Sweet Home Pennsylvania

Sweet Home Pennsylvania


James Carville infamously described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other and Alabam in between. The Alabama portion, that part of the state with lots of conservative white working class voters, has been getting an inordinate amount of attention lately, as McCain/Palin spend lots of time and resources in the state, hoping, against the odds, to turn it blue. Right now, polling gives Obama a sizable lead, which, in my humble opinion, is almost certain to hold.

For a sense of why, definitely check out this excellent dispatch from Robert Eshelman that we posted yesterday. Eshelman grew up in Bucks county, a notorious swing county, and goes back to talk to (mostly white) voters about their preference. He finds lot less venom and, to use a loaded word, bitterness, than you might expect:

Last weekend, with no small amount of trepidation, I returned to my old home in Bucks County, that former land of Reagan Democrats I had fled years before, curious to see for myself just what was driving this shift, and what it might mean beyond the November elections. Think of it as a modest journey to meet my younger self, and to see how both my home and I had grown in these last years. Of course, I was no less curious about whether the pervasive racism and class anxiety I remember so well from my teenage years was now bubbling over. The only thing I didn’t expect was what I found–a political atmosphere as quiet and mild as the clear fall air.

For a less sanguine view of the state Pennsylvania, definitely give a listen to This American Life’s special episode on the ground game in PA. As per usual, the reporting is top notch and in the segment where they follow around one Penn State Campus field organizer they realize give a great taste of what full time organizing feels like: rolling a boulder up a hill over and over.

That said, the segments in TAL as a whole seem to put far more stock in the notion that conservative white Democrats aren’t as sold on Obama as the polls might suggest.

I don’t know whose right, but I did happen to spend a few hours at a small rally in a converted firehouse in the Upper Lackawanna Valley earlier this week, talking to voters. What struck me as I circulated around the tables in the hall, was what always strikes me when having long conversations with voters

1) Ideology is incredibly twisted, abstract and difficult to pin down among voters who are not high information or very committed partisans

2) People are generally “populist” in orientation, that is, disposed not to put a lot of trust or stock in “elites” of all stripes

As regards the question of race, just as ideology is inordinately difficult to distill, so, too, are racial attitudes, particularly as regards their effect on white voters’ attitudes towards Obama. Nearly all the Democrats who I spoke to had been Hillary supporters, most were now supporting Obama . Some said some pretty frankly racist stuff “Blacks don’t want to wor,” for example, but were also supporting Obama, if not with the zeal they’d put into Clinton.

I’m not sure what all of this adds up to, but I’m disposed to go with an Occam’s Razor explanation which says: 70 years of American history, and the experiences of the Clinton-year boom, leads working class voters to trust the Democratic party to vouchsafe their economic interests, and during a time of economic turmoil, that’s the trumping concern. Not a particularly novel interpretation, but ultimately, in the aggregate, I think it’s the right one. We’ll see.

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