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The Next McGovern?

Hillary Clinton won a decisive ten-round decision over Barack Obama in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary, but she didn’t score a knockout. The struggle continues. Clinton still has virtually no chance of overtaking Obama’s delegate lead or his edge in the popular vote. And the superdelegates will be loath to ignore this advantage. Meanwhile, Obama’s weaknesses as a general election candidate grow more apparent with each successive primary.

Clinton’s best chance of winning the nomination was to win Pennsylvania so decisively that she would have set off a media firestorm about Obama’s electability--one that would lead superdelegates to wonder whether she would not be a much, much stronger candidate in November. In the wake of revelations about Obama’s relationship with Pastor Jeremiah Wright, Clinton was ahead by 15 percent or more in polls. I visited Pennsylvania during this time, and could feel the growing disillusionment with Obama.

Obama, of course, cut into Clinton’s lead through outspending her two-to-one on advertisements, but Clinton seriously damaged her own cause by going negative on Obama during the April 16 debate--and probably, too, by her subsequent ads. ABC moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson had already done sufficient damage without Clinton piling on. According to the exit polls, 68 percent of Pennsylvania Democrats thought Clinton attacked Obama unfairly, and they backed Obama by 55 to 45 percent. It’s hard to know for sure, but these tactics probably cost her among white college-educated voters who don’t like to think of elections as prize fights. (The editorial in this morning’s New York Times, entitled “The Low Road to Victory,” reflects this dissatisfaction with the way Clinton conducted herself.)

For his part, Obama cut into Clinton’s advantage, but couldn’t erase it. Even though he campaigned extensively among white working class Pennsylvanians, he still couldn’t crack this constituency. He lost every white working class county in the state. He lost greater Pittsburgh area by 61 to 39 percent. He did poorly among Catholics--losing them 71 to 29 percent. A Democrat can’t win Pennsylvania in the fall without these voters. And those who didn’t vote in the primary but will vote in the general election are likely to be even less amenable to Obama.

But Obama also lost ground among the upscale white professionals that had helped him win states like Wisconsin, Maryland, and Virginia. For instance, Obama won my own Montgomery County, Maryland by 55 to 43 percent but he lost suburban Philadelphia’s very similar Montgomery County by 51 to 49 percent to Clinton. He lost upscale arty Bucks County by 62 to 38 percent.

My colleague Noam Scheiber attributes Clinton’s success among these suburbanites to the influence of Governor Ed Rendell, who campaigned with Clinton, but I wonder whether Obama’s gaffes and his suspect associations--whether with Wright or former Weatherman Bill Ayers or real estate developer Tony Rezko--began to tarnish his image among these voters. If so, the electoral premise of Obama’s campaign--that he can attract middle class Republicans and Independents--is being undermined.

Indeed, if you look at Obama’s vote in Pennsylvania, you begin to see the outlines of the old George McGovern coalition that haunted the Democrats during the ’70s and ’80s, led by college students and minorities. In Pennsylvania, Obama did best in college towns (60 to 40 percent in Penn State’s Centre County) and in heavily black areas like Philadelphia.

Its ideology is very liberal. Whereas in the first primaries and caucuses, Obama benefited from being seen as middle-of-the-road or even conservative, he is now receiving his strongest support from voters who see themselves as “very liberal.” In Pennsylvania, he defeated Clinton among “very liberal” voters by 55 to 45 percent, but lost “somewhat conservative” voters by 53 to 47 percent and moderates by 60 to 40 percent. In Wisconsin and Virginia, by contrast, he had done best against Clinton among voters who saw themselves as moderate or somewhat conservative.

Obama even seems to be acquiring the religious profile of the old McGovern coalition. In the early primaries and caucuses, Obama did very well among the observant. In Maryland, he defeated Clinton among those who attended religious services weekly by 61 to 31 percent. By contrast, in Pennsylvania, he lost to Clinton among these voters by 58 to 42 percent and did best among voters who never attend religious services, winning them by 56 to 44 percent. There is nothing wrong with winning over voters who are very liberal and who never attend religious services; but if they begin to become Obama’s most fervent base of support, he will have trouble (to say the least) in November.

The primaries, unfortunately, are not going to get any easier for Obama. While he should win easily in North Carolina, where he benefits from a large African-American vote and support in the state’s college communities, he is going to have trouble in Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia, where he will once again be faced by a large white working class vote. He can still win the nomination and lose these primaries. Pennsylvania was the last big delegate prize. But if Obama doesn’t find a way now to speak to these voters, he is going to have trouble winning that large swath of states from Pennsylvania through Missouri in which a Democrat must do well to gain the presidency. That remains Obama challenge in the month to come.

Read Jonathan Chait's response to Judis' argument here.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.