Tuesday, February 14, 2006

New book by Kutztown University professor chronicles 100 years of Pennsylvania elections

If history is a judge, Pennsylvania voters will re-elect Gov. Ed Rendell and most of the members of the state Legislature in 2006.

Despite all the talk of payback for the 2005 pay grab and reforming state government, Pennsylvania voters are creatures of habit. They tend to do the same thing every four years, regardless of which names are on the ballot.

Since 1900, voters have consistently returned incumbents to office, according to Jack M. Treadway, professor of political science at Kutztown University and author of the new book, "Elections in Pennsylvania: A Century of Partisan Conflict in the Keystone State."

The 296-page book, published by the Pennsylvania State University Press (, is a gold mine for political buffs. Everything you ever wanted to know about every statewide election of the past 100 years is in the book, which contains dozens of tables, graphs and maps chronicling primary and general elections dating back to 1900.

That's more than 13,000 general elections and 6,000 primary elections held in Pennsylvania for president, governor, U.S. senators and representatives, statewide row offices and members of the state Legislature.

The trends are ominous for anyone looking at 2006 as a year when the political establishment is turned out. Treadway chronicles the rise of full-time, professional politicians whose goal is to hold on to their well-paying jobs. It's harder for challengers to get elected because so many incumbents run for re-election and gerrymandering has created many safe districts for one major political party or the other, Treadway argues.

In other words, the politicians have stacked the deck to keep themselves in power and to determine who else is elected to the financially rewarding and increasingly exclusive club known as the state Legislature.

"Legislative districts in Pennsylvania, not simply those won by incumbents, have become much less competitive since the 1950s," Treadway writes. "The number of marginal districts has been significantly reduced. During the past two decades, on the basis of election results, only 35 to 40 House districts and about a dozen Senate districts could be considered marginal."

In analyzing election returns from 1900 to 1998, Treadway concludes: "During the first decade of the century, 41 percent of House incumbents and 36 percent of Senate incumbents sought re-election; by the 1990s, that figure had grown to almost 90 percent for House members and over 80 percent for senators."

More discouraging for challengers is Treadway's findings that incumbents running for re-election almost always win. With a few notable exceptions during the course of the past 100 years, it's nearly impossible to oust an incumbent from the state Legislature. While 84 percent of House incumbents and 92 percent of Senate incumbents running were re-elected during the years 1900-1908, today those numbers have reached 97 percent for House members and 96 percent for Senate members, according to Treadway.

The only comfort for beleaguered voters who would like nothing more than to boot career politicians out this year is the fact that Treadway's research ends with the 2002 gubernatorial elections. This is, after all, a scholarly examination of election patterns and not an analysis of current voter discontent with state government.

The people of Pennsylvania accomplished two things in 2005 never before seen in the state's political history. They forced the Legislature to repeal the July 7, 2005, pay raise that members gave themselves after voters defeated an incumbent Supreme Court justice for retention and narrowly missed casting out a second justice in last November's elections. The ouster of Justice Russell Nigro and near-defeat of Justice Sandra Newman sent shockwaves through the state's political establishment and forced the Legislature to repeal the pay raise by a vote of 252-1.

The fact that Pennsylvanians are still talking about the pay raise seven months later (and three months after it was repealed) may be an indication that voters will again make history in 2006 by chasing out incumbents, including the once-invincible Gov. Rendell, who in recent polls is tied with Republican challenger Lynn Swann, a man who's never been elected to any office. Rendell is trying to avoid being the first governor denied a second term since the state Constitution was amended 36 years ago to allow governors to succeed themselves.

Treadway may have another book on his hand depending on how historic the 2006 election cycle turns out. In the meantime, the professor has produced the definitive history of Pennsylvania politics in the 20th century.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. E-mail him at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tony Phyrillas is a hack editorial writer for a sub-mental newspaper. Smug, puffy and ill-informed - He pukes out cheesy, weak republican talking points to the lowest common denominator for a newspaper for those not clever enough to figure out truth in America.