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Keystone Conundrum

What's the matter with Pennsylvania? That question, or the implication of it, was embedded near the end of my last post looking at whether President Obama faces an "Ohio versus Virginia" choice in plotting a path to reelection. While all this political geography is still fresh in my mind, before the latter is benumbed by the Thanksgiving repast, I figured I ought to take up the question more directly. 

Here's the deal: polls at this point are of course to be taken with big rocks of sea salt, but there was a disconcerting one for Obama yesterday showing him tied in a hypothetical matchup with Mitt Romney in Pennsylvania, 45-45. This was striking given that Obama is generally polling a few points ahead of Romney nationally and won Pennsylvania by 10 points in 2008. If Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral college votes emerge as a serious challenge this time around, that would be a big, big problem for Obama. 

So what's up with the state? Well, here I turn to the exhaustive new report out from Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, looking in detail at Obama's reelection prospects in various states and with various constituencies. Teixeira and Halpin point out that Pennsylvania, despite the final 10 point margin, was actually uniquely tough territory for Obama in one regard: its white working class (defined here as whites without a college degree.) For all the talk of his troubles with Joe Six-Pack, Obama actually outperformed John Kerry with working class whites nationally, and, remarkably, in Michigan and Iowa he did better among them than he did with white college graduates in those states. But in Pennsylvania, he lost them by 15 points -- a worse showing than Kerry's. He won Pennsylvania easily anyway thanks to huge margins among minority voters and young voters and very impressive showing among white college graduates.

What is behind Obama's weakness with the Keystone working class? Are the pipefitters and store clerks of Scranton and Erie so different than their counterparts in Saginaw and Waterloo? One sharp reader sent in a possible theory today: that the 2008 primary in Pennsylvania damaged Obama with the state's white working class. Remember: this was the state where things got particularly nasty between Obama and Hillary Clinton, who was desperately hanging in the race even as her prospects dimmed. It was in the month-long run-up to the Pennsylvania primary that Obama's comments about "bitter" voters who "cling" to "guns and religion" surfaced, and Hillary jumped to capitalize on them, calling them "elitist and divisive," heading to a bar for some whiskey shots and conjuring up fond memories of childhood shooting outings (she would later say that Obama was having trouble winning over "hard-working Americans, white Americans.") I saw first-hand what her riling-up was producing when I ventured to the steel towns in the Monongahela Valley and met Democratic voters who made observations such as: "people are sort of bitter, but they're not carrying around guns and causing crimes like he specified." 

Clinton won the primarily easily, her last great hurrah, but Obama went on to secure the nomination anyway, making for ill will with Hillary's Keystone loyalists. Or, as the reader who wrote me put it, "Hillary's refusal to drop out once the math got bad for her in February meant Obama has lingering problems with PA whites he doesn't have in other states."

Come the general election, the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka drew attention to Obama's weakness with the Pennsylvania working class with his stirring speech imploring white union members to vote for Obama, telling them of the little old Democratic lady in his hometown of Nemacolin, who, when she mentioned that she had doubts about voting for a black man, got this response from Trumka: "Are you out of your ever-loving mind, lady?" But plenty Democratic-leaning voters in Nemacolin and the towns like it passed on Obama nonetheless. 

Will their resistance to Obama undo him in Pennsylvania this time around? Teixeira and Halpin point to one upside for Obama: they predict that the working class white share of the vote in Pennsylvania will drop by 5 percentage points, an even bigger drop than elsewhere as demographic shifts gradually change the shape of the electorate. What Obama should be as worried about as his shaky standing with the Yuengling drinkers of small-town Pennsylvania, they say, is whether he can hang onto the voters who were with him last time, above all the state's white college graduates. The working class Pennsylvanians who are resentful that Obama ousted their shot-and-a-beer heroine Hillary may never come around (though if anyone sends them into Obama's arms, it might be a private-equity quarter-billionaire). What he'll really need are the suburbanites who were never put off by his "bitter" comments in the first place, but who may today be feeling, if not bitter, then at least somewhat blue. As Teixeira and Halpin put it: "The move toward Democrats is a recent trend among this growing group and could easily be reversed by disappointed expectations -- such as a lack of economic mobility due to continued economic stagnation."

Finally, to end on a note of blatant self-promotion: readers who go in for this sort of political geography as much as I do might be interested in my review in last Sunday's Washington Post of Colin Woodard's "American Nations," a book that quite compelling seeks to trace our regional political divisions back to ethno-cultural differences in the earliest days of the country's settlement and founding. In addition to prompting some unsettling big questions about our country's age-old fissures, the book is full of quirky details, such as this one: did you know that there were bitter armed clashes between Pennsylvania and Connecticut in the late 18th century over what is now northeastern Pennsylvania? The "Yankee-Pennamite Wars." I sure didn't. Electoral map strategy would presumably look a bit different these days if Scranton and Wilkes-Barre were under the blue-state grip of Hartford...

Happy Thanksgiving, all.