Salena Zito

Pennsylvania Department of State data from the April primary show Obama underperformed in an unchallenged election, finishing with 616,000 votes – 100,000 fewer than Democratic voters cast in the barely contested race between Sen. Bob Casey Jr. and challenger John Vodvarka.

Even in labor-rich Allegheny County, Obama drew nearly 2,000 fewer votes than did state Rep. Eugene DePasquale, a York County Democrat who ran unopposed in the primary for state auditor general. He’ll face Republican Rep. John Maher of Upper St. Clair this fall.

Obama’s under-performance continued in May primaries in Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia. He lost more than 40 percent of the Democratic vote in each of those states, to other candidates or “uncommitted,” and his showing worsened in counties located in the heart of coal country.

Choosing not to vote for the president or choosing anyone but him — such as a nominal candidate, or a convicted felon on West Virginia’s ballot — is an affirmative act, said Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University.

“The partisan voters who cast these ballots — or, in the case of Pennsylvania, did not cast a ballot — made a choice,” she said. “They paused, reflected, and used whatever means were available to them to legitimately demonstrate their discontent with the Democratic Party’s nominee.”

Though it’s impossible to know what motivated each voter, the administration’s ardent push for alternative energy sources to fossil fuels and socially progressive policy decisions likely pushed voters away, Brown said.

Pennsylvania’s primary results indicate Obama’s weakness among working-class, white Democrats in traditionally conservative areas, said Christopher Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College.

“Indicators like this emphasize the importance of Obama winning voters in places like suburban Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley and drawing high turnout from the major cities in the state,” he said.

Yet Brown isn’t certain that voters discontented with Obama will vote for Romney. More likely, she said, these voters will stay home and that, in turn, “would help Romney and the GOP, assuming that Romney is able to turn out Republican” voters.

The Democrats, including Obama, might not be concerned about his lack of support in Appalachia and some Southern states. Since his 2008 campaign, Brown said, Democratic leaders have said they’re determined to create a new electoral vote map — one that would break up Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal Coalition,” formed during the Depression, which brought together ethnic minorities and blue-collar whites in urban areas (many of them Catholics) and rural voters in the South and West (many of them Protestants).

That coalition, based on class, split up the North-versus-South sectional divide that Abraham Lincoln exploited. Republicans began fighting for these voters, “focusing on social and cultural issues,” said Brown.

Obama rejects this narrative, Brown said.

“For him, the issue is not class but race and ethnicity,” she said. “He and the Democratic Party have decided that the best way to ‘win the future’ is to win over ethnic and racial minorities because whites are shrinking (in number).

“In short, they are trying to create a new map that allows them to win every state that has a large and growing immigrant population and/or a large percentage of African-Americans. Doing so would, of course, make Obama a historically important figure in terms of the Democratic Party.”

But, she noted: “He has to win a second term to claim this legacy.”

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.