Eye of the Tiger: State of the Obama/Clinton Race on the Eve of the Pennsylvania Primary

It’s easy to see Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary on Tuesday as meaning everything and nothing.

It means everything because, after a month of entrenched campaigning in a critical battleground state that any modern Democratic presidential candidate must carry in the general election, the victor will have invested millions of dollars and countless appearances in the Keystone State and will be expected to perform similarly against John McCain in November.

It means nothing because, after a month of campaigning and millions of dollars and appearances, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have already publicly braced themselves for the long road ahead. As Sly Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, favorite fictitious son of Philadelphia once opined, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” the results in Pennsylvania are unlikely to send either campaign to the mat.

The tale of the tape:

PA voters, whom Bill and Hillary Clinton’s campaign guru James Carville once famously described as “…Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east and Alabama in between,” include strong demographics of older voters and working-class, non-college-educated whites with solid labor connections. The state has the second-largest population of citizens over 65, trailing only Florida.

During the past seven years, Pennsylvania lost over 200,000 manufacturing jobs, according to the Alliance for American Manufacturing, and Hillary Clinton has gained traction amongst her working-class base by breaking with her husband’s support of NAFTA. A Bloomberg/LA Times poll shows Clinton maintaining a 16-point lead with voters who earn less than $40,000 a year in the state. Much of her support comes from Pittsburgh, with its unionist steelworker tradition, Scranton, where her grandparents lived, and the more rural areas of the state. She holds the endorsements of several prominent state leaders, including popular governor Ed Rendell, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Campaign emails have reminded Keystone voters that Clinton’s father played football for the Penn State Nittany Lions. Clinton also benefits from Obama’s difficulties attracting Catholic voters, who make up a third of the state’s electorate. An April 14 Newsday analysis reports that Obama has lost eight of the ten states with the largest Catholic populations in the country, and though he won his home state of Illinois—fourth nationally—he lost the Catholic vote to Clinton there.

Obama’s base centers in Philadelphia, with its concentrated African American population, affluent voters and students. If Carville’s assessment, much ballyhooed by state leaders, tends towards truth, Obama will have to roll up big margins in Philadelphia to remain competitive in the state. More particularly, the suburbs of Philadelphia, trending increasingly Democratic in recent years, have been the site of a furious last-minute barrage from both candidates seeking to sway the mix of upscale voters, university students and Jewish and Irish communities. Similar to past primary states, notably Texas and Ohio with their large urban centers and vast rural counties, an overwhelming proportion of delegates are concentrated in the area surrounding Philadelphia—seven of 19 congressional districts in the state deliver almost half of the state's elected delegates, and six of those are in or ring Philly. Gov. Ed Rendell won the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary by carrying the eight counties near the city by huge margins and only two of the other 59 counties in the rest of the state. While Obama’s lead has shrunk in those areas in the past week, his campaign hopes to drum up big margins there, both with the hope of winning the state outright and minimizing Clinton’s delegate haul should she win. Obama’s massive fundraising effort remains his best weapon to counter Clinton’s roots in the state with a powerful advertising campaign, and he has outspent her $9 million to $4 million in media buys.

Obama has also made a concerted effort to court the Jewish vote, a small but important Democratic demographic both locally and nationally that some reports have suggested are looking for reasons to vote for Clinton or McCain after comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright praising Louis Farrakhan and Obama’s too-late criticism of former President Jimmy Carter’s recent visit with Hamas leaders in Syria. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), reporting from Philadelphia, said polls of Pennsylvania Jews were nearly split between the two candidates, but with Clinton enjoying stronger support amongst the Jewish establishment and Obama fighting to prove his credentials. Obama plans to extend his outreach to younger voters while itemizing his staunch support of Israel, an essential issue for a majority of Jewish voters.

On the western side of the state, Clinton may be helped by endorsements in Pittsburgh. Mayor Ravenstahl’s support has been essential to stem Obama’s traditional advantage in urban area, while the fallout from the surprise endorsement of Richard M. Scaife’s conservative Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has yet to be determined. Billionaire Scaife formerly financed a media attack on Bill Clinton’s White House which the former first lady called “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” Is she the victim of another conspiracy now, or was the editorial board of the paper honestly impressed with her qualifications and experience, as it noted in its glowing endorsement?

Looking forward: Similar to the time lavished on the electorates of Iowa and New Hampshire, Pennsylvania voters benefitted from a month of general election-styled treatment, giving them unprecedented access to the candidates in what amounts to big state retail politics—an unusual opportunity so late in the season. Their collective opinion, coupled with exit polling of specific demographics, should paint a nuanced picture of these candidates, now more than a year into their respective runs at the White House.

Furthermore, Pennsylvania presents an opportunity to gauge the relative success of “new” and “old” politics, pitting Obama’s impressive volunteer army and voter outreach against Clinton’s powerful political machine, supported by party leaders and labor unions throughout the state. Obama has staked his ’08 life on bringing new voters to the polls, and his gains on Clinton in the recent weeks have shown that once again he is stirring new blood in the ballot box. The New York Times reports that voter rolls have added more than 300,000 Democrats, with polling indicating that 62 percent of those are supporting Obama. But if he can’t bring enough first-timers to fully narrow the gap with a month of almost single-minded devotion on the part of his campaign, it bodes ill that he will be able to make up enough ground before November in a scattershot 50-state campaign where he is currently running behind McCain in key states.

One of those key states is Florida, a race which focuses a keen eye on the repercussions of Obama’s performance in the Jewish vote in the Philadelphia suburbs and with seniors throughout the state—an April 14 Rasmussen poll had Obama trailing badly to McCain, 38-53 percent in Florida, where the Jewish and elderly vote makes up a solid portion of the electorate. Clinton, meanwhile, leads McCain 45-44. Obama will have to convince Democratic leaders that he can put Florida’s 27 electoral votes in play if he continues to lag.

Ultimately, the tale of Pennsylvania will be a matter of margins. An Obama victory would be a stunner, as most polls show him behind. His upset would almost certainly end the race, but with a Clinton win expected, indeed demanded by her supporters and critics alike, the state boils down to a numbers game: the once-assured, now-elusive double-digit margin for Clinton would fit into her game plan of convincing the unconvinced superdelegates that she would best serve the party against McCain, and that her strong showings in critical states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, even Florida’s “beauty pageant” results) cannot be ignored.

But politics, like life and football, is a game of inches. No where will this be better on display than in Pennsylvania, where single points in the margin of victory will be echoed to the convention and beyond. A Clinton win by four points or fewer is essentially an Obama steal, illustrating that he has not been hurt (at least amongst Democrats) by his recent stumbles and continues to make marked inroads into Clinton’s base. Five to nine points may be the Vegas spread, suggesting that Obama is turning out his troops but hasn’t quite sealed the deal with older Democrats and the working class. For Clinton, the five-to-nine is the problematic midrange, the nasty gray area, which will neither swing sizeable support to her side nor demand her immediate withdrawal from the race. Ten points or more puts the pressure back on Obama to finally close out the primary season after several weeks of Jeremiah Wright and Bittergate and after a tired Wednesday night debate performance. In truth, this primary will be just as much a test of Obama’s ability to weather the storm as it is Clinton’s remarkable gift of political survival.

--Joe Horton

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