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The Perils of Pennsylvania

After Ohio and Texas, Pennsylvania looms as the key battleground for the Democratic nomination. Demographics and the state's political machine favor Hillary Clinton. But maybe neither will matter.

Will Pennsylvania be the new Iowa, a focus point for national politics for weeks on end? Barring any major developments in the Democratic nomination fight, that looks very likely. Unless Barack Obama delivers a W.W.E.-caliber electoral pile driver to Hillary Clinton in Texas and Ohio early next month, both campaigns will assuredly press on to the Keystone State, which can look forward to a six-week frenzy of door-knocking, town-hall-attending, and mundane-local-issue-pandering--the sort of spectacle more typical in wholesome rural states with absurdly early caucuses, not rusty industrial provinces that vote late (on April 22).

In fact, the spectacle might just prove more energetic than the earlier flesh-pressing. Iowa and New Hampshire at least serve as quadrennial distractions from one another. For the six weeks starting March 4, the Pennsylvania primary--soon to be known as “the crucial Pennsylvania primary”--will be just about the only show around.

If the candidates themselves are surprised by this turn of events, just imagine how it feels to those of us who live here. When Pennsylvania failed to join the rush of other big states that shifted up their primary dates, it seemed like just another case of a hidebound legislature unable to get with the program. Now, by chance, our shrinking electorate is about to be wooed as fiercely as a gaggle of undecided Democratic superdelegates.

Unfortunately, that’s an honor for which this state seems singularly unprepared. While Iowans trumpet their nerdy earnestness by asking detailed policy questions of presidential wannabes every fourth winter, Keystone State politics are entirely un-self-conscious. This is an old example, but a relevant one. The last year the Pennsylvania primary mattered, in 1984, one of the more memorable moments came when Walter Mondale met with the ward leaders who ran Philadelphia’s Democratic machine. When the former vice president took questions, one of them rose to ask ... how much street money he could look forward to on Election Day. Not the sort of thing you usually hear in Cedar Rapids.

Such a scene suggests this could prove a tough state for Obama. Guys who badger former vice presidents about street money tend not to swoon for idealistic plans to change the national discourse. (Of course, they might make an exception should Obama flash some of that $36 million he raised in January.)

The question, though, is how much the state Democrats’ top-down political style has changed in the ensuing quarter-century. In Philadelphia, where I covered City Hall for four years, one of my colleagues at The Philadelphia Inquirer used to refer to the city as a living museum of American political history. On Election Day, the now-integrated city political machine--sorry, "organization"--still chugged along mostly unmolested, collecting City Council or Traffic Court votes in exchange for the various streetlights and potholes its operatives have tended to over the years.

It’s easy to imagine those same operatives rounding up votes for Clinton this year. In a political culture with a long memory and a reflexive respect for hierarchy, the Clinton name remains powerful--more so, I’d bet, than among the more fluid populations of the Potomac primary states. The demographics help, too: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state had the second-highest percentage of senior citizens in the country, after Florida (no insult intended to the fine leisure opportunities of greater Scranton, but you can’t chalk it up to the amenities). In typical past Democratic primaries, veteran Pennsylvania pollsters G. Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young have written, about half of voters were from union and Catholic households. Roughly fifteen percent were African American. The electorate is also “more moderate and centrist in ideology.” Governor Ed Rendell, for one, has speculated that some of the more conservative among them could prove unwilling to vote for a black man. Though Obama’s numbers with blue-collar folks improved in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania still doesn’t represent what you’d call his base. Plus, the state has a closed primary, so there won’t be any independents (a group he won by almost 30 points in Wisconsin) to pump up his numbers.

Still, beneath the surface there has been something of a generational battle among the state’s Democrats. Rendell rode a successful stint as Philadelphia mayor--during which he largely ignored the ward leaders and stuck it to the city unions--to the governor’s mansion. His status as the first Philadelphian governor since 1910 was aided by support in the once-Republican suburbs, where voters were pleased with his reputation for shaking up the sclerotic city and accustomed to voting for Democratic presidents starting with Bill Clinton’s run. Today, those suburbanites may like the Clinton name, but they lack a long history with the party establishment busily organizing on her behalf. (Just how organized they are is open to question: Clinton accidentally failed to nominate a full slate of convention delegates in the state, a mainly cosmetic error that nonetheless contributes to the sense of a campaign in disarray).

That same statewide establishment has even taken its knocks in the city. Last year, a wonky Councilman named Michael Nutter, best known for tweaking old-line Democratic mayor John Street by sponsoring ethics and tax-reform bills, took over City Hall. He won despite the active opposition from the Democratic machine, the largely white building-trades unions, and an African American rival who implied that Nutter was insufficiently black. The old hierarchy doesn’t have quite the muscle its supporters claim. Not that his rise ought to be interpreted as a definitive sign of some new anti-establishment mood: Like Rendell, and like Street, Nutter has now embraced Clinton and plans to throw his organizational weight into her campaign.

Michael Currie Schaffer, a former reporter for the
Philadelphia Inquirer, is working on a book about the pet industry.

By Michael Currie Schaffer