When Barack Obama went bowling in Altoona, Pennsylvania, on March 29, his opponent was Senator Bob Casey Jr., the son and namesake of a popular former governor whose coal-mining pedigree had made him a hero of the white working class. Casey Junior had just endorsed Obama, and the presidential candidate, wearing blue-and-white Velcro shoes and a tie, bowled gutter ball after gutter ball and lost the game. But Obama wasn’t at Pleasant Valley Lanes to knock down pins; he was there to win over white blue-collar voters and thus prove to Democrats that he is “electable” in November.
In the iconography of the campaign, bowling might have been a bid for some cred with the white working class, but it also signifies community ties of the kind eulogized by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. Putnam mourned the fact that while more Americans are bowling, fewer are doing so in leagues, a sign of a breakdown in civic bonding and engagement. Recently, Putnam put forward evidence that diversity hurts social capital: that residents of mixed-race communities trust one another less, volunteer less, vote less and hunker down more in front of their televisions. Whether or not Putnam’s dystopian theory holds true will be crucial to Obama’s chances in Pennsylvania and perhaps in a general election contest against John McCain. Do people in checkerboard communities turn inward and away from one another, and does that make them more susceptible to campaigning that plays on racial and ethnic divisions?
The primary results so far suggest that Obama’s challenge lies in diverse states. He has scored victories in overwhelmingly white states, such as Idaho and North Dakota, and states with black populations large enough to tilt the race, such as Mississippi and Louisiana. But Hillary Clinton has prevailed in places like New Jersey and Massachusetts, where the black population is large enough for race to be regularly injected into the political discourse but not large enough to decide the vote on its own. Pennsylvania fits that profile. Eleven percent of its population is black, and 4 percent is Latino. Bookended by the heavily minority cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, its vast middle is what James Carville once called “Alabama in between.” Obama was referring to this stretch of farmland and former coal and steel towns recently when he said, “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and…the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years, and nothing’s replaced them. It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Both Clinton and McCain promptly labeled him an “elitist” for these remarks, but whatever the fallout, his comments underscore a key task ahead. Can Obama overcome that “antipathy” and get mixed communities to bowl together?