election results in Philadelphia important to city politics, but city results often shape the results of statewide elections, determining how wide margins have to be in the rest of the state. This means that reducing Democratic margins in the city, even if all other factors stay the same, makes it easier for Republicans to win the state, presidency, and control the Senate, and vice versa.
With these trends in mind, and with a mayoral election looming in 2023, the 2022 election could be a bellwether for Philadelphia's political future – even though no local offices are on the ballot.
To better understand Philadelphia's political geography and how the upcoming election may signal changes to come in city politics, ESI analyzed publicly available data on Presidential, Senate, and Governor races in the City of Philadelphia between 2008 and 2020, with results broken down by City ward and division. Election maps for each of these contests can be viewed below, with a red to blue color scale representing the Democratic margin of victory or loss in each division:
The following takeaways result from the election data above:
Philadelphia is a heavily Democratic city — even in its most conservative neighborhoods. It comes as no surprise that Democrats typically win by large margins in Philadelphia. Still, even in the city's most conservative neighborhoods, many still vote for Democrats. Look no further than the 2014 gubernatorial election, when Gov. Tom Wolf won nearly every division in the city —a strong enough Democratic candidate has been shown to win even in the city's most right-leaning divisions.
The 2020 presidential election results differed from prior races both presidential and non-presidential: though Democrats still won handily in Philadelphia, Republicans made unprecedented inroads into urban communities. In the days and weeks after the 2020 presidential election, Republican reductions of Democratic margins in strongly-Democratic urban neighborhoods were among the most significant shifts from 2016. In Philadelphia, this trend is most apparent in Eastern North Philadelphia, including Fairhill and Kensington, where a significant swath of the city dipped from >75%+D to 50-75% D in the 2020 election. While these are still very large margins for Democrats, they represent a significant change — and this data shows that this change is essentially unprecedented not only in presidential elections, but in any major elections of the past decade and a half.
The 2022 election will test whether the 2020 presidential election results signal a paradigm shift, or simply a one-time occurrence. If Republican gains in urban neighborhoods from 2020 hold or increase in 2022, a political shift may be occurring — potentially altering national and local campaigns for years to come. If Democrats return to large margins in urban neighborhoods, the 2020 election results may be considered a one-time fluke.
At the national level, the results of this test will signal what is to come in the 2024 presidential campaign. At the local level, these results will have implications for next spring's mayoral race. A campaign in which Republicans continue to make inroads into urban communities could preview a mayoral campaign in which conservative approaches — including the "tough on crime" approach which brought Democratic New York City mayor Eric Adams to office in 2021 and is now being emulated by statewide Republican candidates — return to the agenda. Conversely, should the political tides swing back towards stronger Democratic showings, the 2023 mayoral campaign may look more like the 2021 Philadelphia District Attorney's race, where progressive DA Larry Krasner won handily citywide against a "tough-on-crime" opponent.
This post does not represent an endorsement by the firm or by the author for any particular candidate or party.
John LaVaccare is an analyst at ESI. As a graduate of the Master's in Public Policy and Management program at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College, where he concentrated in Urban Development, John LaVaccare has academic knowledge in urban economic development, urban design, urban ecology, and real estate development. Prior to ESI, Mr. LaVaccare gained work experience in local government, housing policy, and stormwater management. Mr. LaVaccare also has extensive experience in academic communications research, journalism, and professional writing.