Battle of Pennsylvania
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
PITTSBURGH — Barack Obama is failing to capture an important swing state, Pennsylvania, despite its residents feeling increasingly uneasy about the economy.
Raymond Baumiller of Pittsburgh sat in a table in front of Jenny Lee Bakery, an institution in the area that is closing its doors after 70 years of business. Inside, customers such as Mr. Baumiller’s wife, waited in line to procure a final cherished cinnamon roll or brownie from longtime bakery workers who would be jobless in a few hours when the bakery would shut down for good.
Amid the melancholy scene, Mr. Baumiller reflected on the state of things in his area right now and the issues that people are thinking about: “the war. The economy. A lot of people losing their homes.” Asked about the candidates in the presidential race, John McCain and Barack Obama, he said, “I’m still not in love with either one. I don’t think either one of them is that strong.”
While political observers and Web sites, such as slate.com, which designated Pennsylvania as a “safe Dem,” are putting the state firmly in the Democratic column for November, it is still up for grabs. The Real Clear Politics poll average for the state has dwindled to a 6.8% advantage down from an average of 9%.
Less noticed was the Franklin & Marshall College Poll from August 12, which put Senator Obama ahead of Senator McCain by just 5% among likely voters. Despite the apparent structural advantages Mr. Obama would have here — the poor economy, an unpopular president — voters have not warmed up to him yet.
None of this poll data is to suggest that Mr. McCain is likely to win Pennsylvania, a state that went for Ronald Reagan but has been won by Democrats in the last four elections. But Republicans do believe they have a chance here. Mr. McCain has visited Pennsylvania 10 times since the contentious Democratic primary.
“I think McCain still has a chance,” the chairman of the Allegheny County Republican Committee, James Roddey, said. “We’re hearing from more and more Democrats that they’re just not going to vote for Obama.”
Part of the quandary for Mr. Obama is that Hillary Clinton defeated him by 9.2% in the April primary. Many of her most devoted backers, such as Governor Rendell, have moved their organizational muscle firmly behind Mr. Obama. But others have not. Prominent election signs for Senator Clinton still dot the heavily Democratic Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.
The chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, James Burn Jr., a former supporter of Mrs. Clinton, is on the front lines of building up support for Mr. Obama in Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities.
“Some of the folks who were with Hillary came right over. Others, it took a little while. Still a few, we need to work on,” he said, adding that he tells the former backers of the New York senator “whatever you’re mad about, get rid of it.”
Mr. Burn said that his job would be made easier if Mr. Obama made himself a more visible presence in Western Pennsylvania. “Senator Obama has to come out to the West,” Mr. Burn said. “He needs to be out here more. We hope to see more of him.”
Speeches to prominent Catholic groups, such as the Knights of Columbus, would help solidify the backing of undecided voters and rebut tough allegations sure to come in the fall. Mr. Burn explained that such visibility would help voters “believe what they hear from him and not what someone’s saying.” Mr. Obama was in the state to host an economic forum at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University in June.
Democratic and Republican leaders alike agree that the running mate choices of both candidates could change the race in the state. If Mr. Obama selected Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Rendell, they said, the state would solidify behind Mr. Obama; a decision by Mr. McCain to tap the state’s former Republican governor, Tom Ridge, could give Republicans an advantage.
Deep down, though, Pennsylvania, a state heavy with senior citizens, is a place where Mr. Obama’s almost four years in the Senate count against him. “One of the things we found in the poll, even under a large number of Democratic voters, is that there’s a concern about Obama’s experience,” the director of Franklin and Marshall’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs, G. Terry Madonna, said. The poll found 34% of Democrats were concerned about Mr. Obama’s “inexperience.”
Mr. Madonna cited Mr. Obama’s popularity on Web sites and among young people as a potential disadvantage in Pennsylvania. “He’s this hip, cool guy … That may feed into this concern that voters have about him,” Mr. Madonna said.
Late last week, Mr. Obama’s campaign dispatched the actor Kal Penn to Pittsburgh to generate interest in the candidate, particularly among students. Mr. Penn played one of the title roles in the comedy “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.”
While Mr. Penn can do a great job of keeping young voters entertained, the meat and potatoes voters of Western Pennsylvania will need more than just a young actor representing Mr. Obama if he is to seal the deal with them in November.
Mr. Gitell (gitell.com) is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.