As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

On To Pennsylvania

With Mississippi in the books, and a long six weeks to Pennsylvania, I wanted to try and give the benefit of my experience. I was born in Philadelphia, and was raised from the age of two in the swing battleground of Bucks County. My dad's whole family is in Northeast Philly, and my mom was brought up in the steel town of Johnstown, in western Pennsylvania. Some of her family are still there. And I lived briefly in Honesdale (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area). I haven't lived in PA in a while, but I think I have a little insight.

First, it's clear that the organization is already deep with six weeks out. Democrats have registered 65,000 new voters in the last few months (Republicans have registered, um, 3,000). This doesn't surprise me at all. The last time I checked Barack Obama's Pennsylvania events list, there were at least 30 registration drives going on just last Saturday alone, and there are double that amount today. Pennsylvania has a closed primary, but voters have until March 24 to register, so the election truly can be won or lost in the next couple weeks. And the interest is there.

An onslaught of queries about registering to vote in Pennsylvania swamped suburban election boards yesterday as the nation's attention turned to the state's April 22 Democratic primary to settle a nomination fight that Texas and Ohio could not.

"The phone's been ringing off the hook," said Patti Allen, assistant director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections [...]

Another quick measure: Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's campaign picked up 5,000 new-voter registration cards in Delaware County yesterday, Chief Clerk Mary Jo Headley said.

In a matter of hours, the coming primary registered as a seismic event in the years-in-the-making trend of the suburbs' edging closer to political parity.

Yesterday afternoon, Montgomery County's voter rolls lost 79 Republican registrants and gained 48 Democratic ones, further narrowing the registration gap there to about 21,600, less than 5 percent of the county's total.

That gap had been 30,000 in November and was more than 23,000 on Friday.

"Even before we realized that we're the game in many ways, it was clear that there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm," Montgomery County Democratic chair Marcel Groen said.

In solidly Republican Chester County, Democrats are also making inroads. Since November, Democrats have registered more than 5,600 new voters, Republicans just 1,369.

It's clear that the Philly suburbs where I am from are going to be a battleground. Montgomery, Delaware, and particularly Bucks Counties will be crucial. My parents (who support Hillary) have already been called twice by the Obama campaign just for supporter ID, and Obama's first visit to the state was a windmill plant in Fairless Hills in Bucks County (Clinton has been in the area as well). Patrick Murphy, who represents PA-08 in Bucks, is the state chairman. There's no question that Bucks County is ground zero for the campaign. And that makes a lot of sense. Bucks is a middle- to upper-middle-class area, and it's actually a bedroom community for New York City to some extent. My dad commuted to New York via nearby Trenton for 15 years, along with thousands of others in the garment and financial services industries. Because of housing affordability and schools, it's become an option for lots of people. The Bucks suburbs have slowly grown out, from the older and more culturally diverse suburbs like Bensalem, out to the frontier suburb where my parents currently live (there were 3 African-Americans in my high school graduating class of 800).

Obviously, Philadelphia proper, which is 46% black, is going to be a key for the Obama campaign, although his courtesy endorsement of Chaka Fattah in the Philly mayoral race, which caused the eventual winner Michael Nutter to endorse and campaign hard for Clinton, will make it a challenge. I don't think that the ward leaders are going to play a significant part in turnout, however; the campaigns have shown the ability to get out their voters, and Philly isn't the political machine that it once was. Philly does have a significant bohemian Brooklyn expat population and arts community, so take that information and do what you will with it. I also do think that Geraldine Ferraro's intemperate remarks may be used as an Archie Bunker strategy in the more white ethnic areas of Philly, although I agree with Kevin Drum that if Ferraro really wanted to use this as a dog whistle, she could have done better than giving her remarks to the Torrance Daily Breeze. Still, Will Bunch's remarks make a lot of sense to me:

Intentionally or not, "Archie Bunker's congresswoman" was relaying the exact message that the Clinton campaign really wants out there, not in Torrence, Calif., or back in Queens but right here in Pennsylvania, in the mostly white rowhouse "river wards" of Philadelphia and a lot of working class burgs, from Scranton all the way down to the former steel towns of the Mon Valley.

Why do you think Clinton has distanced herself from the remark, but not so much really? And why do you think Geraldine Ferraro herself has been neither rejected nor denounced by the Clinton campaign?

Think of it this way. It was easy for Obama to reject and denounce an out-there hatemonger like Louis Farrakhan, and it should have been easy for John McCain to fully reject and denounce anti-Catholic whack job John Hagee (why he hasn't is mindboggling). But the Clinton campaign can't reject and denounce Geraldine Ferraro, because it would be rejecting and denouncing itself.

A sculptor brought in to mold a Hillary Clinton voter would have crafted Geraldine Ferraro from scratch. She's 72 years old now. White. Female. Ethnic. Catholic. Emotionally vested in the idea that a woman should become president in her lifetime. Hailing from the community that was once the face of white middle-class America. Got where she was with the enthusiastic backing of New York big labor. Has views on the role of race in American politics that aren't exactly ready for prime time, but well, hey, once they get out there you can't really put the genie back in the bottle, now can you? [...]

So exactly how many blue-collar whites in Pennsylvania still hold views on race and politics that are similar to a fictional TV character from the 1970s? Certainly not all of them, and hopefully not most of them, but most likely some of them -- and in the end that's not exactly what matters anyway.

It's very true that there's a long history of racial tension in Philadelphia politics, and while this is changing, I have to ashamedly admit that members of my own family aren't very likely to vote for the schvartze. There are also those blue-collar whites who simply value experience and appreciated Bill Clinton's achievements in the 90s. Clinton has a base and that does not solely consist of "not-Obama". And a lot of that base is in Pennsylvania, particularly in the Scranton area and in the west-central part of the state. It doesn't surprise me that Bill Clinton is spending today in Erie and Johnstown. Johnstown is a very old, depressed, former steel town that now has little more than a health care industry serving its own citizens. The economy hasn't been good in 30 years. This is Jack Murtha country, and were he to endorse there could be a sea change here, but I'd say Clinton would be wise to park in areas like this and run up the score. However, I submit this anecdotal and unscientific survey: my 84 year-old grandmother is undecided and that floors me.

However, I wouldn't overestimate the strength of Clinton in the middle of the state. When Obama had time to campaign all over in Iowa, he was able to receive votes there. The area is demographically similar to Ohio, but the economic picture is different. The economy crashed 30 years ago with the collapse of textiles (SE PA) and steel (western PA). The transition has been bumpy, but health care is now a dominant industry, one that a good bit of my family works in. Many areas are still very depressed, so the economy is still an issue, but it's a needle you have to thread because the state is pretty diverse on this score.

Half the state's delegates are coming from the Philadelphia area, that's the other issue. The middle of the state does not have a ton of Democrats.

The other issue is that there are dozens of little university towns in Pennsylvania. Slippery Rock, Lock Haven, West Chester, Shippensburg, Indiana, Bucknell, Lehigh, Lafayette, Muhlenberg, Misericordia, Dickinson, Edinboro, Swarthmore, U. of Scranton, Moravian, Widener and I won't even get into all the colleges in Philly and Pittsburgh. Lots and lots of colleges. The voter registration drives should be on all of these campuses and in full force. Not to mention the big college town of State College, home to Penn State and a big Obama rally tomorrow.

Terrypinder has some other really good stuff. Northeastern PA is a New York City exurb and in some places even a suburb of Binghamton. Parts of that area are summer camp communities that will be deserted in April. You have parts of South-Central PA that are closely connected to Baltimore and Hagerstown and Washington DC.

So, my word of advice for the Obama camp would be to hit every college, park it in Bucks County and the ring suburbs of Philly, make sure you're getting out the vote in the urban centers and don't overlook the power of smaller events in the rural areas. There's enough time to do that. My advice to the Clinton camp is to work Delaware and Chester Counties hard, get as much out of Northeast and South Philadelphia as possible, make contact in Johnstown and Allentown and all the more economically disadvantaged areas and try for 70% in Scranton and the environs. It's clear that the optics favor Hillary - she's got a baseline lead of 19 points - but I expect this to end up being close.

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