Since March 5, the day after the Texas and Ohio primaries, the Barack Obama campaign has been busy talking down its candidate’s chances in Pennsylvania: Too many of the state’s college students vote outside of Pennsylvania; the white working class population is huge; the black population isn’t. But even though the odds are steep, a plan for a surprise victory exists. To win the state, political analysts and advisers say, Obama must chart the same path that Ed Rendell did to win the Democratic primary for governor in 2002. It’s a scenario, of course, not without irony, since they’re talking about that Ed Rendell--Hillary’s number one surrogate in the state, the one who just this past February said that some conservative whites in Pennsylvania “are not ready to vote for an African-American candidate.” But just because a strategy is ironic doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
When the 2002 gubernatorial campaign started, an Ed Rendell victory seemed highly unlikely. His opponent, Bob Casey, Jr., appeared inevitable in the same way Hillary Clinton once did. Casey was also a political heir; his father had been a hugely popular Pennsylvania Governor from 1987 to 1995. And like Clinton, Casey appealed strongly to working class, blue-collar Pennsylvanians--a political voting bloc that, up until that moment in time, had always dominated state elections. As Obama does today, Rendell seemed ill-suited to win the flannel-clad, deer-hunting hearts and minds at the center of the state. After eight years as Philadelphia’s Mayor, Rendell was seen as the kind of city-dwelling, liberal, elite candidate Central Pennsylvanians had spent the previous few decades roundly rejecting.
But the recent demographic changes in the state gave Rendell an opening. No longer was Pennsylvania, in James Carville’s famous formulation, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on either end with Alabama in between. The suburbs surrounding Philadelphia now trended toward younger, more affluent, white-collar voters. To Rendell’s everlasting benefit, these same voters had also watched the eight-year infomercial that was his mayoral administration--and they liked it. Rendell rode the wave of the city’s restaurant renaissance and Center City revitalization, and triumphed in Philadelphia. He took its surrounding suburbs by margins between 70 and 80 percent, too, and secured the entire Lehigh Valley and much of South Central Pennsylvania. Critically, he also held Casey’s victory margins in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh down under 10-percent. That combination was enough to overcome the massive deficit he faced through the rest of the state. Casey may have won 57 of the state’s 67 counties, but Rendell won the primary with a strong 56 percent of the vote.
At first glance, it might seem as if Obama could never hope to produce similar results. Rendell was not only well known in 2002, but also a fixture in the minds of many of those voters for eight years. And of course, Rendell, who is still quite popular throughout the state, has been trumpeting Clinton’s virtues as loudly and as regularly as he can.
But Obama also has a lot going for him here. The Rendell voter is a carbon copy of the standard issue Obama voter--African-American and white, professional class--and analysts tell me they’re skeptical that Rendell, for all his in-state support, will pull a significant number of votes away from Obama. (Casey, interestingly enough, endorsed Obama.) Further, whatever demographic shifts that favored Rendell in 2002 appear to have grown more pronounced with time. For instance, in Montgomery County, nearby Philadelphia, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans for perhaps the first time in the area’s history. And more than 200,000 Democratic voters have been added to the state’s voter rolls. Because the Obama campaign has put so much effort into voter registration initiatives, a majority of those voters are thought to be Obama converts.
To maximize these advantages, David Sweet, Rendell’s campaign manager in 2002 and an Obama volunteer, says the campaign should follow the governor’s strategy: “Win by a huge margin in Philadelphia, a significant margin in the suburbs, break even in Allegheny County, and basically hold on for dear life in the rest of the state.” And the Obama campaign, for its part, seems to be trying to do just that. A glance at the online map of Obama’s Pennsylvania field offices shows him targeting the rich suburbs of Southeastern and Southcentral Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Obama may not have looked like he was advancing a “new kind of politics” when he appeared on television milking a cow in the rural center of the state--but his recent, six-day bus tour was consistent with the Emulate Rendell strategy, taking him through the heart of the Democrat-rich area around Harrisburg that was central to the governor’s once-unlikely victory.
The last and most important component of Rendell’s campaign that Obama needs to copy is simple: turn out a lot of voters, particularly in Philadelphia. During the 2002 campaign, says Sweet, they hoped to drive enough turnout in the area to account for 40 percent of the total votes cast in the state. And they succeeded. To do anything close to the same, Obama will need to make many more personal appearances there than he has to date.
But the question is whether or not he will go for an outright victory in Pennsylvania--or if his campaign will be governed by the notion that a small loss is really a win. As we all know by now, the only thing that matters is the final delegate count. And because delegates will be awarded based on congressional districts, of which Pennsylvania has 19, the state primary is in fact 19 different races. Political analyst G. Terry Madonna, who has been scripting out the similarities between Rendell’s surprising 2002 victory and the Pennsylvania presidential primary for weeks now, believes that Clinton will win more than a dozen of those districts with narrow delegate counts: three delegates to two, or two to one. But with the margin of victory Obama can expect in the largely African-American district of Philadelphia-area U.S. Congressman Chakah Fattah alone, he could walk away with seven or even eight delegates to her one or two, thereby erasing whatever advantage Clinton gained in up to one third of the state. Even a good night for Hilary Clinton will likely yield her a negligible gain in the overall delegate contest.
So, yes, the senator from Illinois could play it safe and spend as much time in the coming weeks in Indiana and North Carolina as he does in Pennsylvania. But a series of appearances in those crucial Philly burbs, like Bucks and Montgomery counties, would give him at least some chance of ending this race early. And he’d do it by taking advantage of insights gleaned from the campaign of one of his opponent’s most critical supporters.
Steve Volk is a staff writer at Philadelphia magazine.
By Steve Volk