It’s the first Friday of April, and the tony main drag of this affluent exurb, thirty-five miles northeast of Philadelphia, is lined with people visiting the town’s cafes, galleries and bars. Doylestown is the political heart of Bucks County, one of the oldest and most hotly contested swing areas of the state. Three weeks before the state’s Democratic primary, Obama and Clinton supporters wave signs on every corner, and seemingly every other person sports a campaign sticker. “Seeing such outward Democratic activism in Doylestown is a little mind-blowing to me,” says Jordan Yeager, a local lawyer and Democratic Party organizer.
Doylestown, like much of Bucks County, used to be deeply, proudly, Republican. “In my youth, in central Bucks County, I grew up without knowing any Democrats,” James Michener wrote in Report of the County Chairman, his account of volunteering for John F. Kennedy in 1960. “My mother thought there might be some on the edge of town, but she preferred not to speak of them.” Things began to change in 1992, when the recession that year pushed Bucks County toward Bill Clinton. In the following years, as the GOP increasingly became identified with the religious right, the county voted for Democrats for President. Yet until recently, Republicans controlled all the levers of local government. “When I moved here five years ago, I was told to register as a Republican because that’s the way business is done around here,” says Allen McQuarie, an Obama volunteer who came from the nearby town of Holland.
A surge of Democratic activism in the past few years has turned Doylestown, and much of the county, from red to purple–and quite possibly to blue. In 2003 Republicans dominated the borough council 9-0; now it’s 6-3 Democratic. After sending Republicans to Congress in every election since 1993, in 2006 Bucks County’s 8th Congressional District elected Democrat Patrick Murphy, a 34-year-old Iraq War vet. In January there were 21,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in Bucks. By early April, thanks to a massive voter-registration drive, Democrats outnumbered Republicans for the first time since 1978, when Democrats briefly held sway after Watergate. “The Bush presidency has tarnished the Republican brand and provided an opening to listen to the other side,” says Neil Samuels, deputy chair of the Bucks County Democratic Party.
What’s happening in Bucks mirrors trends throughout Pennsylvania, where the state Democratic Party has added a remarkable 300,000 voters since January. Nearly half of these Democrats, according to the state board of elections, are new or previously unregistered voters lured by the excitement of the Clinton-Obama race. The other half are former Republicans and independents who switched to vote in the Democratic primary, mostly for Obama. Before the March 24 registration deadline (only registered Democrats may vote in the April 22 primary), the Obama campaign made an all-out effort to convert disaffected Republicans, otherwise known as “Obamicans.”