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How important will the Pa. primary be? Potentially not very

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, accompanied by his wife Jill, speaks to members of the press at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Photo by Matt Rourke

The importance of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary election has come into question after former Vice President Joe Biden seemingly seized command of the race for that party's presidential nomination. 

Biden on Tuesday won four of six states that held primary elections, notably a 6.5% victory over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Michigan, a state Sanders narrowly won over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The momentum has left some floating whether the Democratic nomination will be essentially decided before Pennsylvanians hit the polls during the April 28 primary. 

“It’s difficult to know with certainty whether our state still matters,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. "Right now, our primary could be what we call a confirming event to confirm Biden's nomination."

Biden, a Scranton native, holds a strong lead in most polls. His lead over Sanders specifically strengthened after Biden won 10 of 14 states on Super Tuesday, March 3.

Biden leads Sanders by 11.5% in delegate-rich Pennsylvania, according to polling averages conducted by Real Clear Politics.

A Sanders victory would likely require a massive flub on Biden's part, Madonna said.

As recently as this year, there have been discussions in the state Legislature about moving future presidential primaries in Pennsylvania to an earlier date in an effort to boost the state's national influence. 

The state Senate in January unanimously passed a bill drafted by Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, that would move the state's primary up to the third Tuesday of March, beginning in 2024.

But the bill stalled in the House State Government Committee.

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Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Miss., Sunday, March 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The committee's chairman, Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, said that the delay is because members have expressed concerns that a March primary would negatively impact reelection campaigns

For example, if the law had gone into effect in 2020, lawmakers up for reelection would have had to circulate nominating petitions over the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

"We're talking about the 2024 primary," he said. "So it's not like this has to happen in the next month or two."

The Biden campaign still "isn't taking anything for granted" despite the late primary date, which could come as a Democratic nominee becomes anything but definite, said campaign spokeswoman Meira Bernstein.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re playing in Pennsylvania and playing to win,” Bernstein said. “Pennsylvania is obviously an important state to the vice president, and we’re going to continue to invest in it.”

The campaign will not pull any staff or reduce its ground game in the state, she said.

The former vice president on Tuesday took the stage in Philadelphia, seemingly calling for Sanders' progressive supporters to unite with his moderate base in an effort to topple President Donald Trump in November.

But Sanders hasn't shown any intention of moving out of the way, although in a campaign speech in Vermont on Wednesday, he conceded his campaign hasn't made strides where necessary.

“While our campaign has won the ideological debate, we are losing the debate over electability," Sanders said. 

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign rally at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Sunday, March 8, 2020. Photo by Paul Sancya

Going into Pennsylvania specifically, his campaign has said it will continue to spread his progressive messaging that has had good reception in the polls, particularly among younger voters.

“Sen. Sanders has a message to middle and working class voters in Pennsylvania that’s centered around the issues facing them day to day,” said Rosemary Boeglin, regional spokeswoman for the Sanders campaign.

The Sanders campaign intends to build on victories among progressive candidates in the state House in 2018 and the recent success of the Working Families Party running on the left flank of the party in Philadelphia.

It's also relying on urban voting blocs and turning out young voters — particularly on college campuses — a strategy that has not seen solid results in the early voting states.

The urban voting blocs could also be a challenge, given Biden's demonstrated strength among black voters.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.