HARRISBURG — Beto O’Rourke’s splashy campaign event in Pennsylvania last week appeared to herald the start of the state’s presidential primary season.
But if Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party faithful are searching for a favorite from among the crowded 2020 primary field, it may be in vain. Early-voting states typically make that choice.
Pennsylvania historically gets the short end of the stick in presidential primaries, rarely voting in time to help decide a party’s nominee, despite being one of the most sought-after general election prizes.
Yet, Democratic Party strategists and officials suggest that a crush of candidates could force a competitive race all the way until April 28, 2020, when Pennsylvania holds its primary election.
“When you have a big field like this and it’s possible to win early-voting states with 10, 12 or 15 percent, it really is open to everybody,” said Aren Platt, a Philadelphia-area Democratic campaign strategist.
Pennsylvania is the sixth-largest electoral prize for Democrats seeking the party’s nomination and, next year, it will be the last of the delegate-rich states to vote, except perhaps New Jersey.
It also occupies an indelible place in the minds of Democrats. It flipped to Republican Donald Trump — by less than 1 percentage point — in the 2016 election after backing Democrats in six straight presidential elections.
To some Democrats, a candidate must show strength in a Pennsylvania primary, since the state is a must-win in 2020.
“To me, you would have to,” said U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand. Trump won Pennsylvania. That’s what put it in play.”
In the past, Pennsylvania’s primary election was largely academic. Usually, earlier-voting states winnow the field to one candidate who has a commanding lead by the time Pennsylvania votes.
Still, besides the big primary field, there are a couple other reasons that Pennsylvania could see a competitive Democratic primary.
There is the rise of small-dollar donations, which fueled Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 run against the eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton. Then there is the party’s new rule for 2020, in which superdelegates — party establishment insiders who are automatic delegates to the party’s convention — cannot vote on the first presidential ballot if the convention remains contested.
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Many in 2016 declared their support for Clinton even before primary votes. Now, Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party chairwoman, Nancy Mills, said she asked the state’s national party committee members to remain neutral until the convention.
“That will make a difference and a more level playing field for all the candidates coming into Pennsylvania,” Mills said.
Perhaps 1984 was the last, most impactful Democratic primary election in Pennsylvania, said Terry Madonna, a pollster and public affairs professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. That’s when Walter Mondale, Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson came to Pennsylvania with the nomination still in doubt.
O’Rourke’s Monday rally at Penn State wasn’t the first presidential primary campaign activity in Pennsylvania in March.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg made book tour appearances in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Hawaii U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard held a meet-and-greet at a Philadelphia brewery. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker held private fundraising events in Philadelphia.
But it was easily the highest-profile event, attracting hundreds on short notice, and party strategists and officials predict that more such activity is coming.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, if he runs, has a built-in advantage in Pennsylvania, many say. He is from neighboring Delaware, has close ties to longtime party officials and is a fixture on Pennsylvania’s campaign trail, including stumping in November for Gov. Tom Wolf and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.
In September, Biden marched in Pittsburgh’s Labor Day parade, drawing shouts of encouragement from building trades union members to run for president.
“All the labor leaders took notice,” said Mike Mikus, a campaign strategist who advises Pittsburgh-area labor unions.
Among the hundreds who came out to see O’Rourke at Penn State, some expect a competitive Pennsylvania primary and want to get to know the candidates better. Many liked O’Rourke, but not exclusively.
“Right now, it is so early, I want to hear as much as I can about the candidates,” said Joanna Suarez, a Penn State sophomore from Gettysburg. “My mind is pretty open.”