Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Pennsylvania looms large

It seems that Chris Matthews and every other Pennsylvania-born pundit is touting his or her birthplace as an indicator of a birthright to comment intimately on what’s going on with the looming Pennsylvania primary. So, since I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, I might as well weigh in, since I'm not sure my opinion will ever matter more.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been crisscrossing the Keystone State ever since the last primaries ended in Mississippi on March 11. Conventional wisdom has it that Clinton’s going to win big in Pennsylvania, and that Obama might as well give up. This might have been true a couple of weeks ago, but the fact that the Obama campaign has been spending more time in the state indicates that they might know something that the media aren’t hep to. It seems that Obama is making a play for Pennsylvania, a state he previously seemed more inclined to give up on.

The first myth that needs to be cleared up is that Pennsylvania is a state. That’s not true: it’s actually three states—East, West and Center—or, as I like to call them, Greater Philadelphia, Greater Pittsburgh, and Alabamastan, respectively. Let’s take a closer look.

Greater Philadelphia is obviously the city of Philadelphia, its surrounding counties, and the outer reaches of the state all the way up to Scranton and Stroudsburg, maybe reaching as far west as Hershey. This part of Pennsylvania is essentially an East Coast state, and if it were a state by itself, it would be as reliably Democratic as neighboring New Jersey or Maryland. Philadelphia County, which comprises most of the urban population, is a regular city, with a large, Democratic-voting black population. Its suburbs are more moderate, and are more prone to compliment Philadelphia's direction that oppose it.

Greater Pittsburgh is the western part of the state, roughly west of Altoona and north to Erie. It's less populous than Greater Philadelphia, but since its population tends to swing Democratic or Republican, it can pull the state into the red in any given election, though Pennsylvania hasn't gone Republican in a presidential election since 1988. It's always close, though. Greater Pittsburgh is the eastern edge of the old Rust Belt, which once relied on heavy industry, manufacturing steel and cars and mining coal. It's socially conservative and economically liberal, like West Virginia to the south, which makes this region especially tricky.

Alabamastan is the vast, sparsely-populated section in the middle, which is as reliably Republican as Alabama. Heavy turnout in Alabamastan would be good for the Republican candidate, but he'd still have to rely on pulling some votes closer to either of the cities. That's Arlen Specter's magic formula for getting reëlected year after year in this state. That and maintaining an image that he's much more moderate than his Bush-fueled voting record would indicate.

A month ago, all the polls were saying that Pennsylvania was Clinton's, that her 20-point lead in the Keystone State was insurmountable. Over the past month, that lead dropped steeply in most polls, so now the polls are all over the map. Some have Clinton at a 20-point lead again, while some put her at as little as a 5-point lead. Clinton is being hurt, no doubt, by the fact that the insurmountable math behind her winning is, well, insurmountable.

The idea that much of Pennsylvania is really Clinton country is nuts. A big difference between Pennsylvania and other primary states is that its primary is closed—you must be a registered Democrat in order to vote in its primary. Obama, who culls much more support from independents and Republicans than Clinton does, is at a disadvantage. Obama would win an open primary in Pennsylvania, and his chances at winning the state in the general election against John McCain are much better than Clinton's would be.

That said, the Obama campaign seems to be focusing on about ten of Pennsylvania's 67 counties: Pittsburgh's Allegheny County, Penn State University's Centre County, the Scranton area, and the counties surrounding Philadelphia. The rest of the state, which probably wouldn't even think of voting for Clinton in the general, is being ceded to her in the primary. I'm sure Obama could make a difference if he'd take a swing up the west, putting in appearances in Sharon and Erie, and maybe some across the central part of the state, buzzing Harrisburg, Williamsburg and York. That would cause real electricity across swaths of the state that usually feel (and usually are) ignored by presidential candidates.

In the final accounting, it looks like Clinton will win Pennsylvania. But the Democratic system is proportional, not winner-take-all, which is designed to winnow things down to the strongest candidate for the general, as opposed to the Republican system which effectively awards the nomination to the candidate who's strongest with the party's elites. If the Democrats had a winner-take-all system, Clinton would probably be the nominee by now, but Obama's incremental victories, winning widely in some places and narrowly in others while losing big in only a couple of states, proves his viability for the general, and that he'd be a better candidate than Clinton. If Clinton doesn't win Pennsylvania by the 20-point margin she'd been able to claim there for much of this year, she's effectively lost. Of course, if Obama actually wins Pennsylvania, we'll see Clinton dropping out not soon after. But that, while not impossible, is not especially likely.

The end is right around the corner, folks. Give this until May 3, when Indiana and North Carolina hold their primaries. I predict that Clinton will have a surprisingly poor showing in Indiana and will drop out then. Hopefully I'm wrong and she's out right after Pennsylvania, allowing the party to get ready for the general election and start beating up on McCain rather than on other Democrats. After all, isn't hope a big part of what this election's about, anyway?

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