Neil Samuels is typical of many Democrats in Bucks County, Pennsylvania – a picturesque suburb of northern Philadelphia. A former Republican, Mr Samuels is one of thousands who have switched loyalties and turned Bucks County into a majority Democratic zone for the first time in living memory.
By Edward Luce in Doylestown, Pennsylvania
“Ronald Reagan once said: ‘I didn’t leave the Democratic party, the Democratic party left me’,” says Mr Samuels, who is deputy chair of his county’s Democratic party. “Well I didn’t leave the Republican party. The Republican party left me.”
The sharp trend away from the Republican party is not confined to Bucks County. Fuelled by disaffection with the Iraq war, the Bush administration’s alleged mismanagement of the US economy and its departure from fiscal conservatism, Pennsylvania as a whole has shifted from being a swing state into a Democratic state over the past few years.
In 2002 Pennsylvania had 3.8m registered Republicans and 3.2m Democrats. Today it has 4.2m Democrats and 3.2m Republicans. The picture is similar at the national level. According to Rasmussen Reports, 41 per cent of Americans are affiliated to the Democrats compared with 32 per cent to the Republicans – a near reversal of the picture during the first George W. Bush administration.
But the switch has caused a particular ripple in Bucks County, which is a critical battleground between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the Pennsylvania primary, which takes place 10 days from now.
This week was the first moment in more than a generation when the number of registered Democrats surpassed Republicans in Bucks county.
“This has been a Republican stronghold for as long as I can remember,” says Marilyn Larsen, a former Republican member of the local school board in Newtown, Bucks Country, who recently registered as a Democrat. Mrs Larsen, a retired teacher, says that it was the Bush administration’s “hostility to science” and the spread of evangelical politics that helped push her across.
There are large numbers of Catholics living in Philadelphia’s suburbs, many of whom were originally blue collar workers who fled the inner city in the 1960s and 1970s. They were part of the “Reagan Democrat” swing that helped deliver a generation of conservative domination in America. Nowadays large numbers are drifting back to the Democrats.
In November 2006 the area elected its first Democratic congressman in many years – Patrick Murphy, a 34-year-old Irish-American Iraq war veteran. Mr Murphy defeated an evangelical Republican opponent whose Bible-thumping rhetoric found little echo among the district’s Catholic voters. In November he is expected to return with a larger majority.
Mrs Larsen says many of her neighbours may vote for Mr Obama – an unthinkable prospect among people who fled the African-American “machine politics” that took hold of Philadelphia a generation ago.
“Let’s be honest about it, Barack Obama is culturally white – that’s why a lot of people round here are prepared to vote for him,” says Mrs Larsen, who has yet to make up her mind whether to vote for Mr Obama or Hillary Clinton, who retains a lead in the opinion polls. “But when they hear Michelle Obama speak they start wavering. She seems more African-American. People haven’t changed as much as they like to think.”
However, Mr Obama is attracting support in unlikely places. At an Obama rally in Levittown, Pennsylvania – one of the first planned US suburban townships, founded in 1951 – tickets at the mostly white event ran out within hours.
Many older residents remember Daisy Myers, the town’s first black resident, who moved out in 1962 after intolerable prejudice.
Mrs Clinton is still expected to win Levittown’s vote. But Mr Obama is competitive. “The more I watched Obama on TV, the more convinced I became by his integrity and leadership qualities,” says Christine Harrison, a graphic artist and a former Republican who has persuaded both her parents and all four siblings to switch to the Democrats.
Some Democrats in Washington fear that the increasingly tetchy contest between Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton could start to corrode the party’s national advantage and jeopardise prospects of taking the White House in November.
But Mr Samuels, who has helped to spearhead the Bucks County drive to register new Democrats, dismisses such speculation. “I think that the surge in registration in Pennsylvania and the high turnouts we have seen in other Democratic primaries is a testimony to a much more enduring switch,” he said.
“It would take much more than a competitive primary between two very compelling candidates to reverse that trend.” Mrs Larsen agrees: “Don’t underestimate how turned off people are by the Republicans,” she said. “They want a chance to express that.”